The history of wireless networking in industry has largely been that of cable replacement. It was simply a tool to deliver communications in places where you simply couldn’t run cable for a variety of reasons. Maybe it was too expensive. Or maybe the cable would be running in a hazardous zone. Through these types of applications, wireless secured a foothold in the process industries over the past two decades.
Now we are beginning to see a shift in the types of wireless technologies used, as well as different types of applications. This shift is coming from a user-needs perspective, rather than from pure technological capabilities.
According to the most recent survey from WINA (Wireless Industrial Networking Alliance), the biggest use of wireless technology today is for asset management and condition monitoring. Through the use of wireless sensors that can be positioned nearly anywhere on a piece of equipment, maintenance personnel can get a steady stream of data from that equipment about the state of its condition.
The other use of wireless technology, coming in a close second, is incremental process measurements — the classic measurements of level, temperature, pressure, and flow. It’s not difficult to think of many different places in, say, a refinery or water treatment facility, where it makes sense to get incremental temperature readings from segments of the process where you have not been able to collect that data before. Of course, this wouldn’t make sense if you had to dig a 1,000-yard trench and stop part of the plant for a couple of weeks while you did that. But if you could easily put a wireless sensor in that part of the plant and do that very cost effectively, that’s effective incremental process measurement. Such small steps can certainly help you improve your efficiency and, when examined from the aspect of a large process, like a refinery, there are huge overall efficiency numbers involved in the end result.
Wireless sensors are, perhaps, the biggest area for substantial capital expenditure savings in the process industries, especially when you think about the potential benefit of establishing pervasive sensor networks. When you literally start to put hundreds and thousands of devices out in the facility or a refinery, that's when you begin to see real cap-ex savings versus hard wiring. And this has already been documented. For example, using temperature sensors positioned directly on the roller can produce a small percentage of improvement in the surface finish of sheet steel by precisely achieving the proper manifold temperature; this small improvement in quality translates into millions of dollars in savings over the course of the process run.
The third most prevalent trend for wireless technology is supporting mobile operators. And it’s easy to see why: Removing the step of having to connect via an Ethernet jack as measurements are taken at each stop is a big improvement in process.
Following mobile in the fourth and fifth spots are voice/video data communications and asset tracking. These types of wireless applications have been around for years and continue to be deployed due to their successful track record, so it’s not surprising to see them among the top trends.
What is surprising is the application that came in at number six in the 2012 WINA survey — control. This is surprising because wireless control had never even ranked in the survey prior to this year. Now, however, 13 percent of survey respondents considered control to be their “top application” of wireless. In industries like mining, wireless pump control has been around for years, because there is no other way to really do it. But this result indicates that people across industry are beginning to experiment with closed-loop control using wireless.
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