Making Sense of the Next Big Thing

Jan. 23, 2008
Wireless sensor networks will be the next big productivity and profitability enhancer.

Nothing has generated more print and controversy in the industrial space during the past year than wireless technology—and nothing is probably more misunderstood. The term “wireless” has generated much buzz over the past two years, yet when referring to applications in manufacturing, the term is vague and open to interpretation. I’ve been following the issue closely for more than two years—even traveling to Europe for press events. But only now are engineers beginning to implement wireless technologies.

Not only can the term wireless be vague, it is also accompanied by a huge set of sometimes conflicting and arcane standards—not to mention more acronyms than a good analyst firm can devise in a week. Then add to the mix the competing press releases of different suppliers—each touting its solution and subtly suggesting that the competing ones may produce sub-optimal results. It’s no wonder that there has been some resistance to adoption. The lack of a good and widely adopted industrial standard, such as the one in process at the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA), has also retarded product development from technology providers as they wait to see how the standards tree falls.

Even so, Automation World has decided to launch a publication targeted at this suite of technologies and applications. I agree with many executives and engineers who believe that wireless sensor networks will be the next big productivity and profitability enhancer in manufacturing. And beyond sensor networks, there are data networks and voice networks. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), popularized by services such as Skype, has the potential to drastically drive down the cost of telephone service. The wireless network popular with the Starbucks/laptop crowd (I plead guilty) known as WiFi (for Wireless Fidelity) is already making operators in facilities such as water treatment plants armed with tablet computers and WiFi connections more productive.

Inaugurating this new technology and application series, Contributing Editor Dave Gehman provides a look at the fundamentals of wireless in his lead article. He explains the “alphabet soup” of wireless jargon and entices with hints of the manifold benefits of wireless—to be explored more deeply in the articles coming quarterly. He also found a unique application story about using wireless technology to keep track of railroad cars. In another article that can be found online at, he provides a lucid explanation of wireless mesh technology.

For a deeper dive into wireless, Automation World online offers many articles. You can search “wireless” from anywhere on the site. For starters, you can listen to a podcast interview I did with Jeff Becker of Honeywell Process Solutions found at Managing Editor Wes Iversen talked with two pioneer implementers and filed the report found at Then there’s a review I did that’s located at

As you get familiar with all the offerings, you might want to see where you can begin with some small implementations that hold promise for productivity boosts. If you want to help influence the direction of the industry, get involved with the ISA100 committee on wireless technology. Check out for more information. So, let’s all gather round the radio and get tuned in to the latest technology boost for industrial automation.