Exploring industrial wireless best practices: More answers

Learn more on industrial wireless, including wireless sensors, wireless reliability and wireless technology selection.

By Mark T. Hoske August 6, 2021
Courtesy: Control Engineering webcast on “Exploring industrial wireless best practices.”


Learning Objectives

  • Industrial wireless webcast included audience questions, with more answers here.
  • Wireless sensors, wireless reliability and wireless technology selection are among topics.
  • E Technologies and Wood provide system integration services, including industrial wireless communications./li>

More industrial wireless best practices were provided by speakers from a Control Engineering webcast, “Exploring industrial wireless best practices.” Laurie Cavanaugh, business development manager, E Technologies, and Dean Fransen, Applied Intelligence, Wood, answered more industrial wireless audience questions below that were submitted but not answered in the one-hour July 8 webcast. Answers below include information on wireless sensors, wireless reliability and wireless technology selection.

Question: If wireless is the industrial communication choice, how do you help clients decide among technologies? What are criteria used? Range, speed, reliability, cybersecurity, cost, lifecycle?

Cavanaugh: The very first thing is to determine what problem you’re trying to solve. And what is the perception that wireless will be the answer? Answer will definitely include these criteria: Range, speed/performance, reliability, cybersecurity, cost to implement, cost to support and maintain, compatibility with existing systems, lifecycle?

Fransen: Additional criteria to ask yourself, what am I using wireless for? Data collection? Streaming? Discrete data? Location/mobile? Time sensitivity/latency.  The answers to these questions will help provide some answers to

Question: Are wireless communications more likely to require updates in hardware or protocols than wired industrial communications?        

Cavanaugh: Personally, I’d like to speak to the wired device hardware in that the control infrastructure has always provided a means for communication across multiple firmware levels so updates are certainly not required, and having the ability to put in a new controller and talk to a 20-year-old controller on the same wired network is doable. This was driven by certain industries that required validated systems so applying firmware updates, SCADA or other application updates, and even adding a wireless option requires significant planning and is expensive to modify after the initial installation due to the need to re-validate those systems.

Fransen: This depends on the wireless infrastructure. For example, an Internet of Thing (IoT) solution using 2G cellular may be impacted by carriers migrating to 4G/5G only.

Question: Is the wireless lifecycle generally longer or shorter than industrial-wired applications?        

Cavanaugh: Wired communication, when installed well and with environmental factors taken into consideration, can be stable, reliable and last a long time – and even provides a path for replacement of equipment on either end without changing wireless infrastructure. It is easier to secure. Wired does involve multiple players for implementation and maintenance – a direct correlation with the harshness or complexity of the environment.

Question: Is wireless reliability a concern compared to wired communications?          

Cavanaugh: Speaking to wireless, reliability is definitely the key factor, that’s why you have to understand the application. There are also issues with interference, ensuring you’re on the right license bandwidth, etc. There are have been advancements to reduce environmental impact to strength and reliability, but it’s still a consideration during design and planning.

Question: When retrofitting industrial communications now, is it more often from wired to wireless or older wireless to newer wireless?

Cavanaugh: From what I see, there is not so much a replacement as there is an augmentation or adaptation. If new equipment comes in with wireless sensors, but also a wired controller, there will be an opportunity for creating a hybrid wireless and wired communication and information sharing network. Fortunately, the ability to use an existing Wi-Fi network, add an Edge Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) device to collect wireless sensor data, wire in the new controller to an existing control network, and add a switch into the new panel to connect to the network allows for that evolution into the adaptation into a hybrid wireless architecture. It’s an evolution, not a revolution.

Question: Does a customer ever start with one wireless technology in mind, then change because application requirements better fit a different industrial wireless technology?

Cavanaugh: This is absolutely a real possibility, and for that reason, we start with a pilot project to prove what is unknown and can’t be determined during a design phase. Design only gets you so far. And everyone may think they’re solving the root cause problem at first, but the pilot project should flush out the real root cause.

Question: Thanks for lessons learned in your use case industrial wireless examples. What do you advise clients differently now about industrial wireless, compared to a couple years ago?

Cavanaugh: It is critical to evaluate wireless within the organization to determine whether (a) wireless has or will be part of a long-term information exchange direction for the overall organization or (b) is more of an opportunistic and case-based solution consideration. If it is (a) then I’d propose a Corporate Wireless Strategy needs to be developed and maintained as part of the overall information technology/operational technology (IT/OT) Strategy; if it is (b) then having an identified “Task Force” as part of the IT/OT group would be sufficient to plug into the discussion on how/where wireless would be used as part of a specific project initiative.

Question:Are there industries that should be using more industrial wireless, but aren’t? Why?           

