Process industries set the wireless pace

As consumers, wireless technology is now a part of our everyday lives. From the home to the high street, chances are you will be able to get a signal from somewhere – either cellular or a variant of the IEEE 802.11 standard. This ready adoption by consumers has not been matched by a commensurate eagerness in industry, especially in the process industry. However, with new standards and more robust hardware being developed all the time, the uptake is steadily growing.

 

As consumers, we take wireless data transfer for granted and, in much the same way, we take the odd blip in signal continuity with just as much nonchalance. To us, a small signal dropout or interruption is nothing; it means we get a slightly garbled call for a few seconds, or our movie or music buffers for a while longer. However, in an industrial environment, especially in the process industry, a minor dropout could very easily lead to something a lot more serious.

Process as an umbrella noun covers a multitude of industrial disciplines, which are further broken down by most of the leading automation vendors into more manageable vertical segments. However, no matter which vertical header you choose to deploy, the demands in terms of the process discipline from the industries underneath are remarkably similar, as are the perceived issues and pitfalls.

The pharmaceutical and food industries are some of the most heavily regulated process industries on the planet. Both have developed their own demanding internal batch management and machine design standards, which they readily pass on to suppliers. They are also fettered by immense amounts of local and international legislation, which dictate major parts of their operating parameters, ingredient usage and reportable process accuracy.

As part of the concept of the Connected Industry, the process industry deploys a number of advanced industrial networks to not only collect, collate and translate vast amounts of historical data for traceability and line-improvement procedures, but also to handle incredible amounts of real-time data traffic, which is used to help maintain optimum production yield and recipe accuracy.

These industrial networks at the line and enterprise level are normally based around industrialised variants of Ethernet. As a result, industry is also a major benefactor of newer Ethernet-based technology – such as wireless solutions – which are especially useful in large, remote or geographically dispersed installations where a traditional wired infrastructure many kilometres long could potentially be difficult to deploy and maintain.

But industry in general, and especially the process industry, has been much slower on the uptake of wireless, arguably because it presents more issues in terms of RF interference and related EMC issues, while also demanding much more in terms of signal quality, bandwidth, speed and robustness. A two second delay in handshaking between your home PC and a router is one thing, but the same delay in a process environment could corrupt an entire production line. For this reason, the process industry demands more capable hardware specifically designed to operate in critical manufacturing and process applications.

RS offers a wide range of wireless-capable products, covering multiple protocols from many leading vendors who are all regularly introducing new, more robust, industry-hardened technology designed to leverage the advantages, flexibility and ease of use from wireless infrastructures. Of particular importance are access points, which open up conventional automation and control networks to wireless capabilities. These access points, as well as IEEE 802.11 variants, also include cellular-capable technology, such as GSM & GPRS modules from Insys, which offer an RS232 bus interface and Ethernet I/O capabilities.

 

Honeywell is another company with an extensive wireless offering, including component level solutions such as limit switches and accessories such as antenna and receivers. Steute also offers a range of receiver modules and antennas as well as wireless repeater modules designed to extend network coverage.

Demonstrating the fact that much of this hardware is developed with industry in mind, Phoenix Contact offers a range of ruggedized solutions, including Wireless LAN Ethernet Port Adaptors, which have been specially designed for use in harsh industrial environments to allow simple and inexpensive integration of automation devices and PLCs to serial or Ethernet connection to a WLAN network.

Wireless is without a shadow of doubt a major milestone on the path towards complete data integration and the so-called Internet of Things (IoT), which we are going to hear a lot more about in the coming years. Arguably, the process industry is setting the standards for general industry and manufacturing in terms of what it demands from its solutions, with wireless infrastructures being treated judiciously. The leading automation and process vendors know this is a real opportunity and, being completely objective, a major revenue future stream, so it is well within their best interests to develop solutions that meet the most demanding needs. The sooner people put aside any misgivings based on their experiences of the stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap routers used at home, the better. Industrial solutions will always be more robust and are indeed starting to deliver the wireless capabilities needed for the protocol to gain a real foothold from which to expand.