Behind wireless technology and industrial automation systems

Wireless technology and automation has attracted an equal share of both interest and scepticism within the industrial control systems industry.

Despite easier installation and associated cost reductions, issues of reliability and security have persisted around the technology’s use; in its simplest form, industrial wireless technology needs to be robust, reliable, cost-effective and completely secure.

Due in part to security concerns, the adoption of wireless networks has been gradual. The threat of cyber attacks, coupled with open enterprise wireless architectures, have had the biggest impact on electronic security fears.

As a result, businesses are most concerned with protecting their vital assets, including operational processes, network architectures and business applications.

Immediate savings and the ability to control and evaluate critical processes are some of the key benefits to wireless technology and automation.

However, the technology also extends beyond data acquisition and process control; it adds increased value by providing effective solutions for workforce mobility, equipment monitoring, physical and cyber security, and personnel safety.

One of the greatest benefits of industrial automation is that of human and equipment safety. Industrial wireless applications incorporate a host of safety monitoring and equipment health optimisation tasks, which can monitor situations ranging from tank overfill to pipeline corrosion.

Wireless monitors can also detect vapours, fire, activation of safety showers and other events, as well as track the location of assets and workers in real-time, allowing personnel to prevent and respond more rapidly to incidents of threat to the business and its employees.

Typical wireless applications include:
o Risk reduction
o Equipment health monitoring
o Incident tracking and positioning
o Digital video surveillance
o Mobile visualisation
o Voice-over-IP systems
o First responder notification
o Eyewash and safety shower stations

For security purposes, it’s important to understand the difference between the requirements of a company’s corporate network and those of the control network. These then need to be managed and operated separately to ensure information is not transmitted between the two.

Products offering the most sophisticated levels of encryption will ensure that all applications operating off the control network are protected from human error, equipment malfunction and/or deliberate cyber hacks.

The back-end functioning of these products lies in the development of sophisticated algorithms to ultimately maximise performance.

Through innovations such as a mesh network system, these algorithms minimise latency in the system, meet speed requirements and maximise battery life to ensure operational longevity and performance.

A range of challenges exist for process engineers and operations management in managing industrial automation systems. In addition to cyber security, Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) challenges are an increasing concern.

Together, these issues have the potential to create heavy financial losses, as well as impact the operating company’s corporate image and brand.

Therein lies the challenge of trying to balance maximising resource and equipment capacity utilisation and ensuring that operations are always operated at the highest safety levels.

To add to the complexity, there are diverse sets of standards that apply to the many layers of the process safety ecosystem.

Relevant industry standards include EN54, NFPA 72, ISA 84, IEC 61508 and 61511. Together with common HSE challenges, companies need to assess their operation requirements to ensure that plants are both safe and cost effective to operate.

When it comes to installation and maintenance, wireless technology typically costs as much as 50 percent less than the wired alternative.

However, not all operations are best placed to support and/or use a wireless platform. In this way, a thorough analysis of operation needs and equipment, as well as the environment in which the operations are taking place, will ensure the right technology is applied to overcome common HSE challenges.

The development of the right network infrastructure should not only offer solutions that replace wired transmitters but also provides a comprehensive plant-wide solution. These solutions help support a broad range of applications in the plant that together can help solve problems of safety, reliability and efficiency.

These wireless networks should be developed to not only replace field instrumentation, but also take into consideration the functionality and lifecycle of applications using the wireless system.

This is to ensure the company can realise the full value and return on the equipment. Simply put, you’re looking at year-on-year ROI as opposed to one-time savings.

For example, during start-up, commissioning or calibration of an instrument, an operator working in the field might have traditionally communicated via walkie-talkie with another operator working off-site in the control centre.

Using a single device, that control operation can effectively be managed by the one person out in the field, immediately removing once given overheads.

Wireless technology and industrial automation systems have indeed transformed the way the industry operates. The technology has proven it can deliver, both in terms of security as well as providing solutions that match or exceed those of the wired alternative.

As more and more plants start implementing wireless technology, it is vital to be aware of how the system, and the way in which it is maintained and operated, is able to protect valuable intellectual property, an organisation’s bottom line and, importantly, its people.

[Ray Rogowski is Director Global Marketing, Wireless Business, Honeywell Process Solutions.]