Wireless Choices Abound: Ford and Rockwell Speak Out

In the factory automation environment, multiple wireless standards compete for dominance.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802 family of standards deals with local area networks and metropolitan area networks carrying variable-size packets. IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n is a set of standards for implementing wireless local area network (WLAN) computer communication in the 2.4, 3.6 and 5 GHz range; these protocols cover what are known as wireless Ethernet and Wi-Fi networks, among others. IEEE 802.15 is a set of standards for implementing wireless personal area network (PAN) standards, including Bluetooth, MiWi and ZigBee. Both WirelessHart and ISA100.11a are built on IEEE 802.15.4.

China also has its own wireless instrumentation standard—WIA-PA—which further complicates the choice for process industry companies with Asian operations that desire a single device-level wireless standard. Other wireless protocols are being installed globally as well, such as ZigBee, Bluetooth and proprietary protocols, depending on the application.

In the factory automation environment, Dearborn, Mich. automaker Ford Motor Co. last year tested a number of off-the-shelf wireless products for potential use in automotive manufacturing control applications, including devices based on IEEE 802.11, as well as IEEE 802.15.4-based Bluetooth devices. As reported in Automation World in February 2010 (see Wireless Control in the Factory: In Search of a Standard, http://www.automationworld.com/feature-6559), Mike Read, senior technical specialist for IT—Plant Floor Systems at Ford had been active in the ISA100 Factory Automation Working Group 16 (WG16). Read’s co-author for a 2009 ISA Expo paper was then-WG16 co-chair Cliff Whitehead, business development manager for Milwaukee-based automation supplier Rockwell Automation Inc.

Along with Rockwell business development manager Paul Brooks, Whitehead gave this response when asked about Rockwell’s support of wireless standards: “We support the goal of convergence but cannot comment with authority on this topic. Rockwell Automation has identified IEEE 802.11n as the wireless standard offering the greatest potential benefits across our customer base. In addition, we are working with Cisco Systems to accelerate adoption of this standard across industrial automation. This technology enables the mobility of workers and equipment, along with the obvious benefits in reducing wiring costs. In the process instrumentation space, we are working with Endress+Hauser to integrate its suite of WirelessHart instrumentation into our PlantPAx system. Other wireless technologies, like ISA100.11a and proprietary frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) will be broadly adopted across our customer base to deliver many of the same benefits as those described above. We support our partners as they deliver these solutions.”

See also the main October 2011 feature, Wireless Sensor Network Standards: On the Road to Convergence
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