While process manufacturers have leveraged automation for decades, the time has come to advance to the next level of technological progress. Traditional automation has largely run its course, and a new generation of industrial wireless solutions is now helping industry to become more efficient while complying with a rising tide of regulatory pressures.
A multitude of significant market forces is stimulating rapid deployment of industrial wireless applications in process and control industries such as energy, oil and gas, and chemicals. Industrial leaders in these sectors are rapidly deploying wireless solutions to enhance the automation and integration of manufacturing processes, controls, security, and information.
Skeptics of new industrial wireless solutions are not paying attention to the trends. Today, the industrial automation market is over $100 billion worldwide. Automation for the process manufacturing industry, where wireless solutions have the greatest potential, is an impressive $58 billion market. Yet in 2005, the industrial wireless market amounted to just $325 million. This clearly is an emerging market that’s far from its potential.
Growth estimates vary, but most expect the industrial wireless market will soar several times over during the next few years, with some expecting it to reach $3.3 billion by 2010.
Companies such as Shell, Chevron, Dow Chemical, and Pacific Gas & Electric are adopting these new technologies to gain competitive advantages and to further drive process efficiencies, enable predictive maintenance of essential equipment, implement better controls on the tracking and utilization of raw materials and assets, and deploy effective emergency response and physical security systems.
A new generation of wireless systems – and especially network platforms – present end users with ways to improve operational efficiencies and security measures while reducing labor costs and expensive incidents.
For example, new wireless systems improve real-time tracking of assets, detecting when steam valves are about to overheat, instantly alerting operators of emergencies or identifying a pump or valve that’s about to fail before it’s too late – avoiding costly unplanned system downtime.
Process manufacturers in particular also confront a rising tide of pressures beyond their control. These range from increased energy and material costs to increasingly-stringent regulatory activities that improve both financial and operational accountability. We can thank the Enron/WorldCom fiascos for laws such as Sarbanes-Oxley, and we all know about the proliferation of post-9/11 security regulations. These developments have forced industrial manufacturers to seek new and better ways to cost-effectively comply with greater, more-costly government regulation.
Industrial wireless solutions help address these various developments. However, the rapid proliferation of wireless solutions also is creating new challenges in managing them. Zigbee, Wi-Fi, Wi-Max, RFID, VoIP, UWB, Bluetooth, Mesh Networks – each is leveraged for specific applications. The bramble can be daunting, especially for industrial manufacturing where ad-hoc applications are deployed without the expertise of dedicated staff assigned to look at “the big picture.”
Some of the emerging challenges accompanying the growth of wireless systems among manufacturers include limited spectrum allocations for certain radio frequencies (RF) – many of which interfere with one another; confusion in regard to which RF standards the company should adhere to; coupled with a smorgasbord of wireless protocols, processes and gateways linking wireless and wired software communication systems.
The same general principles of wired network systems management also apply to wireless networks, but since the radio spectrum is finite and most wireless devices operate in unlicensed frequencies, there are new and unique challenges ahead for wireless in an industrial setting. As with wired networks, it is essential now to apply enterprise-level management practices for the operation of wireless networks.
The massive industrial wireless challenges will require the best technologists from the wireless industry and skilled business development teams with first-hand experience. By seamlessly integrating and optimizing all this information, industrial users can gain better and more transparent information to help them make better decisions, resulting in improved performance.