High Interest, Slow Adoption for Industrial Wireless

Attendees at a recent ISA conference on industrial wireless technology got plenty of exercise;

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when about 130 paying attendees showed up—more than double the number that had initially been expected—ISA organizers had to find a bigger room at another hotel to accommodate the group, forcing attendees to walk back and forth between two hotels for alternating conference sessions and networking breaks.


The turnout at the July 23-24 event, sponsored by the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA, www.isa.org), in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, is another indication of growing interest in wireless technology by industrial end-users. But judging by their comments—both from behind the podium and privately during networking breaks at the conference—many users are still taking a go-slow approach to the installation of wireless in their plants.


Tough sledding


Witness the presentation titled, “Cautiously Moving Forward with an Industrial Wireless Initiative in a Process Research and Development Facility.” The speaker, engineer James D. Murphy, from Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical maker Eli Lilly and Co., said that when he earlier volunteered to speak, he expected that he would be an industrial wireless end-user by the time of the conference.


“But we’ve seen several delays, and I’m still a prospective user,” Murphy confessed to the group. While Lilly uses wireless technology in various locations within its facilities, he said, “wireless currently is not used in any manufacturing system.”


Despite having the go-ahead for an industrial wireless project from Lilly’s process control group, “communication with the company’s IT (information technology) infrastructure group has been tedious,” Murphy explained. His advice to other end-users considering a wireless manufacturing initiative: “Begin the dialog with IT governance organizations early. We did not anticipate [IT] concerns around bandwidth protection and security of the installed system.”


Potential conflicts between controls and IT groups is only one of several barriers that continue to hold back industrial wireless networking. Others frequently mentioned include questions about reliability and security, as well as a lack of industrial wireless standards.


Standards progress


On the standards front, conference attendees received the good word that progress is being made. The ISA’s SP100 wireless standards committee expects to have a draft version of ISA100.11a—the first of an anticipated “family” of ISA industrial wireless standards—ready for balloting by October, said Patrick Kinney, of Kinney Consulting, Export, Pa. Kinney is co-chair and chief editor for ISA100.11a.


ISA100.11a is expected to become an approved standard by next year’s first quarter, and initial wireless products based on the standard should be available during the second half of 2008, sources said. Release 1 of ISA100.11a will focus on supporting the process industry without excluding factory automation, said Kinney. Initially, only 2.4 Gigahertz (GHz) radios based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers IEEE 802.15.4-2006 standard will be included, for use in either star or mesh topologies. The Release 1 standard is designed for easy vendor interoperability, flexible and scalable security, and comprehensive coexistence with other wireless networks. It will tolerate latencies of about 100 milliseconds, making it suitable for monitoring and some open-loop control applications. Standards for systems supporting other applications, including closed-loop control, will come later. 


Think it through


Conference presenters included representatives from various vendor companies, including keynote speakers from major process control suppliers Emerson
Process Management (www.emersonprocess.com), of Austin, Texas, and Honeywell Process Solutions (HPS, http://hpsweb.honeywell.com), based in Phoenix, both of which are promoting wireless products.


Harsh Chitale, HPS vice president of strategy and global marketing, noted that wireless holds great promise for process plant improvements in core areas of safety, reliability and efficiency. One chemical plant has seen a six-month return on investment from its use of wireless mobile field maintenance tools, he said, while wireless technology has helped one ethanol plant avoid costly spills and achieve savings of $750,000 annually.


But Chitale also warned that the amount of spectrum in the wireless world is limited. Because applications will need to coexist in a limited bandwidth space, he said, it is important for industrial end-users not to rush into wireless technology without thoroughly thinking things through. To do so would be to risk bandwidth choke points, network downtime and “the pain of rip-and-replace” in the future, he said.


Do it now


Taking a more aggressive tone, however, was John Berra, president and chief executive officer at Emerson Process Management. In a presentation titled “No Wires, No Limits,” Berra told attendees that the promise of wireless is so compelling that end-users should get started now, even before industrial standards are completed. “I am not so sure, based on my experience, that we’re going to be able, at least today, to come up with a top-to-bottom answer before anything is done. I think were going to have to try the individual pieces and work them together, as time goes by.”


Because of the ability of wireless to produce demonstrable business benefits on a sweeping scale, Emerson believes that wireless technology has the potential to impact the process industries more than any technology advance that has come before it, Berra declared. Benefits will come from wireless video surveillance, monitoring and tracking of both physical assets and personnel, as well as improvements in mobile maintenance and controls activities, said Berra.


But he was most effusive about the ability of wireless technology to provide a range of process information that has been impossible or too expensive to obtain with wires in the past. This will enable new levels of diagnostics and predictive intelligence, Berra said.


“The advantages are so compelling, and we need to get on with it. That’s really what this is all about—the wireless potential to unlock predictive intelligence, so people can have a fighting chance of making their plants run better, avoiding unplanned shutdowns, avoiding safety issues, avoiding excess energy consumption, avoiding emissions issues,” Berra said. “These are what an automation professional is standing ready to deliver, and wireless is the key that unlocks this potential for all of us to go deliver those benefits.”


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