Industrial wireless sensor networks: Trends and developments

ON World's 2014 survey reveals industrial wireless sensor adoption is accelerating

By Mareca Hatler

Industrial wireless sensor adoption is accelerating from a new generation of standards-based industrial networks and a growing number of first-time users, according to ON World’s latest survey.

The industrial wireless sensor networking (WSN) value proposition has evolved from simply extending or replacing wired networks to providing cloud-connected smart object intelligence. Internet Protocol (IP) addressability to the node, reliable mesh networking, fieldbus tunneling, proven battery lifetimes, and new cloud capabilities are now part of the industrial WSN landscape.

ON World, in collaboration with ISA, completed an extensive survey on WSN in the fourth quarter of 2014 with 220 industrial automation vendors, end users, systems integrators, and industry experts worldwide. In this report, we compare the key findings from this survey with a survey completed in 2012 in collaboration with ISA, the HART Communication Foundation, and the Wireless Industrial Networking Alliance.

After a decade of standards development and continuous advances with low-power wireless components and cloud-based platforms, our survey found that adoption is accelerating, with network densities increasing and the number of first-time users growing. The survey results are presented here by either all respondents, end users (e.g., manufacturers and oil and gas companies), adopters (e.g., vendors and end users currently using WSN), planners, or engineers. In this article, we present some of the survey’s key findings.

Accelerating WSN adoption

End users are testing and deploying WSN solutions at accelerating rates. Compared with the previous survey (September/October 2012 InTech), end users today are highly satisfied with their WSN systems—with the exception of network integration.

Figure 1. End users accelerating WSN adoption

Growing wireless mesh deployments

Over the past two years, there has been strong growth for mesh deployments as standards, such as WirelessHART and ISA100.11a, continue to take hold. According to our latest survey, almost eight in 10 current WSN users have wireless mesh deployments, with a growing number of smaller wireless mesh networks compared with our 2012 survey. This illustrates the growing number of first-time users versus the pioneering early adopters that characterized many of the initial deployments over the past five years.

Figure 2. Industrial wireless mesh adoption in 2012 versus 2014

Expanding wireless applications

Industrial wireless sensor networking continues to grow in deployments and application diversity. The most recent survey found that although process monitoring is the most likely planned application, interest in machine health and environmental monitoring, along with safety and security, is growing. In addition, WSN users rank moisture/humidity, proximity, and acoustic sensors as more likely to be wireless today compared with two years ago.

*Percent responding likely or most likely
*WSN adopters are WSN users including vendors, suppliers, and end users

Figure 3. Most likely type of wireless sensors among adopters in 2012 versus 2014

Preferred standards approach

Compared with our previous survey, there has been a slight increase in interest in ISA100.11a as well as a decline in the number of WSN adopters who are planning a hybrid solution.

Figure 4. Preferred standards approach among adopters in 2012 versus 2014

Almost one in four prefer WirelessHART and another 25 percent choose ISA100.11a or a hybrid approach that includes both ISA100.11a and WirelessHART.

Figure 5. Preferred standards approach among all respondents

Gaining traction for IP smart objects

WirelessHART continues to lead wireless mesh deployments with two times as many current users than ISA100.11a. However, IP addressable sensors are considered an important WSN feature and are currently used by more than half of the surveyed WSN users.

Figure 6. Adoption of wireless IP smart object technologies

Of industrial WSN users, 53 percent currently have wireless IP smart object deployments including Wi-Fi or ISA100.11a.

Most important features

Data reliability, security, and easy access to sensor data are ranked as the most important WSN features by WSN adopters. The biggest changes over the past two years are that concerns about batteries have faded and a desire for IP addressability has grown. For end users, having lower costs has become increasingly significant over the past two years as an important feature.

Percent responding important or most important


Industrial IoT opportunities

Wireless sensor networks are driving Internet of Things (IoT) adoption for industrial automation. Cloud-based systems, mobile apps, and IoT platforms are increasingly viewed as strategic investment areas. Approximately two out of five of the most recent survey respondents view cloud-based systems and IoT platforms as “important” or “most important.”

Percent responding important or most important

Figure 8. Strategic investment areas for adopters

The survey also found a growing interest in wearable technologies, such as smart watches, smart glasses, smart clothing, and safety monitors. By 2018, 80 percent believe their organization will use wearable technologies.

Percent responding important or most important

Figure 9. Percent of wearable tech users in 2018 from all respondents

Innovations and future directions

Network integration rises to the top of concerns in the future. Three quarters of WSN adopters view network integration as “important” or “most important” as a strategic investment area. More than half of end users rank information technology (IT) integration as an important WSN innovation compared with 39 percent in our previous survey. As organizations from both the automation and IT/technology worlds becoming increasingly engaged with WSN and IoT systems, new questions emerge. Where will solutions to these challenges come from? What will the value chain look like? Which companies are most likely to succeed? Our ongoing research and surveys will continue to provide insight into these industrial wireless sensing trends and developments.

About the Author

Mareca Hatler is the director of research for ON World, a global research firm that focuses on smart technology markets. Click for more information and free executive summaries of ON World's recently published reports.

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