Smart Factories – the strategic role of wireless sensor networks |

Smart Factories – the strategic role of wireless sensor networks

Smart Factories – the strategic role of wireless sensor networks

By Julia Arneri Borghese, Vice President for Strategic Relationships, Paradox Engineering SA

Companies around the world are evolving their infrastructures to make real-time use of Big Data from fully-instrumented plants in order to improve productivity, adjust supply chains, and optimize consumption of key resources such as energy, water and raw materials. The Internet of Things paradigm and new Machine-to-Machine (M2M) applications enable a smarter way to monitor production assets and enter the Smart Factory age, where higher adaptability, resource efficiency and productivity are making the Industry 4.0 revolution come true.

Wireless networks are more and more requested by industrial companies which need to implement advanced sensor architectures to improve control over plants performance. Thus recognizing the importance of closely monitoring parameters such as temperature, pressure, emissions and vibrations, companies are aware of the intrinsic value of data lying in engines, process systems, devices, sensors and meters, and want to unlock this value to take smarter decisions about operations, but also to encourage innovation and explore new revenue opportunities and service models.

Limits of traditional wired infrastructures have been widely discussed and most companies now acknowledge that they are too complex to expand or integrate, too expensive to manage, and above all don’t provide the granularity of information which is actually needed. If the organization is stuck to wired architectures, it may not be able to successfully face quickly evolving market dynamics or emerging challenges coming from regulatory changes. These may require for instance an increase of data collection frequency or the installation of additional data points, or new parameters to monitor.

That’s why wireless sensor networks are a valid solution for all industrial environments where effective remote and condition monitoring is required, enabling unlimited extension of existing sensor architectures, as well as cost-effective temporary or incremental data collection campaigns. Wireless connectivity may even be the only possible alternative when landlines or standard wired networks are unreliable, too expensive or simply not viable – that’s the case of hard-to-reach locations or harsh environments where some kind of industrial plants are located, or big industrial facilities where the company has neither access nor control over ICT systems.

When considering the implementation of a wireless network, the real critical decision is how to invest in future proof infrastructures that can provide adequate flexibility and scalability over time. Industrial organizations are not likely to install technologies which bind them to legacy protocols, or force them to replace existing equipment. Open standards and interoperability based on IPv6/6LoWPAN Internet protocols are among the most recurrent keywords, since companies ask for solutions which are not based on proprietary systems and are able to evolve together with corporate needs, therefore enabling gradual extension to monitoring other parameters or adding new services.

Do all these advantages necessarily mean that wireless sensor networks are more expensive than traditional ones? Not at all. Customer experiences and independent studies agree that a wireless-based solution usually costs 50-70% less than a similar wired infrastructure, considering potential savings for hardware, cabling equipment and material costs, as well as engineering, installation and management costs.

Beyond cost effectiveness, wireless data acquisition and transmission surely offers companies a number of qualitative benefits, starting from the possibility to have deeper, more granular and accurate information from production assets, to the opportunity of riding over some of the issues that typically occur in industrial environments (ie. high temperatures, humidity and vapors, thick cement or metal works, etc.), thus supporting real-time decisions through valuable data.

Some of the customers Paradox Engineering is serving all over the world are a clear proof of wireless sensors networks’ strategic role for Smart Factories. Let’s consider the case of a waste-to-energy plant located in Lausanne, Switzerland, where asset monitoring is fundamental to track the several subsystems that are required for stable, energy efficient and sustainable operations. The company calculated that around 20.000 wired data points were needed to reliably monitor the entire plant, estimating an investment of around € 4.000 per point. 30% of these could be replaced with wireless data collection nodes, implementing a wireless sensor network platform to radar level measurements in the waste bunker, control system reliability and get statistics. Choosing a wireless solution allowed the customer to significantly reduce costs for experimental installations of R&D projects and, after the successful testing phase, a new step is being studied to understand how to mitigate fouling in waste-to-energy boilers.

A modular wireless-mesh solutions was successfully implemented by a national oil company operating in an APAC country, which needed to solve the frequent theft of fuel on vessels used for oil transportation. Having experienced USD 300 millions of fuel thefts per annum in the last 5 years, they invested in a wireless sensor architecture to constantly monitor the level of the fuel stocked in the tanks, the amount of fuel injected into the tanks during the loading phase and the amount of cargo spilled in the unloading phase. The solution – which is planned to be deployed on the entire fleet of about 350 vessels in the next two years – also enables real-time monitoring of main and auxiliary engine, bow thruster, GPS System correlated with actual weather data, thus tracking engine speed, vessel route and consequent amount of fuel needed.

Another interesting application of wireless networks is being tested by an automotive group, which is considering the opportunity of using Paradox Engineering’s technology as a flexible diagnostic solution for temporary data collection and asset monitoring campaigns to be implemented in different plants and facilities all over the world.

Smart Factories are expected to be a game changer in the next decade of manufacturing. The US market research and consulting company MarketsandMarkets estimated that Smart Factories’ investments will globally generate revenues of $246 billion by 2018, with an estimated CAGR of about 8% from 2013 to 2018. In this scenario, future proof wireless sensors networks can indeed play a strategic role to help companies develop highly innovative solutions for unlocking the value of their assets and data.

Biography:  Julia Arneri Borghese joined Paradox Engineering in 2011 and she’s currently Vice President for Strategic Relationships, supporting the company’s performance objectives and strategic directions through the establishment and nurturing of relationships with company partners and key market players across the globe. Previously, she spent about ten years in HP, where she held various positions in Sales and Marketing.