Q&A: A World Without Wires

Sept. 26, 2010

Trends in Wireless Automation for Fluid Handlers

Steve Toteda

Steve Toteda is vice president of marketing for Dust Networks and president of the Wireless Industrial Networking Alliance (WINA, www.wina.org). Mr. Toteda has more than 20 years of marketing and technical experience in the wireless and wireline communications equipment and semiconductor industries. Prior to joining Dust Networks, Mr. Toteda served as group manager for the IP Communications Terminals product group at Cisco Systems. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from Lehigh University, as well as an MBA from Columbia Business School. Mr. Toteda can be reached at [email protected] or 510 400-2925.

Q: How has wireless automation technology evolved over the past five years? How is the wireless automation technology of today better than previous iterations of wireless automation?

A: If we look back over the past five years, there was a healthy skepticism when it came to looking at a new generation of wireless sensors. But despite the memories of projects that failed to live up to expectations, and what was described by one end-user as a “big graveyard” of failed wireless equipment, the tremendous promise of wireless sensing compelled end-users to try these new standards-based products.

Today, standards have truly taken hold. Vendors are already shipping products, and the results in real-world fluid handling applications have people excited that the promise of wireless is now being realized.

Q: For what sort of fluid handling applications is wireless automation currently providing the most end-user benefit?

Schematic of wireless sensor technology used for a refinery application, with sensors monitoring critical process variables, as well as tank farm levels.

A: Numerous examples exist across a range of fluid handling applications.Wireless sensors have been deployed at onshore and offshore petroleum producing fields across the globe.A specific example comes to mind where a leading producer instrumented the wellheads in a remote region. They were able to cost effectively monitor pumps and other critical components across large sections of the producing property, with clusters of instruments every few hundred feet.

We’ve seen one end-user wirelessly enable rail tanker cars rolling into its stockyard. By setting up a wireless monitoring network, temperatures are being monitored in tanker cars across the entire yard without leaving the building.In that case, the company even improved worker safety by eliminating the need to climb up a tanker car to take a reading every few hours.

Other examples include control of critical fluid pressure and flow in the de-scaling process of an 80-inch strip steel mill. In that example, they couldn’t even use a wired system due to the intense heat and slag coming off the strip steel during the process. Once installed, the resulting improvement in sheet quality paid for the system in months.

Q: Over the past few years, there has been a lot of work done in the area ofstandardization for wireless automation, such as WirelessHART and ISA100.What role do you see the standards movement playing in the future ofwireless automation strategy?

A: Dust Networks has been involved in the standards process from the very beginning, and our mesh technology is the foundational building block of WirelessHART. With WirelessHART’s ratification in 2007, you’ve seen an entire eco-system emerge to offer a wide range of devices and solutions. Without standards, the industry would be left with the proprietary point products that preceded WirelessHART. ISA100 is taking a much broader scope, and will attempt to bring a family of standards to the industry. I would expect their first standard, ISA100.11a, to be ratified by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI, www.ansi.org) sometime later this year.

Q:While WirelessHART is specifically tailored as an extension of the HARTCommunication Foundation¹s HART Protocol, and ISA100 aims to provide a suiteof discrete standards for various aspects of wireless automation, whatpotential do you see for overlap between these two standards efforts? Do youbelieve both standards can co-exist going forward?

A: A comparison of both the ISA100 draft and the WirelessHART specification would lead most engineers to conclude that the core technology is, to a large degree, overlapping.

With WirelessHART, it’s become very clear that one of the most powerful benefits is the fact that end-users can extend the investments they already made in industry standard control and monitoring infrastructure to achieve much more with these new standards-based wireless devices.

As a company, Dust Networks made fundamental technical contributions during the formative stage of the ISA100 specification, and we continue in that spirit.However, we firmly believe that the ISA committee charged with drafting the standard should, at a minimum, ensure that the ISA100 standard that emerges should at least be technically capable of interworking with WirelessHART.We know that this is what end-users want, and frankly, this would be good for the industry.

Q: Are there any other wireless automation-related standards and/or
organizations that end-users should be keeping an eye on?

A: The automation industry is benefiting from the industry wide convergence we’re seeing with the WirelessHART standard. So, it’s not so much an issue of new standards on the horizon. But there are organizations that are working to support end-users with the kind of valuable information that can help guide wireless implementation. I serve on the board of the Wireless Industrial Networking Alliance, or WINA, and the member companies have all contributed application notes and case studies across a wide range of industries, which are posted at www.wina.org. WINA is also focused on end user education, with monthly webinars and an upcoming Wireless Technology Tour at this year’s ISA Expo in Houston.

Q:What are some common application considerations end-users in the fluidhandling segment should be making when employing wireless automationtechnology?

A: As end-users employ wireless automation technology, it’s important to recognize that the greatest benefits will accrue when a variety of sensors work together.Sensors can be installed throughout the plant on a broad range of devices, including assets like critical rotating equipment. Users often start with a few pressure transmitters, add temperature transmitters, and then add a vibration transmitter. As new sensor types become available, they can continue to easily grow their network.With this approach, wireless technology can help the fluid handling industry use energy more efficiently, lower systems and infrastructure costs, and increase productivity. The new standards-based wireless technology can also supercharge predictive maintenance and overall predictive equipment health capabilities by lowering costs and increasing data collection.

Q:What are some common pitfalls fluid handling end-users should be aware ofwhen employing wireless automation technology? Is there a typical faux pas yousee end-users making when employing wireless automation solutions?

A: The harsh environments created by the use of concrete, glass and steel in typical plants are often quite hostile to RF (radio frequency) signals. Even the complex piping of typical production facilities exacerbates the traditional RF issues of path loss, fading and multipath. This makes the choice of wireless technology critical.For wireless applications in the industrial market, it’s critical to install a mesh network. In these types of networks, the field devices themselves create the redundant, fault-tolerant wireless network of connections between the other sensors. The data is securely carried to a gateway, which is connected directly to the main monitoring and control system. These redundant communication paths deliver superior reliability compared to solutions that require direct, line-of-sight communication between each device and its gateway.

Q: Looking ahead over the next 5-10 years, how do you see wireless
automation technology evolving going forward? How will the wireless
automation solutions of tomorrow be better than the current generation of technologies?

A: There are three primary vectors of improvement I would expect to see in wireless automation technology.

1. Power consumption, or rather the lack of it. Today’s devices are already much better at extended battery life operation, often running for 5-7 years before a new battery is needed.I would expect to see the power consumption of a typical device fall by more than half. Of course, battery lifetimes would double if the same conditions are used in terms of reporting rates.But we don’t see end-users necessarily needing 10-15 years of battery life, rather they want to double the sensor report rate.In other cases they’d like to see sensor made small enough to fit in a specific part of a machine, like the bearing of a large pump.

2. Ease of use. Prior generations of technology required costly site surveys and constant attention to the system to reposition antennas or hunt down interference, and this severely limited deployment. Today’s technology is already designed to be easy to deploy and simple to use. There’s no need for site surveys and the devices themselves dynamically adjust to their environment to optimize performance. But several years of deployments will further refine these solutions to the point where the concept of "peel and stick" for a sensor becomes a reality.

3. Scale of deployment. Today, thousands of wireless mesh networks are deployed in over a hundred countries. But each network typically ranges in size from a few hundred nodes to thousands of nodes, and in some cases tens of thousands. However, looking forward five to 10 years will bring far larger scale deployments of industrial wireless systems. I would expect to see individual networks deployed that scale to hundreds of thousands, and potentially even a million nodes.

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