Untangling Wireless Systems in Industrial Environments

Wireless offers a wealth of opportunities in moving and managing data across your enterprise. Getting your arms around this technology’s full potential is another thing.

From asset management and predictive maintenance to security and equipment assessments, companies are increasingly leveraging the benefi ts of wireless technologies and sensors to automate their controls, processes and costs.

According to a recent report from the ARC Advisory Group, the market for industrial wireless devices will exceed 150 million units and over $1 billion annually in just the next few years. These new systems bode well for manufacturers constantly striving to fi nd better ways to manage their operations. The benefi ts and business value are well documented. For example:

  • At a large chemical company on the Gulf Coast, a detailed “point solution” analysis of existing wireless systems was conducted to synchronize specifi c applications with overall business objectives. An overarching roadmap and system management control solution was engineered and put into place. Today, this chemical company has a fl exible and secure system that can accommodate new features while realizing immediate benefi ts, such as using sensors to monitor equipment deterioration in real-time for maintenance or replacement—rather than when it breaks and causes much more costly downtime.
  • At a major process manufacturing facility, asset management and monitoring of the condition of steam pipes was a high priority. Called “pre-emptive maintenance,” an integrated, facility-wide solution involving sensors was developed to determine precisely when these pipes and related assets needed attention. The same facility also is using high-speed wireless to enhance physical security with additional surveillance cameras around the perimeter and in security vehicles.
  • In another manufacturing environment, wireless networks are providing worker mobility for IT, process and maintenance applications, allowing engineers and technicians to perform their jobs in-fi eld where they actually do the work instead of waiting until they get back to their desks or consoles. These improvements in effi ciency are directly tied to increased worker productivity.

Wading through the bramble
The examples and benefi ts of wireless systems continue to proliferate throughout 0307_moving1the industrial arena, especially in process control environments. Innovative manufacturers have been discovering a wealth of new applications and benefi ts within plants and across their distributed enterprises. Convenience, low costs and real-time visibility are just some of the reasons behind the growing use of wireless systems, particularly in the oil and gas, power generation and chemical industries. End users, however, realizing the successes of these systems, now are being confronted with a new problem: How do you sort out and manage the growing tangle of disparate solutions that operate on different frequencies, confl icting standards and protocols for different applications?

Zigbee, Wi-Fi, Wi-Max, RFID, VoIP, Bluetooth, Mesh Networks—each is leveraged for specifi c applications. The bramble can be daunting, especially for industrial operations where ad hoc applications are deployed without the expertise of dedicated staff assigned to look at “the big picture.”

For example, some of the emerging challenges accompanying the growth of wireless systems include limited spectrum allocations for certain radio frequencies, a confusion of what standards to follow, interfering and confl icting frequencies, different wireless protocols, different processes and different gateways linking wireless and wired software communication systems.

The consequences of these challenges are especially acute when one department implements a wireless system from a particular vendor and another department does the same from a different vendor. While this evolves in various departments and company locations, a host of issues may arise, such as security vulnerabilities, increased interference in the gateway links, interruption of transmissions, availability problems, data loss and performance degradation. There also may be failures to deliver time-sensitive data when different wireless systems are competing for the same fi nite spectrum.

Maximizing the value of wireless
To maximize the full value of multiple wireless systems, companies today need an overarching, enterprise-wide platform to manage and optimize their multiple wireless systems. Instead of ad hoc implementations and “point solutions,” users need to take the “big picture” approach that analyzes specifi c best wireless applications, then tie them together on a common software platform that’s aligned with overall business objectives.

Think of this platform as a musical score that a symphony conductor follows to ensure that each note from each instrument is harmonized into the overall musical theme. Instead of a cacophony of noise, you get music with harmony and themes working together toward the same objective. How does this work in the real world of wireless technology and manufacturing?

The same general principles of wired network systems management also apply to wireless networks, but since the radio spectrum is fi nite and most wireless devices operate in unlicensed frequencies there are new and unique challenges. As with wired networks, it is essential now to apply enterpriselevel management practices for the operation of wireless networks. In order for these wireless systems to truly improve productivity, security and effi ciency while reducing costs, successful managers must, at least, address the following elements:

  • Manage and scale the system architecture.
  • Prioritize the business value at the enterprise level.
  • Integrate security measures and policies system-wide.

Manage and scale the system architecture…
Optimum execution of any enterprise-wide policy requires a communications architecture that can accommodate the technology of the best categorical network technologies and vendors, emerging standards and best wireless integration practices. The architecture must be based on a well-developed security model that includes functions such as authentication and role-based access control.


Eventually, your network management center should treat your wireless systems the same way it would any other network, by focusing on managing enterprise-wide communications—not the individual technology. Because there will never be a single wireless protocol and frequency, and therefore, because the appropriate technology must be matched with the right application, the best approach for system-wide growth is to have an integrated, yet fl exible, management strategy that can deliver immediate benefi ts. But, it also must be “future proofed” to adapt to business changes and technology developments.

Few companies have the resources to maintain the staff necessary to manage a complete wireless infrastructure, especially since demand for specialists with relevant skills is very high and supply is limited. As a result, outsourcing to one of the emerging specialist fi rms currently may be the most cost-effective strategy to maximize benefi ts and minimize risks.

Prioritize the business value at the enterprise level…
Like wired networks, wireless ones link and deliver data between different points. However, the potential for far more granular data and detailed measurements in areas such as “process variables” exist with wireless because these networks have the advantage of more cost-effective implementation and none of the cost of running wires between multiple points. As a result, it is possible to set up measures for virtually any point or process of the enterprise and receive this information in real time.

0307_moving3Each department undoubtedly can make a strong case for deploying wireless networks within its internal operations, but issues of scalability, security and investment protection make it imperative that these decisions be coordinated at the enterprise level, where priorities such as process controls, security or logistics needs can best be evaluated and executed.

For example, a company competing in a mature marketplace on a strategy of being the low-cost provider might deploy wireless vibration sensors that tell when any asset is not operating optimally—and see maintenance savings show up immediately in the bottom-line. In contrast, a company competing on fast, reliable delivery might fi nd that the added cost of an RFID product tracking system would improve its competitive position.

Implement security measures and policies system-wide…
Sloppy networking practices, rather than intentional malicious interference, are the greatest threats to wireless security. These can include seemingly innocuous practices such as not changing passwords according to policy, using obvious passwords such as initials, adding or deleting devices improperly and any number of other lapses. Interferences also can come from environmental or accidental RF noise, broken RF equipment, dynamic changes in the characterization of the RF site, and the range on non-compatible RF devices generally available. Prevention of these types of problems must be engineered into the network from its inception, and must be covered by an enterprise-aware security and performance management model.

Consider the following situation. One network user might be taking wireless process measurements from a temperature transmitter while another person in the same plant might be running a wireless video camera for perimeter security. A third person might be running an RFID inventory tracking application. Because these three users are in different departments and locations, doing different things on different protocols, each might think he/she is isolated. In reality, though, their radio waves are co-mingling, creating tremendous potential for performance problems and mismanagement. This also highlights some of the issues that arise when trying to consolidate all applications around a single wireless technology, rather than taking the systematic approach of creating a wireless infrastructure.

System-wide management policies must defi ne all methods for using, sharing and securing the available bandwidth. This has implications for planning, implementation, operations, maintenance and expansion. For these reasons, building an effective wireless infrastructure requires an open framework and engineered solution, but just the opposite seems to be happening today.