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Are Wires Pass??

While many companies grapple with the basics of adding manufacturing nodes to their networks, others are moving beyond conventional networking, joining the wireless revolution. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) offers a pair of specifications, Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11) and ZigBee (IEEE 802.15.4), and a number of specialized companies now offer ruggedized proprietary wireless networks designed for manufacturing environments.

Though proprietary networking schemes now dominate the landscape, observers feel that they will slowly give way to the force of standardization. “Wireless has to move toward standards, just like what happened with the field buses,” says Jeremy Bryant, network technology specialist at Siemens Energy & Automation Inc., an Alpharetta, Ga.-based vendor. Regardless of the protocols being used, a growing number of plant managers are using them as an easy way to add sensors and other equipment without the expense and effort of routing cables. As these networks prove their worthiness, they’re seeing rapidly increasing acceptance. “Wireless has become something none of us can ignore. Wireless can provide a whole new way to look at workflows,” says Sean Robinson, global industry manager for Consumer Packaged Goods at vendor GE Fanuc Automation, in Foxboro/>, Mass./>/>


Personal digital assistants (PDAs) and notebook computers can give operators and technicians a new level of mobility. Extending wireless to the plant floor can also help companies save money while altering the way workers interact with equipment and gather data. “When your entire plant is wireless, you can get away from two-way radios, replacing them with Voice over Internet Protocol. A lot of money can be saved by using VoIP,” says Siemens’ Bryant. Setting up these wireless networks requires an extra level of care. Without the certainty provided by cabling, network managers need to make sure that signals won’t be lost due to interference or the failure of a single node. That’s particularly true when critical information is being sent wirelessly. “When you’re transmitting data that’s at the core of the automation system, you’ve got to pay attention to sending real-time data over wireless, looking at things like guaranteed signal strength,” Bryant says.


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