Wireless sensor technologies move into manufacturing

Sept. 7, 2006
New wireless sensor technologies will reduce the cost of information dramatically as they’re developed and deployed in manufacturing.
Though less visible than hardwiring, strictly speaking, wireless technology is expected to see widespread adoption on the plant floor and out in the field, where it perhaps will have its most profound impact. So say analysts at ARC Advisory Group and IMS Research.

ARC predicts the worldwide market for wireless technology in manufacturing will grow at a 26% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) over the next five years. The market was $326 million in 2005, and is projected to exceed $1 billion in 2010.

“Manufacturers recognize that wireless can offer cost reductions,” says Harry Forbes, ARC’s senior analyst and principal author of the new study.  “More importantly, they see wireless technologies as an enabler of entirely new business processes that not only will be less expensive, but safer, more reliable, and far more transparent than their current manufacturing practices.”

Visibility, Asset Management Drive Growth
A major factor favoring greater deployment of wireless technologies in manufacturing is their potential to enable new and better ways of operating manufacturing plants. Process manufacturing will likely experience the greatest impact, say the analysts. “Field operations in a process plant is a classic case of the need for more information that often can only be delivered wirelessly,” adds Forbes.  “Historically, process manufacturing hasn’t used wireless on a broad scale, but new sensor networking and WLAN developments will soon change this, presenting a huge opportunity for manufacturers who can use wireless to gain visibility into hidden processes, assets, and activities. These now represent ‘invisible’ assets still not well integrated into the enterprise.”

Clearly, wireless technology can be a more cost-effective way to monitor plant equipment and production processes, and enables real-time decision making to optimize production or head-off maintenance issues before they interrupt production. “Literally millions of field devices are installed at great cost in process manufacturing facilities,” says Forbes. “However, because most aren’t digitally enabled, their ability to share process and maintenance information is extremely limited. This means wireless technology and devices can be used to enable these stranded assets to the benefit of operations, maintenance, and business systems across the enterprise.”

Wireless LAN, Sensors Move Into Manufacturing
The industrial wireless market is not new by any means, according to the report. Wireless has been a part of SCADA systems in oil, gas, and electric power for decades. The trend in the market, however, is growth by incorporating new wireless technologies that have their roots in the IT, telecom, consumer, and military markets. “Manufacturing is adopting them in cases where the value of wireless information is apparent,” says Forbes, “but this market is far from saturated.”

Wireless LAN technology is mainly deployed at indoor facilities, but the analysts add these will expand to encompass entire plants. Furthermore, new wireless sensor technologies will reduce the cost of information dramatically as they’re developed and deployed in manufacturing.

“Of the technologies analyzed in our recently published report on the world industrial wireless market, Bluetooth and Zigbee were both forecast to exhibit substantial growth, and challenge the more traditional technologies like Wi-Fi and cellular in some applications,” says John Morse, IMS’ senior market analyst. “In addition, they’ll meet the needs of many users new to industrial wireless communications.”

As a part of its study, IMS Research examined the wireless technologies used with seven specific product groups: wireless access points, sensors and transducers, industrial PCs and HMIs, PLCs, drives, rugged mobile computers and wireless enabling accessories (dongles). Rugged mobile computers were the products most likely to be wirelessly enabled, with PLCs forecast to exhibit the highest growth rate in adopting on-board wireless connectivity.

“The number of wireless standards adopted by industry is forecast to increase further to include technologies such as WiMAX,” adds Morse. “This expansion will result in a market that’s more evenly balanced between technologies, enabling each user to select the one that best suits their needs.”