Process Instrumentation: Has wireless instrumentation delivered?

Five years ago as wireless process instrumentation broke onto the scene in a big way, the promise of major deployments seemed just around the corner. Has that dream been realized?

By Peter Welander October 1, 2012

In August 2007, Control Engineering published an article, “Three Approaches to Process Plant Wireless,” which examined the strategy and topology of three companies or partnerships working to establish a presence for wireless in process manufacturing contexts. The underlying assumption was that wireless instrumentation would be the main driver and their strategies would be built around fulfilling that.

Wireless process instruments existed long before 2007, mostly in the form of single point-to-point devices or small networks, but at that time more sophisticated systems were going to market and the concept of creating large-scale networks was becoming more practical. New standards were being built that gave the promise of interoperability, and a growing number of vendors were poised to get on board.

So what’s happened since then? Wireless deployments in process manufacturing have indeed taken off, but other use cases have proven to be stronger drivers than instrumentation. There are many uses for wireless in a process context that were considered earlier, but have since grown in practicality. Enabling mobile operators, video, employee location, remote monitoring, and the like all combine to justify wireless deployments in addition to instrumentation.

“Over the past three years, we’ve seen an increased interest in adoption of wireless-enabled reporting and visibility and analysis tools,” says Maryanne Steidinger, director of advanced applications product marketing for Invensys Operations Management. “Platforms can take information from an MES or DCS historian database and present it in an interactive format on a mobile device. Three or four years ago, you didn’t see those applications in place, but the cost of the device itself is going down and the ubiquity of people having smart devices has increased.”

If we return to the three companies or partnerships covered in the 2007 discussion, the directions have evolved.

A growing scope

In 2007, Emerson’s Smart Wireless platform was growing, and it was all about instrumentation. That is still the main element, but as the article predicted, the company has spread into larger-scale systems. “Most of the things that we do tend to be around instrumentation” said Bob Karschnia, vice president of wireless for Emerson Process Management. “The reason why is that at the end of the day, you’re trying to touch the process, so you end up with instrumentation to do that. Most people start out with, ‘I’ve got a small problem that I’m trying to fix.’ Usually those involve maybe 20 instruments and they’re trying to measure something that they’re not doing today. So they start out with something small like that, and then they grow it over time. Others start out with a grander vision, and say, ‘I’m going to put wireless over my whole plant,’ and let it fill in underneath.”

The original wireless instrumentation devices introduced in 2006 as part of the initial Smart Wireless program were made obsolete as Emerson turned its commitment to WirelessHART. Conceptually, WirelessHART was much like Emerson’s original approach, but HART wanted to push the platform farther. Emerson had to make the change but felt in the long run it was the right decision. “We had about a year and a half of run time on the first generation before the standard came out,” Karschnia adds. “The WirelessHART stuff started coming out in 2008. Prior to that we had a small installed base, but many of those customers didn’t change over because the equipment was working. As they expanded, they used WirelessHART instruments.”

While Emerson started with instrumentation, the company did not stay there. In 2007 it was already forming partnerships with other wireless infrastructure providers such as Cisco. Karschnia concludes, “WirelessHART is a subset of all we provide to our customers in terms of wireless content. We use it for instrumentation, but we use 802.11 or Wi-Fi for backhaul, mobile operators, communications, video cameras, asset tracking, and things like that. We wrap that all together as Smart Wireless.”

Expanding with the standards

Since the beginning, Honeywell has seen wireless as a capability that goes well beyond instrumentation. It is continuing to follow essentially the same strategy it had in 2007 of integrating all the wireless elements into a larger Wi-Fi infrastructure, although the range of possibilities has grown hugely over the last several years. Early on it aligned with ISA100, even as that standard was still in formation. Like Emerson, Honeywell’s first generation instrumentation devices sold under OneWireless were supplanted by ISA100.11a, but early adopters had the ability to upgrade or simply continue operating. Honeywell is continuing to build its catalog of wireless instrumentation devices along with hardware for wireless networking infrastructure.

“The reality is that wireless isn’t so much about an instrumentation and measurement capability,” says Ray Rogowski, wireless global marketing director. “You need them, but wireless is about the applications that can ride on that infrastructure: the ability to improve the performance of your plant, your worker efficiency, and mobile workforce solutions. If you look down the road, imagine the maintenance guys accessing drawings in the field; they can locate devices and auto-recognize them. It’s about all the applications on the wireless network that you can’t do any other way. The vision is more actionable decision-making applications for customers. They can run their plants better, be more efficient, and safer.”

Diederik Mols, wireless global market development leader for Honeywell, says that is really only the beginning and new applications are limited only by imagination. Such capabilities will continue to grow in importance as companies come to grips with changing worker demographics. “Having access to a wireless field advisor system is going to make new operators much more effective,” he predicts. “It is an expert system that contains expertise from all the operators and engineers that is going to be provided to new operators when they’re on the job. If you’re out in the field and you see a leak in a valve, you can click on your device and understand what medium it is and get advice from the system on what to do and what not to do to avoid a hazardous situation. It can also generate an alarm in the control room that there is a leak at that particular valve. That is going to help reduce process safety incidents in these ever-more-complex environments.”

Mols adds that in situations where these systems have been deployed, the amount of downtime and number of safety incidents have fallen dramatically.

Pursuing separate goals

While Apprion and Invensys were trying to form a partnership in 2007, the two companies eventually went their separate ways.

