Find your way through the wireless maze

For those grounded in wired networks, untangling wireless-related issues for plant-floor applications can be as intimidating as reworking networked I/O connections without documentation. If you haven’t jumped into wireless communications yet on the plant floor, or even if you have, here are some questions and answers to help clear the air about wireless.

06/01/2009


For those grounded in wired networks, untangling wireless-related issues for plant-floor applications can be as intimidating as reworking networked I/O connections without documentation.

If you haven’t jumped into wireless communications yet on the plant floor, or even if you have, here are some questions and answers to help clear the air about wireless.

Providing answers are:

  • Bob Gardner , Banner Engineering, SureCross wireless product manager

  • Jim Toepper , Moxa Americas product manager, connectivity group, industrial wireless group

  • Robert Jackson , National Instruments senior product marketing manager, wireless

  • Paul Brooks , business development manager, networks portfolio, and Cliff Whitehead, manager, strategic applications, Rockwell Automation.

    • Q: Is wireless networking ready for prime-time factory applications?

      Gardner : Yes! My garage door has been wireless for more than 20 years, not to mention the WiFi connection built into my laptop. To implement wireless in plant environments, factories require reliable deterministic signals with a known output condition if an error were to occur.

      Wireless communication of I/O and serial data is the next step for plants that want to optimize resources and ensure all assets are performing at peak capabilities.

      Jackson : Wireless is ready for a more central role as an add-on system to the existing wired infrastructure. This ability to combine wired and wireless measurements will allow end users to preserve investments and use wireless technology in applications where it makes sense.

      Q. What are some common uses for wireless networks in a factory?

      Brooks and Whitehead : Today’s wireless deployments generally occur in applications where wired networks present challenges, making wireless increasingly simple and cost-effective. With its periodic signal monitoring and data collection capabilities, wireless also becomes increasingly valuable to mobile workers. While wireless can improve cost and operational efficiencies, it does not necessarily make deployment easier.

      Q. In a wireless implementation, what should a user, original equipment manufacturers (OEM) or system integrator consider?

      Jackson : The correct wireless protocol depends on the application. Software working at the application layer helps a system support multiple protocols. This allows users to combine the advantages of different protocols, and better isolates them from technology evolutions.

      A tiered strategy to wireless network support may provide the best service to a broad set of applications. Offer a tightly integrated hardware/software solution for industry standards, such as Wi-Fi, for the best end user experience.

      At the same time, provide support for proprietary and emerging standards through software abstraction, so end users can preserve software investments while maintaining flexibility as protocols change.

      For instance, wireless data acquisition can use Wi-Fi for easy connectivity and high bandwidth measurements. Software drivers [or other tools, such as OPC servers] can connect applications to a range of proprietary wireless sensor network (WSN) nodes from third-party suppliers.

      Q. What’s needed for a wireless implementation?

      Brooks and Whitehead : To help enhance the success of an industrial wireless installation, it should include the following features: