Wireless: The future of communication across global industry

Industrial wireless has the potential to revolutionize industries by adding flexibility and capability. It will not be far into the future when wireless becomes as widely adopted as more traditional wired networks.


Frank Cantwell, vice president of product management at Allied Electronics, discusses the past, present, and future of industrial wireless and how it has the potential to revolutionize industry in terms of flexibility and capability. Courtesy: Frank CantwSince its original creation at Xerox Parc 40 years ago, Ethernet has become the primary standard for communication in office, retail, and residential applications. With further developments it has steadily permeated into other areas of life and industries; indeed the automotive industry is now looking at it as a replacement for or supplement to CANBus. From an industrial manufacturing and process industry perspective, it has formed the basis of a number of standard and standards-based protocols for control and automation for a number of years and is now gaining a huge foothold in areas that were, in the past, traditionally dominated by proprietary wired protocols.

As well as significant speed and bandwidth improvements, arguably one of the most important developments has been the creation of wireless capabilities and protocols. Already present and slowly reaching saturation in domestic and commercial environments, the manufacturing and processing industries are now starting to benefit from the capabilities and commercial developments and enhancements that a wireless infrastructure can deliver.

More and more suppliers in the automation and process arena are developing wireless-capable equipment, even down to the small-product level where, arguably, it can have its biggest impact. Ethernet is not the only target, but it is useful for applications where connection to the wider enterprise is required. Wireless protocols exist for a number of existing communication solutions, some specifically developed for vertical industries and specialties. 

ISA100 Standards

The capabilities of wireless solutions had been recognized for a number of years, and in 2005 the ISA 100 committee was formed to establish a set of standards that would define requirements specific to the industrial arena. Comprising representatives from some 250 companies across the globe, the committee's role is to foster the development of wireless technology, enhance its integrity, and promote its uptake; with the ultimate goal of improving user confidence. The subsequent ISA 100 standards are designed to provide a framework that offers secure and reliable wireless operation for industrial control and process control solutions.

Wireless-capable hardware is becoming more and more mainstream. Many of the products that we stock from wide range of primary automation and process suppliers are now available with wireless as the primary means of communication, often variants of their wired counterparts. It is a very exciting development, and it can only expand as confidence in wireless protocols begins to grow beyond its initial foothold.

Initial reticence in wireless as a communications bridge has been fuelled by personal experience, with many users seeing issues in their home, such as unnecessarily large signal drop-offs, potential security flaws, and less-than-ideal router performance. In the industrial arena, this has been countered with more capable hardware specifically designed to operate in critical manufacturing and process applications. The ISA 100 committee has played a large role in designing out and removing many of the fears in industrial settings and restoring confidence in the technology for industrial applications. 

Benefits of wireless devices

The primary benefits that wireless devices offer are obvious. In many instances, remote installations, those spread over wide areas and those in hard-to-reach locations, are primary candidates; as traditional wired infrastructures would be more complicated, expensive, and difficult to employ and maintain. A good example is in a tank farm, where a variety of sensors need to disseminate multiple variables, such as temperature, flow, level, and volume, from a multitude of data points. Wireless simply removes the need for an extensive cable infrastructure, which also helps with maintenance and troubleshooting. Another application might be at a shipping terminal, where crane operating data, such as bearing temperatures, lubrication levels, working hours, and power demands easily can be fed back to central control suites to ascertain usage and formulate maintenance schedules.

Applications such as these already exist and are already seeing the benefits that a wireless infrastructure can deliver. In most instances, these applications also leverage the services offered by many of the leading equipment vendors, who deploy dedicated teams, services, products, and software specifically created to cater for industrial wireless installations.

The beauty of most standardized wireless solutions is that they tend to be product agnostic. By agreeing to the principles laid down by various standards organizations and protocol owners, most products will operate and deliver data over a common shared network, which can be populated by devices from other vendors. This gives plant engineers and managers a huge choice of products, confident in the knowledge that proprietary wired protocols will not hinder design, commissioning, and subsequent development of their installed base. 

Wireless security

The other major 'issue' that is considered by those looking to adopt wireless solutions is security. Like home and retail settings, multiple levels of security are available, depending on the infrastructure deployed. Wireless Ethernet is the biggest target, as it often shares access points with enterprise-level systems. However, security is a major part of any wireless provider's arsenal, and countless solutions exist to secure networks. Most offer integration with enterprise solutions using secure gateways and a network-based "no-man's land" where the two networks are isolated from each other with stringent security protocols in place to prevent crossover. In many instances, the security procedures are identical in operation for most protocols, relying on isolation, controlled access, and audit trails.

There are many companies offering wireless-capable hardware; most applications are covered by an offering from a number of suppliers and protocols and will remove any misgiving relating to a lack of choice. Wireless is here to stay and will only improve as products evolve in line with revised standards, enhanced technology, greater bandwidths, and faster speeds. The technology has already proven to be robust and easy to implement and has seen action in a number of mission-critical applications. It will not be all that far into the future when wireless becomes as widely adopted as more traditional wired networks.

- Frank Cantwell is vice president of product management at Allied Electronics. Edited by Joy Chang, digital project manager, Control Engineering, jchang@cfemedia.com 

Key Concepts

  • Ethernet has become the primary standard for communication, and the automotive industry is now looking at it as a replacement for or supplement to CANBus.
  • The capabilities of wireless solutions had been recognized for a number of years, and in 2005 the ISA 100 committee was formed to establish a set of standards that would define requirements specific to the industrial arena.
  • It will not be all that far into the future when wireless becomes as widely adopted as more traditional wired networks.

Consider this

What standardized wireless solution is your organization using?


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