Automation vendors address need to govern industrial wireless use of local radio spectrum

Given technology advances, emerging standards, and demand for affordable plant applications, in the last two years, major automation vendors have introduced products for wireless monitoring of the I/O and field devices used in process control. Just as important, they've introduced solutions for managing the wireless networks that result.

By Kevin Parker, editorial director ( September 1, 2007

Given technology advances, emerging standards, and demand for affordable plant applications, in the last two years, major automation vendors have introduced products for wireless monitoring of the I/O and field devices used in process control. Just as important, they’ve introduced solutions for managing the wireless networks that result.

Earlier this year, Emerson Process Management brought forward a solution that combines wireless HART network technology and measurement transmitters with the means for device management and systems integration.

Such self-organizing mesh networks route data via radio-signal pathways that overcome obstructions or interference because each point “passes on” signals emanating from other points, meaning the signal can “go around” an obstruction.

Since then, Invensys Process Systems and Honeywell Process Solutions released their latest solutions. Another vendor, Apprion , which specializes in industrial wireless, has come out with a second generation of its solution.

To limit the technical disparity of emerging proprietary solutions, a new standard—ISA SP100—is being promulgated, and end users are disseminating best practices through the Wireless Industrial Networking Alliance (WINA). Challenges remain, however, with differing vendor approaches: some backing mesh networks, and others point-to-point solutions.

More generally, one question that’s arisen is, shouldn’t all forms of wireless—e.g., asset tracking by means of RFID tags or wireless mobile communications—also be managed by the same network management tools as for process monitoring? And as wireless proliferates, shouldn’t wireless and wired networks be part of one single plant network?

Learning about it

According to Stephen Lambright, president and CEO of Apprion, “Given concerns about security and reliability, it’s understandable that until recently industrial wireless generally has been limited to isolated instances of SCADA monitoring and two-way radios for people supporting process applications.”

But the maturation of wireless standards has led to increasing availability of hardened wireless instrumentation, and as plant applications for maintenance, security, and engineering proliferate, the need for better management of wireless applications arises.

“We don’t want to do process control—in other words, ‘actuation’—with wireless, but there are many other good applications,” says Hesh Kagan, strategic technology director, Invensys Process Systems.

Eliminating wiring costs means applications—such as advanced process monitoring—that once couldn’t be cost-justified are now viable, with the range of savings estimated at anywhere from 25 percent to 90 percent.

Besides plant operators benefiting from additional I/O and condition monitoring from turbines, pumps, and pipelines, security-related uses include video surveillance, access control, and intrusion detection. Maintenance workers can use wireless consoles to access job tickets and file operator rounds. Workforce mobility leads to other productive applications. ( For a list of applications, see text box. )

Apprion recognized that for process industries to take full advantage of wireless, a solution for managing disparate networks was needed.

“Applications have to coexist and interoperate, requiring common systems management to address performance, security, and management concerns as they scale,” says Ian McPherson, VP, Network Architecture, Apprion.

Automation vendor Invensys says its wireless-enabled applications are found today in a large chemical plant on the U.S. Gulf Coast, petroleum refineries in the U.S. and Europe, and several U.S. power plants.

Performance issues might include coverage, latency, and throughput. This overall challenge is heightened by the differing approaches of major industrial OEMs for products that most often operate in the 868/915 MHz and 2.4 GHz unlicensed bands of the radio spectrum, including ZigBee, Wi-Fi, WiMAX, and RFID.

This was the origin of Apprion’s Intelligent Operations Network (ION) System for administrating all types of plant wireless—providing centralized configuration and a single interface to integrate and manage devices, networks, and applications.

The IONosphere controller—a type of server appliance—also interfaces to other applications using the new OPC/UA specification for plant integration. By providing a consolidated application management framework, CAD drawings or photos can be used as a common interface to application data. Maintenance records also can be viewed, along with native-system views for IT and operations.

In turn, if a manufacturing enterprise already makes use of a systems-management solution such as Hewlett-Packard ‘s OpenView, the ION System “plugs into it” to establish a single system for wireless and wired networks.

A new network appliance, the IONizer, “extends the rules, policies, and authentication procedures and pushes them to the edge of the network for tighter management,” McPherson says, providing a layer of redundancy and intrusion detection closer to the entry point. “Thinner isn’t always better in running a process plant,” he explains.

It’s about the apps

“Invensys also takes a network-centric infrastructure approach,” says Harry Forbes, senior analyst for Dedham, Mass.-based ARC Advisory Group , adding that Invensys had turned to Apprion for its underlying technology platform.

“We worked with Apprion to get the infrastructure in place so anyone’s wireless can come into the system,” says Kagan. “With that in hand, we turned to applications that can run on top of it.”

Invensys says that today its wireless-enabled applications are in various stages of implementation at customers around the world, including a large chemical complex on the U.S. Gulf Coast, petroleum refineries in the U.S. and Europe, and several U.S. power plants.

In June, Invensys released these particular applications: mobile workforce, field data logging, condition monitoring, asset tracking, security and safety, VoIP, and high-speed backhaul communications.

“They’re all of value, but condition monitoring is a killer app,” says Kagan. “True preventive maintenance becomes possible because wireless allows you to cost-effectively monitor what you couldn’t before.”

Comprehensive wireless

The Lower Colorado River Authority’s (LCRA) Sam Gideon power-generating plant near Bastrop, Texas, was named 2007 power plant of the year by the ISA Electric Power Research Institute for engineering a comprehensive wireless mesh network using Apprion’s ION System network-infrastructure management technology.

“We had to replace a very outdated wired PA system, but in the process, installed a wireless umbrella that we can build on down the road,” says David Dunkle, production manager. “It was a no-brainer and completely cost-justified based on replacement of wired communications alone, but will continue to provide return-on-investment as we go forward.”

Dunkle sees many opportunities for wireless infrastructure to generate additional value. LCRA management is testing a solution for linking to remote, unmanned sites that will save “putting a man in a truck” whenever there’s a potential problem.

“We’re thinking of configuring Apprion’s IONosphere to activate the pan zoom of security cameras that monitor the gates so we can look at equipment too, as well as other applications that don’t justify drawing wire. What you can do with wireless today is only limited by your imagination.”

Security : CCTV cameras, access badges enabled with RFID, and high-security access parameters within the Workplace of the Future environment
Workforce mobility : Combining real-time and document access
Wireless I/O : temperature, pressure, vibration, flow, and level sensing
Mobile asset and material tracking : Solutions can be extended to tracking personnel
Safety : Hazardous environments monitored and analyzed in real time