Greasing the Skids for Wireless

Wireless networking is becoming ubiquitous in society. From cell phones to the ever-popular Blackberry, people stay in constant touch with wireless devices.

Even personal digital assistants can be purchased with integrated cell phones and Internet access. With industrial sensor devices numbering in the billions, expanding the wireless markets to include these as well as people seems the next logical move.

San Diego wireless research firm On World (www.onworld.com) predicts 168 million wireless sensor network nodes could be deployed in 2010. This calculates to a $5.9 billion end user market. Senior analyst Charlie Chi attributes some of the increasing demand to anticipation of increased reliability and scalability of wireless mesh networking. “High return on investment, low replacement costs and the ever-increasing pressure to save money make wireless sensor networking especially suited for industrial networking,” says Chi.

Bewildering array

One of the problems facing those who want to use wireless technologies to network sensors with automation equipment is a bewildering array of technologies and standards. How are manufacturing professionals supposed to sift through all of these standards and determine what will work in an industrial environment, and what the business justifications would be?

To answer those questions and more, a group of industry leaders established the Wireless Industrial Networking Alliance (WINA, www.wina.org). The stated goals of the organization, which was incorporated in February of this year, are:

l Form industry partnerships to sponsor wireless plant demonstrations

l Support Web-based education and demonstration projects

l Certify systems in specific types of applications

l Define requirements and work with industry alliances and standards bodies to achieve them

l Influence and support applicable standards.

Hesh Kagan, WINA vice president, and director of technology marketing at Invensys Production Management, says, “We’re not looking just for members, but for people to come in and become evangelists. We’re looking for members not only from the technology provider community, but also people from the user community and those who represent standards organizations.” He adds, “In an organization like this one, end users can press their points with vendors in a different way than through the normal sales environment, and the same thing applies to vendors.”

What is the biggest concern of end users regarding adoption of wireless networks? “Most people would probably reply that security is the biggest concern of end users. Actually, our research with end users reveals that systems integration is the major issue,” notes Kagan. “Wireless is a wonderful enabling technology for many applications, but it must be part of the entire system. At this point, it doesn’t integrate well into other parts of the automation system, such as the human-machine interface, alarming, asset management and the like.”

The second constraint holding engineers back from early adoption of wireless sensor networks is a suspicion of hidden costs. Without standards, what if they should buy and install something today and new standards are adopted in a year, rendering the investment obsolete in less than 18 months? According to Kagan, “People are still waiting to see how things will shake out. There’s just too much new stuff coming at them too quickly. WINA can address this concern through education and providing a way for engineers to share experiences of what worked and what didn’t.”

Unbelievable

On the other hand, Kagan sees the opportunities as “unbelievable. The ability to connect multiple sensors to one field device provides the capability to gather much more information,” he says. “Things really get interesting when you think about how this technology can help with process optimization and performance management. If you can install many inexpensive sensors in a plant, you can gather many times more information economically than you can now. That information can provide the basis for better analysis, leading to better plant performance.”

Gary Mintchell, gmintchell@automationworld.com

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