Wireless technology gains momentum

With just about every walk of life openly embracing the freedom offered by wireless technology, why does it seem that industry has lagged behind? We look at some of the perceived issues and how many of the leading suppliers are starting to address these and develop industry-specific software and hardware solutions.

One of the most important prospects for the industrial fieldbus arena is the incorporation and deployment of wireless infrastructures and capabilities into industrial products, equipment, processes and facilities. Speed and bandwidth improvements have made this approach inevitable, as industrial companies also attempt to leverage the same benefits they see from wireless solutions in other walks of life.

As Manufacturing 4.0 and the so-called “Internet of Things” philosophy begins to permeate into the mind-set of industry leaders, more and more suppliers are releasing wireless- and internet-capable equipment in order to leverage the wireless protocols that already exist for a number of established and proven communication solutions. Most of these solutions are simply wireless variants of their existing wired counterparts. They deliver the same functionality, but with the obvious benefit of significantly less cabling.

A wireless approach offers many benefits, especially in remote and geographically dispersed installations, where a traditional wired infrastructure would potentially be difficult to deploy and maintain. A good example would be in a liquid or gas storage facility, which would typically deploy multiple sensors to gather a wide variety of state data, such as level, temperature, volume, flow, etc. This data eventually needs to be fed back to a central repository, which could be kilometres from the furthest sensor. With wireless access points and repeaters, a single wireless network could easily replace many hundreds of kilometres of cabling.

Industry has been slower on the uptake of wireless, arguably because it demands more from its solutions in terms of signal quality, bandwidth, speed and robustness. With many of us experiencing domestic wireless issues, such as signal drop offs and less-than-ideal router performance, it is understandable that some of these misgivings have rubbed off and have made their way into the business sector. A two second delay in handshaking between your PC and a wireless office printer is one thing, but the same delay in a factory environment could stop a production line. For this reason, the industrial arena demands more capable hardware specifically designed to operate in critical manufacturing and process applications.

The other issue with wireless in a sensitive industrial environment is security, with wireless Ethernet being a big target. However, security solutions are often sold hand-in-hand with industrial wireless suites, allowing industrial wireless networks to be integrated with (but ring fenced from) enterprise solutions using gateways and buffer zones.

RS currently offers a range of wireless-capable products, covering multiple protocols from many leading vendors. These products range in size and complexity from wireless pushbuttons from Schneider Electric, up to wireless access points from Omron.

 

 

Figure 1: Harmony XB5R wireless, batteryless push buttons from Schneider Electric are easy to install and eliminate wires and cables

 

These leading vendors, and many others like them, are introducing new technology on a regular basis and much of it will leverage the flexibility and ease of use available from wireless infrastructures. Access points also open up wireless capabilities to just about any type of industrial hardware you care to mention, as long as it can ultimately ‘talk’ with the more popular communication protocols such as Ethernet.

The beauty of most standardised wireless solutions is that they tend to be ‘agnostic’ in the fact that certified products from any vendor should happily operate side by side with products from another vendor and deliver data over a common shared network. This lack of a closed approach means that users also have a much broader base of products to choose from, especially down at the lower levels. In most instances, an automation suite, whether it be wireless or not, will be designed in the same way, with higher-level components such as PLCs, drives, HMIs, etc. all coming from a single supplier, but the lower level (low voltage) components can be sourced from other suppliers. They don’t even have to be wireless themselves, as wireless I/O modules which offer wireless data/signal transfer to and from PLCs, are readily available.

Industrial wireless technology is only going to get better as products evolve in line with revised standards, enhanced technology, greater bandwidths and faster speeds. One only has to look at the way Ethernet has evolved over the last 40 years to see how a single, basic protocol has mutated into to the most widespread commercial and industrial communications solution on the planet. It may be that in the next 10 years wireless will overtake wired solutions and become the industry standard. With investigations gathering speed into, among other things, wireless energy transfer, the future certainly looks interesting.