Industrial Wireless - not ready for prime time?

Industrial Wireless - not ready for prime time?

Industrial Wireless Standards Session, ARC Forum on February 8-11, 2010 in Orlando, Florida
 
By Bill Lydon - Editor
 
Industrial wireless was a big topic at the ARC conference in Orlando and based on Thursday’s, “Industrial Wireless Standards Session,” the panel members have no plans to widely adopt industrial wireless without a single industry standard that meets their needs.
 
Moderator
Harry Forbes, Senior Analyst Automation - Forbes leads the Network research team at ARC.
 
Panel Members
Chevron - Mike Brooks, Venture Executive, Chevron Technology Ventures
 
Dow Chemical - Eric Cosman, Engineering Solutions IT Consultant
 
ExxonMobil - Pat Schweitzer, Measurement and Automation Projects - ISA 100 Voting Member Chair and non-supplier voting representative to the Board of the ISA100 Wireless Compliance Institute
 
BASF - Martin Schwibach, Senior Automation Manager Industrial - Communication Chairman of the NAMUR Working Group 4.15 Wireless Automation
 
Bayer - Rahul Bhojani, Principal Process Control Technology Specialist, Bayer Business and Technology Services - Voting ISA100 Committee Member on and ISA99 Committee
 
Shell Global Solutions - Berry Mulder, Global Program Leader - Wireless, Shell Global Solutions - Chairman of the International Instrument Users' Association. (WIB), Wireless Workgroup
 
BP - Dave Lafferty, Technology Consultant, Chief Technology Office - Voting Member ISA 100
 
Incomplete Business Case
Clearly this panel of users believes the broad deployment of industrial wireless field devices is not a major competitive advantage unless there is a single industrial wireless standard that meets their needs. This conclusion is based on analysis that the lifecycle cost of supporting wireless networks in the market today is too high. Further, there is the belief that the proliferation of wired networks hampered the implementation of technology.
 
The exception is small applications with high return on investments where the lifecycle costs are overcome by the economic benefits of using wireless. An example would be connecting far distant sensors that are too expensive to wire but are required to improve operations.
 
The ideal solution for these users is a single standard supported by all vendors that guarantees interoperability. Rahul Bhojani of Bayer commented, “We would like to see competition at the product level not at the standards level.”
 
A number of panelists expressed the desire to have a better understanding of the business cases for wireless applications.
 
My Observations & Thoughts…
 
VHS/Betamax Analogy
The discussion was dominated by the group’s desire for one single standard with the analogy of Betamax vs VHS repeated a number of times. The implication is users do not want to be stuck with a technology standard that is not widely supported over time. Certainly there were technical differences between these two standards but the winner was decided by users voting with their pocketbooks by buying products. Were vendors jockeying for position to get an unfair advantage? It certainly seems that way, but ultimately the decision was made in the marketplace. 
 
I would suggest that there are other more valuable lessons from history.
 
Minicomputers were used in control systems including DCS, machine tools, steel mills, and transfer lines. Should users have waited for open interoperable standards? If adoption of the technology made their business more profitable and competitive, it was a good decision. Lack of standardization did make these systems expensive and limited the number of companies that could gain a competitive advantage using them. Companies that could afford to invest had an advantage over their competitors.
 
Adoption of PC and Microsoft technology has certainly improved industrial controls and lowered the entry costs for users, broadening the number of applications.   The long-time arguments that this commercial technology would not work in the control industry have gone by the wayside.
 
Scale & Volume Win
The broadest solutions will likely have their roots in high volume applications outside of industrial. Technology improves exponentially with unit volume sales while cost goes down. Improvements with volume include quality, reliability, lower support costs, better tools, better usability, lower training cost, and lower lifecycle costs. The majority of the devices in an industrial control system come from technology developed for other high-volume applications.   This includes microprocessors, PCs, software operating systems, Ethernet chips, etc.
 
Excluding cell phones, the highest volume wireless technology at this point is Wi-Fi driven by home and business applications.   VOIP has really pushed the technology for response and quality of service. Most companies have already invested in a Wi-Fi infrastructure in offices and plants.   The price and support costs for Wi-Fi have dropped dramatically because of broad applications. Wi-Fi has become a workhorse for in-plant mobile computers and VoIP (Voice over IP) phone systems. Most industrial Ethernet protocols can be transported over Wi-Fi networks today and Siemens is delivering TUV approved safety systems communicating over Wi-Fi networks.
 
Since much of the wireless world is based on broad standards, users can buy components to build systems. For example, at the last Rockwell Automation Fair, Endress+Hauser demonstrated the “World’s First Coriolis Mass Flow Meter for EtherNet/IP Networks.” EtherNet/IP, being standard Ethernet, can be run wirelessly using 802.11 wireless devices.
 
Wayne Magnus, Oakridge National Laboratories - U.S. Department of Energy, noted that the U.S. government funded a study by the National Academy of Sciences that showed wireless sensors could save 10% of the energy saved in the U.S. and reduce emission by 15%. “That requires ubiquitous sensing,” says Magnus. The big question is who is going to build $500 wireless sensors. So far, Magnus reported, Bill Gates and Microsoft are the only ones stepping up. Integrated sensor/controllers using 802.15.4 for under $500 have been demonstrated at recent trade shows. Many of these are for outdoor applications.
 
Andy Chatha, President and Founder of ARC Advisory Group, made an important comment that high growth countries like China are working on wireless industrial networking standards. The implication is they could get into volume production quickly and dominate the market worldwide.
 
Single Wireless Network Standard
Business planning based on the adoption of one single industrial wireless networking standard just does not seem realistic. The needs are too broad with a wide and diverse range of potential wireless monitoring and control applications throughout industry.   This is one of the reasons there are multiple hardwired sensor networks in a plant.   Presentations by users at this ARC conference reinforced this, illustrating systems that use Foundation Fieldbus, Modbus, IEC 61850, and other networks.
 
Manufacturing can be broadly segmented into discrete and process industries but this is a very crude classification. The North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) has 765 sub-classifications under manufacturing. This leads me to believe there are more than two and less than 765 clusters of wireless device requirements.
 
To remain in business, vendors need to develop and sell products to meet the needs of the majority of the customers they serve. This will guide vendor decisions about which wireless networks to support for their products. Consider variable speed drives manufacturers that serve a wide range of customers including petrochemical, waste water, material handling, HVAC, and other applications. It seems reasonable that vendors will develop products that work with multiple networks where there are sufficient customers that buy products for those networks. This is precisely what has happened with hardwired networks.
 
I would suggest that there is a 100% probability that there will be multiple industrial wireless network standards supported over 30 years.
 
The competition in wired industrial protocol standards has been good for users since it has pushed the organizations and vendors to compete, make improvements, and lower costs.
 
Opportunity Cost
A difficult call in business is determining the opportunity cost of not adopting a new technology before your competitors leverage it against you.   If you adopt too early, the solutions may not be stable and if you adopt too late, your competitors gain business advantages that may include higher profit margin, pricing flexibility, more flexible production and other advantages.
 
In the case of industrial wireless networking, the users on this panel believe that waiting for a single interoperable standard trumps the opportunity cost and competitive threats.
 
Other segments of industry may have more compelling economics and will be earlier adopters.
 
The bottom line is that users and vendors each will make decisions that are in the best interest of their business. These are a couple of quotes from the management guru, Peter Drucker, that I think apply:
 
A manager is responsible for the application and performance of knowledge.
 
Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship - the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.
 
I think we are just scratching the surface of improving operations with wireless, but it is not all in focus. Please share your thoughts.