Hype or Reality?

July 8, 2007
What is hype? I guess one definition would be when someone is promoting a product of one sort or another as real, when in fact, its reality is far down the road.
Another definition would include the idea of saying something is far better than it ever possibly could be. Many in the process manufacturing community are trying to decide if the war of words being waged over wireless is hype or reality.For the past year-and-a-half, I’ve attended press conferences (on two continents), had phone and e-mail interviews and been visited by teams of marketing and engineering folks promoting their vision of wireless. These were all major process automation suppliers, but smaller sensor and networking companies are also participating in this build-up to a wireless future. As far as I could determine at press time for this issue, only Honeywell among the process automation suppliers actually has a shipping wireless sensor product. I talked with a customer, Byron Lewis of Alon USA, who uses the Honeywell pressure transmitter and wireless gateway for data acquisition for several applications. By the way, he loves them.What set this column in motion was a visit to our offices by a team from Invensys Process Systems in June, followed by my conversations with many people at the Honeywell User Group Symposium the following week. The other company I’ve talked with often about wireless is Emerson Process Management. Meanwhile, there are two groups working to bring some standardization to the mess. The Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA) has a committee called SP100 that is working on a standard for wireless devices in process automation. Meanwhile, the Hart Communications Foundation is working on a standard to extend its protocol to wireless networking.With all this work going on and all of these words, the real question is, “Should anyone care?” So, I ask that question. Over the past 18 months, I’ve seen a developing thread of argument and understanding about the whole wireless phenomenon. It was really ignited at a press conference by John Berra, president and chief executive officer of Emerson Process Management. At the conference, and consistently since, the vision was advanced of a plant with many sensors and transmitters that could be installed much more cost-effectively than if wires were needed, and that this wireless network could provide the information needed for more effective asset optimization. This would provide the ability to run the plant better than had previously been possible. Beyond sensorsInvensys visited Automation World editors to lay out a vision of wireless in a much broader scope that includes computer networking over the IEEE 802.11 specification popularly known as WiFi, as well as other radio technologies. This could extend the power of the network to tablet PCs for mobile operators and similar applications. Along with sensor information over an IEEE 802.15.4 mesh sensor network, security cameras could be easily installed around the perimeter of the plant communicating without wires.The words “inflection point” kept popping up in reference to wireless during the week, so, I asked Honeywell Process Solutions President Jack Bolick what his vision was of a plant that had adopted a wireless strategy. He called the strategy “data-to-decision” and said that wireless is an “enabler.” Referring to the technology behind ADT Security Services that allowed the company to extend its services to older homes where wiring costs would be prohibitive, Bolick said that if companies could add more devices wirelessly, then they could add more services to enable more benefits. He also called it a “productivity move.”I suppose a cynic would say there’s a lot of hype because there are not many products shipping, relative to the amount of discussion. On the other hand, I believe that the benefits to the industry will justify the discussion—when we have products