Manufacturing AUTOMATION

A world without wires? Predictions about wireless as industrial ethernet’s catalyst

November 1, 2005
By Ian Verhappen

Wireless in automation is the current area receiving a lot of press, promotion and recognition as ‘the next big thing’ – not only for off-line communications but also for control signals as well. Just like fieldbus technology 10 years ago, we are once again hearing how this technology will save significant project wiring costs though this time they may be right because there are no wires.

However, like all things, there are trade-offs, especially with a technology in its relative infancy.

The other ‘challenge’ faced by a new technology is that of educating and “training” the engineering contractors/designers and end users on how to deploy and use the technology. The education process must not be disguised as marketing and needs to make users aware of the “warts” and how to remove them.

Fortunately, ISA and its S-100 committee are in the process of preparing a series of Technical Reports (TR) to help people, not only understand the technology, but also properly use it. I believe that these TRs, which do not define new wireless standards but rather build on existing work by such organizations as WINA, will accelerate the adoption of wireless in automation.


But what will the wider deployment of wireless Ethernet mean to future control system design? With an easily deployed, self-healing infrastructure it will be possible to install intrinsically safe Ethernet-based field devices. The question will then focus on what flavour of Industrial Ethernet to use, potentially launching a round of field device communication “wars.”

I believe one of the already existing protocols, and likely one that integrates seamlessly or at least nearly so with an existing physically connected field level device protocol, will be the winner for the following reasons:

• Less training required for configuration of systems;
• Easy integration with existing systems without the complexity of gateways; and
• Same look and feel to operations as other devices.

Is wireless going to be the panacea for all our problems? Not likely, but if understood, developed and used properly, it will change the way automation systems are designed. It will also likely be the catalyst to enable widespread use of Industrial Ethernet field devices.

Ian Verhappen is an ISA fellow and director of ICE-Pros, Inc., an independent instrument and control engineering consulting firm specializing in fieldbus, process analyzer sample systems and oil sands instrumentation and control. E-mail him at, or visit his website

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