An overview of Wireless Device Adoption in the European Process Industry

By Karthikeyan Balasubramaniyam
Senior Research Analyst - Team Leader
Industrial Automation and Process Control, EMEA
Frost & Sullivan

Wireless devices are gradually entering into the European process industries. With advantages of remote monitoring, reduction in cabling costs and ease of installation and maintenance, wireless devices have presented an interesting option for the end users. However, a plethora of challenges such as proving greater reliability and security, need to be overcome if these devices are to witness higher penetration into the process industries.

Key Reasons to Adopt Wireless Devices

Among the many reasons to adopt wireless devices, the most important has been the need for remote monitoring which is highly evident across the process industries. With industries such as oil and gas, and water and wastewater spanning large areas, the wireless mode of data transmission or monitoring provides an easier proposition than the traditional wired mode. In addition, end users are also likely to witness reduced expenditure on cabling, as the wireless mode of transmission obviates the use of cables. This assumes significance as cables are widely used for data transmission and power supply at present.

Ease of installation and flexibility in operation has also driven the need to adopt wireless devices in the process industries. Moreover, the possibility of measurements from moving parts and inaccessible areas within a plant environment, have also encouraged the uptake of wireless devices. Overall, the process industry has placed much importance on the need to leverage the available valuable information within the process environment to increase plant efficiency - and using wireless devices could be the solution.

Challenges that Need to be Overcome

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The advantages offered by wireless technology are likely to drive wireless device adoption but not before the challenges prevalent in their adoption are overcome. The fact that wireless technology is a new phenomenon within the process environment poses a big challenge in the form of end users not readily accepting the technology. Reliability and security concerns assume very high importance among end users, especially given the continuous and critical nature of some of industries such as chemical, refining and oil and gas. The interference of wireless signals with high-power motors or other devices in operation within a process plant is possible, and end users are extremely apprehensive about data loss due to such disturbances.

Another key challenge is safety. With hazardous areas being common in the oil and gas, chemical and, to some extent, the pharmaceutical industries, the use of wireless technology in such environments raises concerns for the safety of workers and equipment. Hence, the wireless devices to be used need explosion proof certification. The seamless integration of wireless devices with the existing network is also an important concern. Given the fact that the plant environment has field bus devices, automation devices and office IT networks, wireless devices are required to integrate smoothly in order to ensure that all the parallel systems and networks are not disturbed due to the wireless transmission of data. The battery life of wireless devices is also an area of concern for end users who prefer at least five years of battery life. The high initial cost of investment in establishing wireless networks is also not favouring adoption among end users, who seem to have a conservative approach towards any new technology. The absence of common wireless standards is also restraining wireless adoption, as the end users are expected to wait for the emergence of a common standard.

Chart 1.1 illustrates the key challenges to wireless adoption in the European process industries over the period 2007-2010 (source: Frost & Sullivan)

Trends and Prospects
The challenges present in the adoption of wireless devices in the process industries are expected to be overcome- although this is not expected to happen in the short term. This implies that the rate of adoption of wireless devices may not be as fast as expected. With end users sceptical about the robustness of wireless devices, and some of them still unclear about the potential long term benefits in terms of costs as well as performance, any significant adoption of wireless devices is not expected to happen over the next five years time.

The key applications where wireless devices are expected to be adopted are monitoring applications, where the wireless mode of transmission is effective. Moreover, these applications are less critical in comparison to actual control applications; hence, end users are less apprehensive about using wireless devices for monitoring applications. Among the industries, water and wastewater has been using long-range wireless devices and is expected to continue using them, while the medium- and short-range wireless devices are expected to be used in the chemical, oil and gas and refining industries. The oil and gas industry is expected to witness a relatively faster adoption of wireless devices in comparison to the other process industries, which seem to show guarded optimism. Overall, the penetration of wireless devices into the process industries is expected to be slow, as end users wait for their concerns to be addressed.