Apprion has continued its strategy of providing large-scale wireless infrastructure that can support any needs in a plant environment. “Our story hasn’t changed—we’re still doing the same thing, it’s just that we’ve expanded,” says Sarah Prinster, vice president of marketing for Apprion. “We had a handful of applications five years ago; we have a ton of applications now. We are continuing to expand our application set, and it’s so easy to do when you have a straightforward system. Once an infrastructure is in place, when you add in cameras, additional sensors, or RFID tags, you can plug them in really easily.”

Apprion also helps manage wireless networks as a service, but Prinster recalls that customers didn’t embrace this aspect of their offering immediately. “Five years ago, we had this managed services model, but customers wanted to manage their own networks,” she says. “Now with gaps in expertise and smaller workforces at the facilities, we put everything in, and they’re more than happy to hand it over to us to manage.”

Invensys has continued its wireless program, but spends more of its effort developing software applications than deploying hardware. As of this date, it has not created any wireless instrumentation nor does there seem to be any in the development pipeline. “The lower cost of connection is what is driving the instrumentation business as it is today,” says Hesh Kagan, senior consultant, new initiatives portfolio for Invensys Operations Management. “But in and of itself, that’s only been one part of the activity around wireless. Operator mobility and other things related to gathering information from a business perspective are the things exciting the most people today.”

So what about instrumentation?

While other aspects of wireless are attracting users, instrumentation is still an important element of the discussion. The most relevant question may be, does it work?

The answer is yes, with the qualification, “if you use it appropriately.” In most circumstances, users and even the people who designed the instrumentation find that it works more easily than they ever expected. Wally Pratt, chief engineer for the HART Communication Foundation, reports, “Based on qualitative information I’m getting from the field, this WirelessHART network stuff works better than we ever expected it would. You put it in and it just works. That’s been pretty gratifying, quite frankly.”

That’s good to know, but it leaves one trying to imagine what problems those designers were expecting to see. Pratt elaborates, “The RF space, especially these unlicensed ISM bands, is pretty chaotic. You’ve got various flavors of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and all kinds of other radios, so there are a lot of different potential signal sources in there. We were concerned that the environment would be so noise polluted that we’d have a lot more retries resulting in degraded reliability.”

Karschnia says that Emerson expected customers would have a harder time establishing wireless networks. “Our starter kit included a feature we called Smart Start, where we’d bring out a service technician to help the customer start it up, especially the first time,” he says. “What we found out, in about three-quarters of the instances, was that by the time the technicians got to the site, the customers had already started it up on their own.”

The qualification as to appropriate use is still relevant. Wireless devices have different operational characteristics that can be drawbacks in applications, particularly when using them to control a process. As long as the engineers designing the networks keep these in mind, those constraints can be mitigated if not eliminated entirely.

Converging standards?

In 2007, both HART and ISA were developing their standards. Those are now complete and operating in parallel. WirelessHART is designed as an instrumentation standard whereas ISA100 is much broader with its instrumentation element as only one part.

Both standards are designed to support scalability, low energy consumption, ability to work in legacy environments, security, and ability to function fully in environments where devices must coexist with our wireless devices and networks.

WirelessHART is designed to be simple and straightforward. Operationally, users should find that it works the same as its wired counterpart. If you use and like HART for wired devices, you will like it for wireless. At this point there are no plans to expand the standard to encompass broader wireless networks. “I don’t think the HART Foundation needs to develop any high-level protocol for Wi-Fi or high-level network,” says Ron Helson, executive director of the HART Communication Foundation.

At the same time, the organization has standardized on capabilities to send HART messages via the Internet, called HART IP. “The exact role that it’s going to play in this space or where it’s going to go is still to be determined,” says Helson. “Our initial objective for that was to enable an Internet protocol-based interface for WirelessHART gateway connections to higher level applications and remote I/O system connections to a DCS and other applications.”

ISA, on the other hand, has been clear that it is working to create a much broader standard that can help with overall plant integration. ISA100.11a is an important part of that, but it is just a part. Andre Ristaino, managing director of the ISA100 Compliance Institute, explains, “Wireless communication is not relegated only to industrial field devices, like pressure, temperature, etc. For users, they have a much larger wireless concern to address and it is about using all types of wireless within a plant. Users will have wireless from mobility devices, video, asset tracking, etc., and they desire a cohesive view and method to manage and work with these wireless networks. Users, experts, and vendors recognized this, and that is why ISA100 was formed to address a ‘family of standards.’ ISA100 has current activity in backhaul (WG15), common network management (WG20), power management (WG18), convergence (WG12), and asset and people tracking (WG21).”

At present, the list of registered wireless devices from either standard organization is pretty short. Suppliers of native wireless process instruments can be counted on one hand. Both organizations are tight-lipped about what is in the development and approval pipeline, but both promise that the catalog of wireless devices will grow in the near future. Individual instrumentation suppliers are pursuing different strategies, but many new products are in the works.

Converging paths

Given the evolution over the last five years, it is getting more difficult to see differences in the individual companies’ strategies. Wireless is clearly much bigger than just instrumentation, and all the players in this space are looking for ways to grow with the technology.

Peter Welander is a content manager for Control Engineering. Reach him at 

Key concepts

  • Wireless deployments are growing, but what technologies do users find the most compelling?
  • The value proposition for wireless in process applications has evolved over the last five years.
  • Wireless instrumentation is still important, but it is not the main driver for technology adoption.

Find more about wireless instrumentation standards:

Visit the companies mentioned in the article:

Read more about wireless applications at :

The dark side of mobility, July 2012
Outstanding industrial wireless, June 2012
Mobile industrial worker, March 2012

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