Cavanaugh: The process industries: Life sciences, food and beverage, and consumer packaged goods. Due to their heavy reliability on equipment, they can really start to build analytics based on the higher volume of real-time data.

Question: I’ve even seen industrial wireless used as an operator safety emergency stop for cranes and diesel locomotives and other applications. What’s next for industrial wireless?      

Cavanaugh: The evolution because of the volume of data collected would be closed-loop decision making to correct or adjust equipment without operator intervention. In addition, as less operator and worker involvement drives using machine learning and AI models, the integrity of that machine learning would be driven by models for compliance safety and quality. Machines need calibration, not motivation.

Fransen: With greater access to broadband, industrial wireless will go beyond traditional controls and data collection. Add connected operators and maintenance with augmented reality (AR) to support manufacturing processes.  Think about real-time access to data for trouble shooting, drawings, visualization of assembly processes.

Question: How do you recommend we advance our industrial wireless maturity level?

Cavanaugh: Understand your organization’s “real” maturity level- by that I mean take some of the learnings here to do a little more self-education so that you can ask deeper questions within your organization and identify where wireless may already be in use. There is no such thing as a “dumb question” but knowing what “smart questions” to ask will help you more quickly determine where there may be opportunities to advance the organization forward using wireless solutions. Depending on what you learn, you may reevaluate where you are on the maturity spectrum. Once you’ve assessed your current state, and also learned more about what is possible and how that might help the organization operationally and financially, you’ll be in a better position to propose your own use cases internally and determine if there is traction there to evolve.

Question: Any parting advice about the industrial wireless lifecycle?   

Cavanaugh: I think the advice would be that wireless lifecycle or end of life announcements aren’t necessarily as scary as they may have been several years back, because there are technologies being developed to bridge that gap and provide a middleware translation. There are solutions out there to bridge that gap so that you can put together a more tactical strategy to address aging technology over time.

Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors and wireless mesh network can notify maintenance there is a problem. Courtesy: Control Engineering webcast on “Exploring industrial wireless best practices.”

Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors and wireless mesh network can notify maintenance there is a problem. Courtesy: Control Engineering webcast on “Exploring industrial wireless best practices.”

Question: Are there vulnerabilities of cellular networks vs private?

Cavanaugh: Absolutely. Cybersecurity or wireless security is not a given, so there has to be a well thought out security strategy for wireless integration. That will be called out in the Corporate IT standards. That’s why there’s either a task force or strategy already developed. That strategy has to be maintained against current threats.

Question: Have you heard of applications using 5G and AI?

Cavanaugh: The adaptation of AI into the manufacturing space has been slow. I’ve seen it in other distributed industries like water/wastewater, where there are multiple locations.

Question: Please give some wireless system integration advice.

Cavanaugh: Define the problem you’re trying to solve with a tech solution. Truly ask if wireless is the answer, and how each either will or won’t play a role. Get studied up on what the options are. Be realistic about the in-house expertise to design and implement a solution. Before you do too much work, pitch the idea to an executive stakeholder. Create a diverse team, design a selection process, and work your plan. Throughout the process, be willing to pivot. Be open minded to consider alternatives. And invite IT to the table!

Question: What are key cybersecurity details concerning industrial wireless?  

Fransen: How will your solution manage protecting access to the network? Can you restrict access once on the network? Is the data moving across the network encrypted? Hiding the service set identifier (SSID) of your wireless network are a few considerations.

Question: Can you discuss possible uses of virtual private networks (VPNs) or similar technologies over carrier-based networks?        

Fransen: Wireless connected devices using VPN for connectivity to corporate domain is commonplace for employees using laptops and tablets. A similar strategy can be used to IoT devices if direct connection to corporate networks is required.

Question: Can Modbus be used wirelessly?

Cavanaugh: Sure, it can. There are many ways to do it. It depends on the application and the current infrastructure. This applies to TCP, RTU and cellular technology platforms.

Question: What are pros/cons of IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi grid vs. Zigbee mesh network?

Fransen: Zigbee is a short range, small data, low power solution, mesh network.  Each node can connect to the network directly or via another node (passthrough).  This is helpful in extending range and adding some reliability as nodes have multiple paths to connect to the network.  WIFI offers longer range, large amounts of data, much higher power consumption.

– Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media, mhoske@cfemedia.com.

KEYWORDS: Industrial wireless, system integration


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Author Bio: Mark Hoske has been Control Engineering editor/content manager since 1994 and in a leadership role since 1999, covering all major areas: control systems, networking and information systems, control equipment and energy, and system integration, everything that comprises or facilitates the control loop. He has been writing about technology since 1987, writing professionally since 1982, and has a Bachelor of Science in Journalism degree from UW-Madison.