The Game Changers

Every ten years or so, a technology comes along that completely changes the way we do business. Sometimes it’s a brand new technology; other times it’s a technology that has finally reached critical adoption.

In the 1970s, the game-changing technology was microprocessors. Silicon chips started showing up in everything from hand-held calculators to automobiles to distributed control systems.

In the 1980s, it was the IBM-based personal computer (PC). With decreasing price and size, and increasing power and memory capacity, the PC became the tool of choice for business professionals and manufacturers.

In the 1990s, the game changer was the Internet. With its first wave of adoption, the Internet enabled vast amounts of information to be shared for a very low entrance price. In its second wave, the Internet forever changed commerce—and the way money moves frompoint A to point B. Now in its third wave of adoption, Internet technologies are being embedded into the smallest pieces of software—literally driving the concept of ubiquitous machine-to-machine (M2M) networking.

As we reach the mid-mark of the first ten years of the 21st century, it’s becoming clear that this decade’s game-changing technology is wireless communications. The promise of wireless is information available anywhere, anytime—at ever declining costs.

Cellular phones have captured our imaginations with their ability to “call me, text me, pix me” from anywhere in the world. Machines and sensors connected on wireless mesh networks will evolve this model in the manufacturing world.

In 1965, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, predicted that data density—the number of transistors per square inch on an integrated circuit—would continue to double approximately every 18 months. This was interpreted as Moore’s Law, where computing power for a fixed cost doubles every 18 months.

What Moore’s Law predicted for microprocessors and computers, Metcalfe’s Law portends for the Internet and wireless communications. Robert Metcalfe, who invented Ethernet in 1973, formulated Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the value of a network is equal to the square of its number of users. In other words, the more things that are connected to a network, the more valuable that network becomes.

It’s an easy leap to apply this “valuable network” concept to modern automation systems, where every device, every sensor, every machine becomes an intelligent asset, by virtue of its network connection. It’s an even easier leap to extend “valuable network” to the supply chain, for fully integrated logistics.

At the recent Manufacturing Perspectives event hosted by Rockwell Automation for manufacturing media and analysts, Sujeet Chand, the company’s chief technical officer, listed key technologies that will drive the future of manufacturing, including wireless communications. According to Chand, “The big problem with wireless is the batteries. We need to work on energy harvesting technologies, such as using machine vibrations and other parasitic means,” to power wireless devices. Chand noted other problems to be addressed—such as interference, security, coverage and costs—before widespread adoption could occur.

Limitless opportunities

These issues, while important, will be solved with technology developments and increased adoption in the commercial world. And when that happens, the opportunities for wireless are limitless.

Consider these comments from Hesh Kagan, director of technology marketing new ventures for Invensys Process Systems. “We spend an enormous amount of money on a highly accurate measurement device, which yields one reliable piece of data. What if we could put hundreds of cheap sensors on a process tank, and get hundreds of pieces of so-so data, but which in total provide a better indication of what’s happening in that tank?”

Wireless networks will provide manufacturers with the ability to do just that—use hundreds of sensors to provide more information than would ever be economically feasible with wired components.

Just imagine the possibilities.

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