In-plant wireless joins the mainstream

01 November 2006

Europe will have to wait until January but Emerson has launched its Smart Wireless technology in the US despite the absence of agreement in the relevant standards committees, writes Andrew Bond

Emerson's Smart Wireless solutions address the entire ISA SP 100 model
Emerson's Smart Wireless solutions address the entire ISA SP 100 model

A month is a long time in the process control world, as Harold Wilson might have said, had he worked for Emerson Process Management. Last month we were discussing how failure to reach agreement in the various standards committees was threatening to set back the adoption of wireless technology in the process industries by years and, specifically, the introduction of standards compliant wireless products until 2007 at the earliest and, more likely, 2008. This month, however, comes news that Emerson has in effect jumped the gun and taken the occasion of its Global Exchange user conference in Nashville to launch the first of what will be an entire family of wireless products and, at the same time, to declare itself to be offering the “First In-Plant Wireless for Mainstream Use.”

It is, of course, just 12 months since last year’s user conference in Orlando when Emerson surprised not just its competitors but many of its own people by taking the wraps off its wireless prototypes. One result was to demonstrate just how much demand there would be for the products, once they became available. Not only were delegates queuing in the corridors to get into the sessions, which had to be repeated a number of times, but Emerson’s own people had to be ejected to make room for potential customers.

By all accounts things were rather more ordered at this year’s event as Emerson confirmed that it is basing what it is now calling “Smart Wireless” on IEEE 802.125.4 self-healing mesh network technology. This, it argues, is the key to using wireless in the “steel canyons” of a traditional process plant, providing multiple paths through which signals can find their way from source to destination. Arguably the most satisfying aspect of the technology is that its reliability improves as the number of nodes increases so that Emerson can claim that over three years of site trials with selected end users, principally in the refining and petrochemical industry, it has achieved a proven reliability of delivery of data of better than 99.9%. Moreover, it’s claiming that its technology can be deployed without the need for an initial site survey - you pretty much put it in and it works, so they claim.

One of the most prominent of the end users whose plants were used for those extended trials was BP which was able to confirm not just that the technology works and works reliably but that it can give rise to reductions in installation costs of typically 90%. Put another way, that means that the $10,000 it typically costs to install a conventional $1000 transmitter is cut to just $1000. “We’ve found that this wireless technology enabled us to do things we simply could not do before, either because of cost or physical wiring obstacles,” said David Lafferty, senior technology consultant in Digital & Communications Technology with BP’s Chief Technology Office. “Emerson’s wireless approach is flexible, easy to use, reliable and makes a step change reduction in installed costs.”

Because they ‘talk’ to the wireless network in HART, the new wireless devices look almost identical to conventional HART devices. As a result potential user reservations about introducing the new technology are expected to be substantially reduced, if not completely allayed, by the fact that the devices not only look but actually are almost identical to those with they are already familiar. However, if this all sounds too good to be true, it’s because there is still a very substantial fly in the ointment. As we noted last month, the target date for an agreement on Wireless HART has slipped to February 2007, while the ISA SP 100 committee isn’t expected to deliver before summer 2008.

It’s against that background that Emerson has decided that its users should not have to wait any longer and is backing the latest introductions with an undertaking, signed by both Emerson Process Management president John Berra and Rosemount Measurement president Steve Sonnenberg, that “Emerson will protect your wireless investment by providing a guaranteed upgrade path to the future industry standard.”

Emerson’s initial in-plant Smart Wireless solutions include pressure and temperature transmitters, with other parameters and devices said to be following shortly; a 1420 Wireless Gateway; OPC, Ethernet and Modbus integration with host systems, with native wireless interfaces for the DeltaV and Ovation DCSs also following shortly; and a direct wireless interface for the AMS Device Manager asset management application. Also coming shortly is the means to integrate what it calls the “Stranded Diagnostics” of the 20 million or so HART devices it estimates are currently installed in plants which don’t support a digital architecture and which weren’t necessary supplied by Emerson.

One of the problems facing Emerson is how to persuade potential users to try out the new technology on their own plants. If you’re using some form of point to point or star topology, you can of course dip your toe into the wireless water with a single device. However, you can’t have a mesh of one so Emerson is hoping to persuade wireless virgins to take the plunge by shelling out a minimum of $15,000 on a ‘Wireless SmartPack Starter Kit’. That consists of the 1420 Wireless Gateway, a 25-tag license for AMS Device Manager and anything from five to 100 Rosemount temperature, pressure, level or flow devices. The deal also includes ‘SmartStart’ installation services under which Emerson’s own experts will help with first startup, providing a full network health assessment to ensure robust communications and verifying device functionality through the chosen output. “Historically, customers must commit significant resources for engineering, design, configuration and startup when trying new technologies,” said John Berra. “. . . Wireless SmartPack gives mainstream customers an out-of-the-box network which they can apply anywhere, anytime with very little engineering time required. It’s easy, and it works straight out of the box.”

One of Emerson’s major objectives at the launch was to convince potential users that, in contrast to what it believes is the position of some of its major competitors, this isn’t ‘vaporware’ and that you can go out and buy – or at least order – it tomorrow. It’s also keen to establish its own wireless credentials, and those of its chosen technology. It had, it says, conducted extensive lab and customer trials not just of the Mesh TSMP (Time Synchronized Mesh Protocol) technology it has adopted but also of the Cluster Tree CSMA (Carrier Sense Multiple Access) technology which some of its competitors are said to be using, before making its final choice. It also points out that it is already a wireless leader with, according to an ARC Advisory Group survey, a 19.9% share of the wireless market.

Partly for marketing reasons, and partly because the version launched in the US, which operates at 900MHz and would interfere with, among other things, mobile phone transmissions elsewhere in the world, was developed ahead of the 2.4GHz version, Smart Wireless will not be launched in Europe until January 2007. In the meantime, however, potential users can brush up their knowledge of wireless technology with a series of twenty-five 15-minute courses which Emerson is adding to its on-line ‘PlantWeb University’ from November 2006. That should stand them in good stead when it launches a global in-plant Smart Wireless design contest in the New Year.

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