Process, Unplugged

An increased potential for savings is driving a growth market in wireless systems in the field of process manufacturing.

Analyst firm ARC Advisory Group forecasts the worldwide market for wireless in manufacturing will grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 26% over the next five years. "Besides savings in installation costs, wireless technology will drive the most fundamental improvement in process automation in decades," comments industry analyst Harry Forbes of ARC.

According to Ian McPherson, vice president for product at Apprion, some of the major factors that have driven wireless into the power and process facilities include:

  • The maturation of wireless technology as a whole, coupled with the availability of hardened instrumentation designed for the process sphere;
  • The increasing incorporation of IT-driven applications into plant operating environments to ease tasks as wide-ranging as engineering to maintenance to security;
  • The "big crew change" in oil and gas -- a retiring, and as yet unreplenished, workforce leaving gaps for technology to fill; and
  • Operational improvements and the advantage of having real-time data on plant functions.

As this wireless trend picks up steam in process manufacturing facilities, various hardware and software providers are taking different approaches to developing a plug-free partnership with their customers.

For instance, Honeywell recently rolled out a standards-based platform that is scalable to 30,000 devices and can stretch a wireless mesh across operations that span miles on a side. This OneWireless infrastructure is a management layer for deployments and isn't proprietary at the device level, meaning that any number of other manufacturers' products can be integrated into the overall data exchange framework for any number of purposes.

"Oil and gas and chemical companies are putting in wireless components in systems where they haven't been before," says Forbes. "There's no infrastructure for it, so Honeywell has basically productized that infrastructure to allow process manufacturers to incrementally deploy wireless products and tie it all together."

Cisco and Rockwell Automation also recently announced a customer-driven partnership to help manufacturing managers achieve real-time plant visibility while still maintaining wireless security. The joint network architecture is aimed toward meeting the goal of enabling wireless controls to operate on their own segment and yet still communicate with the rest of the enterprise, says Paul McNab, vice president of enterprise marketing for Cisco.

"Customers want linked reference architectures supporting both the office network environment and the factory floor," he says. "Both plant and IT managers need secure, real-time visibility between the production floor and enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management and supply chain management systems."

Companies such as Apprion and Emerson Process Management are looking to provide all-in-one, out-of-the-box device/controls solutions for process manufacturers. Other companies, such as Peak Technologies and Invensys, are aiming at the lucrative post-implementation device management market. Unlike Honeywell's vendor-agnostic approach, Invensys has aligned itself with a number of specific technology vendors that offer everything from sensor networks to communications to WiFi to RFID.

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