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Sensing Change In Wireless

Sensing Change In Wireless

Sensor technology is expected to drive wireless growth.

Hidden within process equipment is a volatile environment where materials undergo a transformation that's dependent upon several variables. Manufacturers have been able to monitor such conditions with sensors but typically without the mobility of a wireless-enabled system. Analysts expect that will change in the next several years thanks to improvements being made to wireless sensor technology.

In fact, analyst firm ARC Advisory Group projects wireless sensor technology will be the fastest-growing segment of the wireless market in the next five years, according to Harry Forbes, senior analyst. "Right now the sensor part is very much the smallest part of what the [wireless] market is, but we consider it to be the fastest-growing," he says. Overall, the wireless market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 26% over the next five years, according to an ARC study.

To date, most wireless sensor applications have been part of pilot programs, such as the one conducted by petroleum company BP PLC in conjunction with semiconductor giant Intel Corp. Between 2004 and 2005 BP received several awards from trade publications for its deployment of a wireless sensor network on a crude oil tanker off the coast of Ireland. The company is not publicizing the results of the program until later in 2007 for "commercial reasons," says Ken Douglas, BP's technology director. But, according to Intel, the sensors weathered extreme temperatures, heavy vibration and some radio frequency noise to relay vibration data. Prior to the pilot, BP collected vibration data with labor-intensive manual methods and tools, Intel reports. BP also has used wireless sensors to track its railroad tanker cars.

BP deployed wireless sensors on its Loch Rannoch tanker to collect vibration data.
In other applications, wireless sensors are helping to monitor semiconductor equipment, says Robert Parker, vice president of research for analyst firm Manufacturing Insights, an IDC company. He believes wireless sensors may change the way manufacturers collect plant data. "Once you start to open up wide-area wireless networking, you start to open up possibilities for remote monitoring of plants," Parker says.

But with the transmission of wireless data over such wide networks comes security concerns. "I'm from Missouri and you have to 'show me' and I'm sure we will . . . but the stakes are so high that we need to show ourselves before we run too fast," says Tom Artz, CIO of Chevron Corp.'s global refining operations. Artz was a panelist at ARC's Collaborative Manufacturing Strategies Forum in Orlando, Fla., in February.

But other forum panelists who supply wireless technology say most security risks have been minimized through encryption and other means. "These problems are already for the most part solved, and whatever we haven't solved as a collective industry we will," says John Berra, president of Emerson Process Management, a process automation and wireless technology developer. "The benefits of wireless are too compelling to not go forward with this kind of technology."

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