Wireless Infrastructure: If You Build It They Will Come

One of the first steps for implementing an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) application is designing, purchasing, installing and commissioning a wireless infrastructure. Depending on the size of the application, the initial infrastructure investment will vary, ranging from just one or two items of hardware to quite a few more.

As with commercial and industrial Wi-Fi infrastructure installations, many new applications will come to light once the industrial wireless infrastructure is installed, and the marginal costs of adding each new application will be low enough to result in a very quick ROI.

The industrial plant or facility engineers and experts know what IIoT applications will provide the biggest ROI, but they may not be familiar with industrial wireless infrastructure nuances. This lack of experience can hinder and delay implementation of IIoT applications to increase uptime, and improve safety and quality—reducing competitiveness as laggards are left behind by more forward-thinking companies.

Industrial plants and facilities can remove this impediment to action by taking the initiative to design, purchase, install and commission a wireless infrastructure as part of an initial IIoT application. Specifically, process IIoT applications collect data from sensors and turn this data into actionable information. Industrial process plants include those producing or processing power, water/wastewater, chemicals, downstream oil & gas, food & beverages, pharmaceuticals, etc. Process facilities include mining operations, upstream oil & gas, midstream oil & gas, etc.

Creating an industrial wireless infrastructure in these process plants and facilities is a sequential four-step process:

  1. Design
  2. Purchase
  3. Install
  4. Commission

Let’s look at each of these steps from a high level to ascertain what’s required.

There are multiple industrial wireless standards, but WirelessHART is the clear leader in terms of time on the market, number of installations, and companies supporting the standard. It’s a self-configuring mesh network, designed from the ground up to provide the security, robustness and reliability required by IIoT applications.

A typical WirelessHART network for an initial IIoT application consists of a gateway communicating wirelessly to one or more sensors. Larger installations with many sensors spread out over a wide area might require multiple gateways, repeaters and long-range antennas for communication to the main gateway.

The main gateway communicates via a hardwired link, usually Ethernet, to an existing control and monitoring system. The control and monitoring system must be configured to read and recognize the information coming from the wireless sensors via the gateway.

Vendors supporting either standard can often provide assistance to plants and facilities designing their initial wireless IIoT applications. In many cases, this design assistance will be provided at low or no cost for initial wireless IIoT applications.

In addition to design assistance, many vendors have online and offline software tools available to help users determine how many gateways and repeaters are needed, and where they should be installed.

In some cases, subsequent applications may require additional wireless infrastructure, but these added investments will typically be much less than required for the first application.

WirelessHART network diagram
WirelessHART network diagram

Once the design is completed for the wireless IIoT application, hardware needs to be purchased. In terms of calculating costs and ROI, the cost of the infrastructure should not be entirely allocated to the first IIoT application, as many are sure to follow once the infrastructure is in place.

Instead, only a portion of the infrastructure cost should be allocated to the first application, with subsequent applications sharing part of the cost burden. This will produce much more accurate ROI calculations for each IIoT application, including the initial one, and not unduly burden and perhaps delay the initial application.

But in many cases, the initial application will pay for the entire wireless infrastructure in a few months. In these situations, subsequent applications will not have to bear the burden of infrastructure costs, making their ROI much more attractive.

Once the system is designed and purchased, it must be installed. Every system will require at least one gateway, which is the interface between the wireless sensors and the existing control and monitoring system. Larger installations may require multiple gateways, and may also require repeaters and long-range antennas. Gateway installation is simple, as these small devices just require a source of power, and hardwiring from the main gateway to the control and monitoring system.

The big difference between wireless and wired IIoT installations is the ease of installation for wireless sensors as compared to wired sensors. Wireless sensors don’t required hardwiring back to the control and monitoring system, and don’t need to use spare or new input hardware at the system. They also don’t need power wiring because they come with their own power module.

In existing plants and facilities, installation costs for hardwiring and input hardware can be very substantial, making many otherwise beneficial IIoT applications not practical. Downtime is often also required, further adding to costs. Wireless installations avoid these costs, and reduce or eliminate required downtime.

After the sensors, repeaters, gateways and antennas are installed, the system is ready for commissioning. WirelessHART networks recognize each wireless sensor and self-configure the network to optimize communication paths. Software testing tools are available to manage the network and help troubleshoot any problems.

A big part of commissioning is determining just how the new data collected by the wireless sensors will be turned into actionable information. In some cases, this just requires adding a critical alarm point to an existing display screen in the control room.

In other cases, data analytics may be required to extract full value from the new sensors. Some suppliers have software tools available to interpret sensor data, analyze it and suggest action.

An initial wireless IIoT application requires some type of wireless infrastructure. Once this infrastructure is in place, and often paid for by the first application in a matter of months, subsequent applications are sure to follow, each generating much quicker ROI as the burden of infrastructure costs is spread across more installations.

Figure, courtesy of Emerson Automation Solutions
WirelessHART network diagram. Caption: A single WirelessHART gateway can collect data from up to 100 wireless sensors, and send this data to a control and monitoring system via Ethernet or some other popular digital communications protocol.

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