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The Real Bluetooth Wireless Payoff

Is there any potential greater than manufacturing? Start planning for PDA connectivity.

Three years ago researcher Sandy Harper couldn't make a business case for investigating wireless Bluetooth control of aerospace vehicles. But now her employer, Parker Hannifin Corp., Cleveland, has bought her recommendations on what some consider almost as unlikely -- Bluetooth wireless connectivity for the factory floor. However, it might be unlikely only in terms of Bluetooth's birth as an easy data synchronization solution for portable electronics in the office. This wireless short range (30 feet or so) specification was invented by Stockholm-based L. M. Ericsson Telephone Co. As a phone company, it was natural for Ericsson to be enthusiastic about the benefits of synchronizing or uniting data across the proliferation of phones, pagers, personal digital assistants, and similar electronics. Simply by walking into an office -- no wire or cable connections needed -- PDA users would automatically receive e-mail and other data. But Harper's research suggests a bigger potential. "Bluetooth is going to become a short-range standard for connecting with devices anywhere in the enterprise -- and the factory floor may well represent a bigger potential than the office." In the plant, she sees usage in machine/device configuration, monitoring, slow control, and eventually real-time control. On the factory floor, another standard, IEEE 802.11b (also known as Wi-FI) offers wireless networking at a higher speed than Bluetooth, but without Bluetooth's size, cost and power advantages. Harper says the two networking standards, although similar, are not incompatible. Parker first demonstrated Bluetooth-enabled industrial products at the last Hannover Fair. Harper says Parker's first commercial implementation will be in the Compax3 motor controller from the company's Offenburg, Germany, Electromechanical Div. Potential customers are watching and planning. "Bluetooth for the factory floor is very definitely a future item, but it could hit very soon," says Bill Heaton, director of system integration, Information Systems and Services, General Motors Corp., Detroit. "Bluetooth is very well suited to enable battery-operated portable devices to efficiently communicate on the plant floor. It is very, very efficient compared with every other protocol that I know about." His advice: Formulate a wireless plant floor strategy to avoid inadvertent interference problems with IEEE 802.11b.

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