The advent of robust industrial wireless standards in a segment still served largely by proprietary solutions has captured the attention of end users, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and system integrators alike. As discussed in ARC Advisory Group’s (www.arcweb.com) recently published “Wireless Devices in Process Industries” market outlook study, increased availability of products and solutions that support industrial wireless standards is spurring widespread interest in the process industries due to the tangible business benefits that can be achieved using wireless instrumentation.
Standardization of industrial wireless sensor networks is one of the last frontiers in industrial device connectivity, but will have one of the most profound effects. The incremental value proposition for wireless networks in process manufacturing is much larger than for serial and Ethernet-based networks. While a standard wired bus network provides numerous advantages over a point-to-point solution; an industrial, standard, mesh-based wireless solution that meets an application’s performance requirements tops them all in most instances.
Tighter integration of wireless implementations with the overall automation scheme is inherent in this migration. The addition of incremental measurement points due to availability of wireless devices is attractive, but the ability to integrate, analyze, and act upon these additional measurements will require integration with higher-level control or condition monitoring systems.
The business benefits that can be realized from implementing wireless networks, wireless devices, and wireless-enabled applications keep improving as installers gain more experience with wireless installations, best practices are established, and standards emerge in areas such as wireless installation, performance, radio frequency (RF) interference, security and other issues. As these characteristics mature on an almost daily basis, users no longer view wireless as the luxury it was in the past. Instead, process manufacturers increasingly recognize it as a viable part of their process automation architecture and leading process automation suppliers make it an integral part of their portfolios.
The potential business benefits, however, are somewhat offset by competing industrial standards at the sensor/device level, and the widespread fear that wireless will emerge as the next battleground in the automation fieldbus wars. Overlaying this landscape is the reality that the process industries represent one of the most conservative, risk-averse market segments of all.
Confusion impedes adoption
Availability of industrial standard wireless protocols provides a huge catalyst for end users to consider the technology, but the prospect of industrial wireless emerging as the next battleground in the automation “fieldbus wars” significantly impedes adoption. Availability of two largely overlapping device-level wireless standards, WirelessHart (promulgated by the Hart Communication Foundation) and ISA100.11a (promulgated by the International Society of Automation), confounds the scenario on both the supply and demand sides as device suppliers must pick which “horse to ride.”
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Many end users, on the other hand, are pushing back on their device suppliers and/or the standards organizations for some type of convergence solution. Interestingly, suppliers that originally marketed proprietary solutions with little or no customer resistance report that the advent of competing standards has slowed growth as more potential buyers take a “wait and see” attitude.
ARC does not anticipate that the competing industrial wireless protocols will converge in the near term, in spite of the fact that both of the protocols employ IEEE 802.15.4 (promulgated by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) as their base technology. However, both sides have made overtures towards convergence: WirelessHart supporters have advocated creation of a Process Automation profile for ISA100 that incorporates WirelessHart as an application profile for process automation. At the same time, the ISA100.12 working group within the ISA100 hierarchy is charged with pursuing WirelessHart-ISA100.11a convergence. Some suppliers are hedging their bets by providing gateway and/or (in the case of WirelessHart) adapter devices as their first standards-compliant offerings.