December 2008

Wireless standard for discrete industries years off

A new study declares the virtues of wireless technology for use in the discrete industries are many. Standardization of products however will probably follow the circuitous route of other networking-and-protocol technology step changes.

ARC Advisory Forum reported discrete manufacturers and their OEMs are increasingly aware of the potential operational benefits of wireless technology.

The ramp up in activity in the process industries, including availability of the WirelessHART interface and the ISA100 standards initiative for process sensing, is forcing these companies and their engineering organizations to take greater notice.

Most discrete manufacturers and their OEMs recognize the prospect of a cable-free interface for control and data acquisition applications has the potential to significantly enhance productivity and performance and reduce costs.

Wireless technology enables these improvements through its ability to lower engineering costs, enable remote and/or mobile operations, and add flexibility in the form of incremental improvements or changes to existing installations.

Discrete manufacturers in automotive, aerospace, and other industries are in the first wave of companies pursuing advanced, often data-hungry processes to improve performance and/or remove human intervention and the variability it brings.

This type of automation, such as flexible manufacturing platforms in automotive manufacturing, often requires a significant amount of incremental monitoring, sensing, and actuation of robots and their associated handling and control systems as they go through numerous production changes.

In these instances, the use of wireless products not only reduces cable failure in moving equipment, it also enables the addition and monitoring of incremental I/O and devices.

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Lack of standardization at the level of discrete sensors/actuators will be one of the major impediments to near-term wireless adoption in the discrete industries as the anticipated timeline for standardization is five or more years out.

End users and their OEMs expect these standards will bring not only commonality and interoperability, but also address key performance requirements in areas such as reliability and latency.

Discrete manufacturers and their IT groups are watching developments in WLAN technology at the IEEE level on an ongoing basis due to the potential impact on higher-end devices, such as mobile computers and HMIs.

The recent ramp up in standardization activity at the sensor/actuator level in the process industries, however, is also causing engineering organizations to take notice of developments at these lower levels of the hierarchy.

Discrete manufacturers are closely watching activities-such as the recent introduction of a wireless version of the HART protocol and the ISA100 initiative for wireless process sensing-to gauge how and where the process experience may extend to their own applications.

WirelessHART allows installed HART products to retrofit with an adapter. ARC expects the HART Communications Foundation will begin certifying compliant devices in 2008.

The second release of the main ISA100 draft standard for wireless process sensors came out in September. This standard supports IEEE 802.15.4 for wireless process sensors along with WirelessHART and 6LowPAN as field protocols. The earliest possible ISA100-compliant products are likely to arrive some time in 2009.

ISA has further established a Wireless Compliance Institute to provide compliance certification services for the ISA100 standards as they become available. The ISA100 Factory Automation Interest Group, formed to look at how wireless sensor networks can be apply to discrete and hybrid applications, first came together in late 2007. The group, currently chaired by members from Rockwell Automation and Procter & Gamble, has recently been elevated to Working Group status within the ISA100 standards organization. This elevation is necessary to the group's collaboration efforts, particularly for recognition by the IEC.

ARC analyst and author of the strategy Chantal Polsonetti averred, "Similar to the experience with other industrial network standardization activities, from process fieldbuses to serial-based device networks or industrial Ethernet, we expect industrial protocol battles to occur in the wireless area.

"This potential is already evident on the process side with competition between ISA100 and WirelessHART. This, in spite of the fact that WirelessHART is included in both ISA100 and the work of the ISA Wireless Convergence group.

"This competition between protocols hurts the potential for a common industrial wireless protocol and end users and OEMs will suffer as a result."