Wireless I/O Solutions for Industrial Automation Applications

E-mail Andrejs Rozitis

Wireless solutions for industrial automation applications are in high demand as companies look for cost-effective, technically feasible ways to implement secure, reliable data communications. Many markets are looking for ways to streamline their operations and automate their processes. In the process industries (e.g., oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, food and beverage, water and wastewater, and electric power) it is increasingly rare to see processes that rely on human decisions and manual interaction. This is because relying on human judgment and reactions introduces variability in reliability, timeliness, and quality. From a customer's perspective, variability in these areas reduces the perceived quality of a service or product. From the organization's perspective, variability creates significant challenges in growing revenue, capping expenses, and maintaining a consistent quality of service.

The earliest I/O installations succeeded in taking measurements and controlling process elements to automate key process decisions, with some pains. In water and wastewater, for example, I/O were used to report tank level information to ensure full tanks and adequate pressure or supply for water transmission and distribution. In oil and gas, I/O was introduced to monitor plunger arrival to increase gas production by old wells. Despite the benefits, the earliest projects required technicians and engineers to learn new technologies and to use out-of-the-box problem solving skills.

The newest I/O products offer major functional improvements. Arguably, the biggest differentiator is wireless I/O, which removes the enormous challenge of running cable from the point of measurement or control to the process controller. Wireless I/O delivers the most cost-effective method to monitor and optimize a process that spans between 100 feet and 100 miles. Immediate cost savings come from the elimination of cables and conduits, trenching and construction crews, and permits. Quick troubleshooting, over-the-air configuration changes and upgrades, and the elimination of cable management activities enable cost savings over time. Wireless I/O also can integrate directly into a larger wireless SCADA network to connect the corporate office with the field controllers, process measurements, and control points. Furthermore, process security is enhanced by using proprietary frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) wireless technologies.

FHSS technology helps transceivers successfully deliver secure I/O data, despite competing signals from other devices. FHSS technology varies the carrier frequency throughout the spectrum in a pattern recognized solely by the transceivers assigned to communicate with one another in the network. This technology is particularly well-suited for sending small packets of information such as I/O in a noisy, high-interference environment. Devices also can be equipped with external antennas, allowing radios to be mounted within a few feet of an obstruction, sending and receiving signals via antennas that rise above the obstructions or interference.

Expandability is another differentiator in new I/O products. Some wireless I/O providers offer expansion modules with a high density of I/O, allowing users to install a small set of I/O in a critical location of their process, knowing that more can be added at any point in the future. Expansion modules are connected directly without additional mounting hardware, allowing up to 200 I/O points at a single location. Adopting an expandable platform is often justified by additional monitoring mandated by the government, new process technologies that require more points for monitoring and control for higher process output, and for peace of mind because more points are easy to add, no matter what the future brings.

Wireless I/O solutions using secure industrial-grade technology offers an opportunity to turn more information into knowledge across geographically dispersed assets, leading to optimized productivity, improved safety, and asset reliability. This information is vital to companies who want to create and maintain a significant competitive advantage. In addition, wireless I/O provides improved leverage of existing infrastructures, allows for better resource optimization, and lays a strong foundation for future growth.

Above all, the newest I/O products provide more data with less effort. In addition to wireless communication and expandability, features such as universal channel configurability, measurement accuracy, device reliability, backwards compatibility, and ease of use also improve the usability of new I/O devices. Your new I/O devices should deliver a single, remarkably simple product to install and use for all your process optimization and condition monitoring applications.

Andrejs Rozitis is a product manager for FreeWave Technologies, Inc., Boulder, CO. He can be reached at 303-381-9258, [email protected].