Wireless weak in factory automation

Despite the requirements for real-time data, workforce mobility, remote access and operational flexibility, the adoption trends for wireless devices in factory automation are moderate at best, according to a study by Khadambari Shanbagaraman, a research analyst in the Industrial Automation & Process Control group at Frost & Sullivan.


Despite the requirements for real-time data, workforce mobility, remote access and operational flexibility, the adoption trends for wireless devices in factory automation are moderate at best, according to a study by Khadambari Shanbagaraman, a research analyst in the Industrial Automation & Process Control group at Frost & Sullivan. The report “Wireless Devices in the Factory Automation %%MDASSML%% An Overview of Adoption Trends,” outlines key reasons and concerns for use of wireless devices in discrete industries in Europe.

Shanbagaraman said wireless devices are perceived as the next big technological wave in factory automation. But the lukewarm acceptance is “mainly because the wireless devices are not found to be robust enough by end users due to concerns such as reliability, security and interoperability.”

Wireless concerns

Reliability and security top the list of concerns regarding the adoption of wireless technology in factory automation. “End-users perceive that for a plant to operate round-the-clock, the current wireless technology does not provide the necessary robustness,” Shanbagaraman said in the report. “This is mainly because of the possibility of many technical issues such as signal mismatch, electromagnetic induction, data loss in transmission and other interference problems that are quite common in a factory automation environment.”

Other concerns include a perceived lack of return on investment, threat of jeopardizing current operations, high initial cost, battery life and standards. “End user conservatism...is restraining investments into wireless devices as the end users are less willing to implement the new technology without being assured of its potential benefits,” Shanbagaraman’s study said.

Reasons for adoption

To some extent, wireless is being adopted in Europe’s discrete industries. As with process industries, factory automation has a need for real-time data and workforce mobility. Wireless-enabled remote diagnostics and machine repair, reduced wiring and installation costs and previously inaccessible measurements are also key reasons factory automation end users adopt wireless technology, according to the study. “Wireless devices offer greater flexibility and cost-reduction in monitoring and alerting applications,” said Shanbagaraman. “Wireless devices also offer the possibility of measurements in areas that are difficult to access by cables such as moving or inaccessible parts.”

In Europe, adoption of wireless technology in factory automation has not met supplier expectations. The onus of addressing technical issues of wireless falls on the wireless device vendors. Education will help change users’ minds and help suppliers understand end users’ requirements. “Overall, the adoption of wireless in factory automation is expected to increase gradually as more and more end users realize the benefits of wireless technology,” Shanbagaraman said.

Process or discrete?

According to Shanbagaraman, current adoption levels are higher in discrete industries than process industries. However, in the long term, process industries are expected to adopt wireless more. “Process industries have applications where there is a need for wireless such as remote monitoring, and consequently the possibility of reducing cabling costs is higher here in comparison to factory automation where plant area may not be as large as process.”

Shanbagaraman also noted that adoption of wireless in process has not taken place in critical control applications. “End users are extremely cautious to use wireless for their critical process. Wireless is being adopted only in less critical monitoring and telemetry purposes as a starting point.”

The study implies that discrete automation industries in Europe are somewhat conservative toward the adoption of wireless technology. Although, “…process industries are equally conservative, but what needs to be understood is applications areas where wireless is being used (in most cases, current adoption is purely for monitoring and less critical controls),” Shanbagaraman said.

Fig. 1. The automotive industry has the highest adoption of wireless technology among the factory automation industries in Europe.

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