Co-winners Honeywell and Emerson: Solving the hard problems

Industrial networks move to the head of the class in wireless innovation

By Sidney Hill, Jr., executive editor August 1, 2008

Blaine Tookey spent several years trying to solve a business problem akin to shooting at a moving target. Then he discovered the OneWireless network from Honeywell Process Solutions .

This network’s ability to function reliably in the harshest of industrial environments earned it the distinction of co-winner in the product category of the 2008 MBT Innovation Insight Awards —the other being the Smart Wireless network from Emerson Process Management .

Wireless technology certainly isn’t new. Warehouse workers have been using handheld scanners for years to track goods. And with the advent of smart phones, executives can do everything from access email to monitor performance by tapping into enterprise and business intelligence solutions.

What makes the Emerson and Honeywell wireless networks unique is their ability to work consistently and reliably in areas previously considered impossible.

Tookey, a lead technology consultant with BP , the London-based petroleum giant, deployed Honeywell’s OneWireless network to support a preventive maintenance program aboard the Loch Ronnoch, a double-hull tanker that transports crude oil from the Schiehallion oil fields in the North Atlantic to an oil-processing plant on the Shetland Islands.

The network includes 120 wireless sensors that monitor performance of cargo pumps, ballast pumps, and a host of other rotating equipment.

“Forty percent of our unplanned downtime is due to failures in rotating equipment,” says Tookey in reference to why BP wanted to implement a preventive maintenance program.

Honeywell and Emerson are known to concentrate on putting wireless networks in the most challenging environments because their core business is automation solutions for the process industries.

Bob Karschnia, VP of wireless with Emerson Process Management, knows all the nuances of process and discrete manufacturing plants, and how they figure into wireless network deployments.

“Two types of industries fit the profile of industrial wireless networks users,” says Bob Karschnia, VP of wireless with Emerson Process Management. “You have the process industries, which involve refining oil, making chemicals, or continuous processing of liquids or gases. Then you have the discrete industries, which involve grinding and forming of metal or packaging products in some fashion. But the requirements of these two industries, when it comes to developing reliable wireless networks, are really quite different.”

For example, discrete plants sometimes are housed in what amount to office buildings that actually require a clean, noise-free production environment—making it easier to control potential interference with wireless networks. Process plants, by contrast, often are loud, dusty, and dirty—conditions that wreak havoc on wireless signals.

All the new and better stuff

Advances in radio technology and communications protocols paved the way for wireless networks that can operate in process-oriented plants. Mesh networking technology also is an essential component of reliable industrial networks.

In wireless mesh networks, when a signal traveling to a particular access point is obstructed by something—such as metal pipes running through a plant—the signal immediately locates an open path to a different access point, and continues to do so until it reaches its intended destination.

Both Honeywell and Emerson employ mesh networking technology, but the architectures of their respective wireless networks are different—and each company claims an advantage in that area.

Emerson’s Smart Wireless architecture consists of two distinct network segments that accommodate different types of applications:

  • A field network portion for connecting sensors that monitor the status of production equipment; and

  • A plant network portion typically used to give mobile workers information for managing production processes and communicating with other plant-floor personnel.

Karschnia says the network is divided in this fashion because the different sets of applications are best suited to certain types of equipment. The field network typically employs lower-power radios and sensors that operate on batteries. Low-power networks are less susceptible to interference, making them more reliable vehicles for moving critical production-related data.

The plant networks, on the other hand, transmit larger volumes of data, and require bandwidth closer to that offered by consumer-oriented wireless networks that can transmit everything from text files to video.

Jeff Becker, Honeywell’s director of global wireless solutions, agrees that different types of wireless applications work best on different types of equipment, but the Honeywell OneWireless architecture can incorporate both field- and plant-level applications on a single network. “We offer a unified network with end-to-end security across the entire plant,” he says.

The OneWireless network from Honeywell Process Solutions functions reliably in the harshest of industrial environments, earning it co-winner status in MBT ’s 2008 Innovation Insight Awards .

Device dichotomy

Honeywell and Emerson part company when it comes to standards for wireless sensors and other devices. Emerson’s devices are compatible with a standard known as Wireless Hart, while Honeywell favors a standard known as ISA 100.

Despite the difference, manufacturers are solving real business problems with both companies’ wireless networks.

Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries relies on Emerson Smart Wireless technology to monitor the temperature of pipelines and steam headers at a 765-acre chemical processing plant in Lake Charles, La. The plant’s Smart Wireless network uses 10 wireless Rosemount transmitters that enable operators to watch for cold spots and adjust steam throughput, and other types of profiling and balancing.

Meanwhile, Honeywell’s OneWireless solution is running in some of the harshest environments—even a copper mine in Antafagasto, Chile. Today, Mantos Blancos Mining has a wireless network complete with pressure sensors that allow measuring air filtration system performance and scheduling maintenance, all of which has led to significant downtime reductions.

Tookey is expecting similar results aboard the Loch Ronnoch. The Honeywell OneWireless network in the ship’s engine room has proven reliable in transmitting machine performance data to a central database. “It’s too early take official measurements,” claims Tookey, “but we do expect this network to allow us to catch potential machine failures much earlier.”

See all of the winners.