15 October 2008

Wireless rides real products, standards

"If you're now initiating wireless in your plant, I recommend you start small, start on the ground, and stay away from critical applications. But get busy and get started," advised BP's David Lafferty, a technology specialist with that company.

He and Greg LaFramboise, technology lead at Chevron Energy, spoke at the Wireless and Networking Technology Exchange morning session on Tuesday at ISA EXPO in Houston.

The state of wireless and networking in the process industries now is that one can buy a wireless instrument or device from a reputable vendor, and it will be able to transmit a mile, and the battery will last five years.

Indeed, the state of wireless is explosive. Said LaFramboise, "If you head out onto the event floor and walk among the exhibitions, I'd say that every other one will be offering a wireless device or solution of some kind."

BP sees digitation as a key to being competitive, and wireless drives down that cost. Wireless makes the process of taking measurements less costly. As well, it is a valuable component of BP's physical plant security via the use of wireless transmission of camera images, say for example, from the fence line of refinery.

Wireless is also valuable in the collection of real-time data that one would not normally collect were it a hardwired application. This includes remote monitoring of data and employee locations.

Lafferty sees the key challenges to instituting wireless as many. Leading off, is the high cost of entry into the technology at a plant. The first application is typically the most expensive because it has to pay for the backbone, which of course later applications can piggyback on, but recall that is not how budgets in plants work.

Applications can happen on case-by-case or departmental basis, and that is how budgets shake out as well. This also leads to silos as department and apps build just enough of an infrastructure for their own needs.

Another challenge, in turn, is often there is no uniform implementation and the inability to leverage the scale of the overall operation and company size. It is difficult to replicate success.

The business side of the company sees the installation of wireless as an infrastructure addition neglecting that wireless is a business improvement too. So one must sell the technology to one's own people, this can be distracting, and for sure it is more work.

Both Lafferty and LaFramboise see themselves as salespersons. They trained as engineers and rose to their present positions as engineers in the field.

Chevron's LaFramboise sees the wireless surge quite simply, "Radios have changed, and batteries are better. Standards have arrived too … or they're close enough."

The opportunities are huge and include process monitoring, monitoring heretofore-unreadable measurements such as those on moving equipment particularly rotational machinery.

Extending the network to mobile and extraction of high-level intelligence and data from the process and into the process control system are further perquisites of wireless.

The challenges of making wireless go for the Chevron folks led off with security. "After the security personnel told us no for the fifth time, we asked them for the real specifics of their blanket refusal to consider wireless as a part of the process. They assumed we were buying a commercial off the shelf system from Radio Shack and that intelligence would be out there for all to see," said LaFramboise.

And then there are the standards. They are a boon to the advancement and acceptance of wireless. "WirelessHART 7.1 is one important standard," said LaFramboise, "and products are going out the door now that use that standard. The other important standard is ISA100-11a, which I have been helping work on for some years now. It's almost ready and should be out this year or early next.

"We're trying to make these standards work as one but there may end up being two standards, I'm just not sure."

Meanwhile, the Fieldbus Foundation and ISA have announced an agreement to facilitate the implementation of wireless backhaul transport networks. This technology initiative sits on shared interests in serving the needs of end users and suppliers of wireless systems in industrial automation.

"Backhaul" in hierarchical telecommunication network, is the portion of the network that comprises the intermediate links between the core, or backbone, of the network and the small sub networks at the "edge" of the entire hierarchical network.

-Nicholas Sheble