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Cracking the Wireless Growth Conundrum

Wireless is shaping up to generate significant new markets in the industrial automation world, producing visions of growth and success beyond past conventional slow-growth automation paradigms.

Aw 565 Jimpinto Web

Press releases continue to center on selected major customers and applications that demonstrate strong viability and fast return on investment. But behind the scenes, a buzzing beehive of brisk brainstorming continues, as large and small suppliers search for the breakthroughs that will give traction to new technologies that allow millions of unmonitored measurements to become wirelessly connected to industrial automation networks.

Dog wagging

The standards committees remain focused on the “conservative” nature of industrial markets, emphasizing security and reliability of wireless networks that could replace supposedly secure hard-wired systems. In my opinion, that’s the tail wagging the dog. Peter Zornio, chief strategic officer at Emerson Process thinks that pure “wire replacement” will be the last domino to fall—just like replacing/eliminating home wired phones has been the last frontier for cell phones.

In the marketing boiler-rooms, all types of grids and tables show current industrial apps and customers that could be targeted for wireless products, as everybody scrambles to generate credibility. But, in fact, the biggest industrial markets remain hidden in plain sight.

There are huge varieties and numbers of different things that industrial applications want and need to monitor. Many were previously not accessible because costs were prohibitive. But now they become cost justified because of the dramatically lower installation costs and faster start-up. These are the “if only we had this” measurements.

Some of these include equipment health monitoring for less critical process equipment (pumps, heat exchangers, filters, steam traps, heat tracing lines and the like), monitoring remote auxiliary equipment, continuous monitoring of measurements that are currently logged manually, real time power usage of remote installations and more. In some applications, return on investment is measured in days and weeks—not years. Now that’s market-pull. Whether or not the wireless monitoring equipment conforms to standards is irrelevant.

Take, for example, valve position monitoring. The majority of valves in most plants have no position instrumentation at all; yet a large number of incident reports show valves being in the wrong position; but no one knew, or the wrong assumptions were made. If all valve positions in a plant could be monitored cost effectively, this would yield significant savings and safety improvements. Other examples include wireless temperature transmitters on floating buoys at sea, and monitoring water outlet temperature limits to ensure environmental compliance.

Then there’s the vast previously “un-measurable” categories—rotating kilns, portable skids, railcars and other moving equipment where the environment is too hot or electrically noisy for wired measurement. While these may actually be quite important for use directly in process control, wired systems often turn out to be unreliable “rat’s nests” in difficult environments. Meanwhile, wired systems keep getting more expensive and difficult to install, while wireless monitoring keeps getting cheaper and easier.

A possible “killer app” could be autonomous predictive maintenance, using self-powered wireless “sensornets” to monitor anything that moves, and dynamically deliver this data (via mesh, cellular, or even ‘mules’ in the form of UPS delivery trucks, or any ‘agent’ that can routinely ‘ping’ the sensornet devices). Says Rob Henley, president of I/O Select, “Predictive maintenance is the next big thing, and wireless is the big enabler.”

With truly step-change technology like wireless measurement, there will eventually be all kinds of new markets that were not initially considered. You don’t know what they are and you can’t think them up. It’s like coming up with the possibilities for eBay auctions when the Internet first emerged. That’s the current industrial wireless conundrum. There are likely several major applications that are outside the current automation logic-box.

Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and commentator, writer, technology futurist and angel investor. You can e-mail him at: Or review his prognostications and predictions on his Web site:


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