Wireless to grow 75% by 2017
The number of connected wireless units is projected to be 75% higher in 2017, compared to 2012, as the technology gains acceptance. Wireless solutions are increasingly being deployed in industrial networks as a feasible alternative to wired solutions, with wireless projected to grow significantly in the years ahead.
Wireless LAN (WLAN) is the most widely adopted protocol in the industrial space, as it is in the consumer area.
More than TWO million new wireless units were connected to industrial networks last year alone. However, growth is not likely to stop anytime soon, and IHS projects the number of connected wireless units by 2017 to be 75% higher than in 2012 as wireless penetration deepens.
With its ability to transmit over long distances and also bearing other advantages such as dispensing with cabling and reducing cost, for example, wireless is making discernible headway in the industrial space. And even though wireless is a long way from becoming a fully mainstream networking technology, its increasing viability and reliability, along with the backing of major automation vendors, will boost the technology’s prospects in the time to come. Wireless, installed alongside a wired network in a factory environment, can offer great benefits, enabling the monitoring of even the most remote and difficult-to-reach points in automation system installations.
IHS estimates that the collective Europe- Middle East-Africa region accounted for 40% of new wireless connections in 2012. By 2017, however, Asia-Pacific is forecast to surpass EMEA as the region with most new connected wireless units with 39%. The high growth forecast for wireless adoption in Asia-Pacific is not due solely to the rapid expansion of automation component shipments to the area, but is also because of cheaper, more open wireless technologies increasingly penetrating the market, making wireless a viable alternative to wired solutions.
The wireless technologies in question include sub-gigahertz (GHz) frequencies and radio bands, which are free for use in some cases. Such bandwidths can be busy because they are used by a large number of companies, not just for industrial applications. And while being busy is not really an issue in isolated plants that use automation components from a single source, problems can arise if components from multiple vendors are in play, or if the facility is in a more built-up area where interference could impact reliability.
Competing wireless technologies
The protocols estimated to account for most new connections in 2012 are presented in the chart above. Notably, Wireless LAN (WLAN) was the most widely adopted protocol in the industrial space, as it is in the consumer area. Modes a, b, g, and n were included; the technology is highly suitable for many applications because of its advances in the enterprise and consumer sectors, allowing knowledge and technology to filter into industrial applications.
However, the 2.4 GHz band used by most WLAN modes is very busy, which could hamper adoption in the future as end users look to implement networks with further reach. Although it may seem harmless to extend an existing wireless network, it is entirely possible that airwaves will become “noisy,” which could affect signal strength¡ªa crucial consideration when it comes to critical applications.
The alternative is utilizing the 5 GHz band with “a” or “n” mode networks. This negates the busy 2.4 GHz band, but it usually comes at a higher price. In most cases, wireless is already a more expensive option than a wired solution, and the issue of new costs could serve to inhibit adoption even more.
Bluetooth is the other protocol widely used in the consumer space that is also popular for industrial automation networking. Bluetooth has the advantage that devices are paired, so bandwidth is not really an issue, despite being in the 2.4 GHz space. Pairing also provides greater security, reducing the potential for opportunistic hacking attacks. A low-energy version of Bluetooth has also been developed to enable the technology for adoption in power-critical applications.
In particular, Bluetooth is well-suited for short-range applications and also enables vastly improved battery life for devices. It is perfectly positioned to be adopted with sensors, which account for a high proportion of networkable shipments. Adoption of Bluetooth low-energy is forecast to grow strongly over the coming years, although from a very small base, and may begin to replace the classic version in some situations.
WirelessHART and ISA 100.11a are the two major “true” industrial wireless technologies. They compete directly and are more prevalent in process industries¡ªcompared to WLAN and Bluetooth, which are more widely used in discrete industries. Even so, the attempted convergence of these two technologies broke down in early 2013¡ªa fact that has been well-documented.
WirelessHART has the advantage of use in large legacy HART installations, with which it is fully compatible. And while another attempt at convergence is unlikely in the near future, dual-radio devices will help alleviate the problems associated with combining the two networks.
Wireless industrial environments?
To be sure, the current adoption of wireless in factory and process environments is low. Nonetheless, the technology’s presence on the whole is growing strongly due to the suitability of wireless for measurement applications. Some drawbacks exist, such as in battery technology, but advances in new technologies are sure to pave the way for more wireless networking to occur down the road.
The signs seem to portend a good path ahead. Even if the completely wireless factory may be a long way off – or if it happens at all – a wired backbone combined with pockets of wireless products is, at the very least, a good stepping stone.
Tom Moore is an analyst, Discrete
Automation, at IHS.