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Sun 17 Oct 2010 04:00 AM

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Not down to the wire

Wireless technology is breaking into the region's plant.

Not down to the wire
Not down to the wire
Diederik Mols: EMEA business manager, Honeywell.

Wireless technology is breaking into the region's plant.

The Middle East is a relative latecomer to wireless technology,
which was first put to use in the US. Europe and Asia
quickly followed. And now, wireless technology is starting to make inroads into
the region’s plant sector. “The response in Middle East
has been fantastic,” says Alan Baird, director of Plantweb & Wireless Marketing
at Emerson.

Emerson launched its wireless business in the Middle East in 2008. Despite the good reception, Baird admits
that he also encountered a certain caution amongst end users. “The Middle East and
Africa is quite unique whereby they want to be
very careful about new technologies,” he says. “That’s why we tend to do a lot of
showing people how it actually works, how easy it is. We find that once people start
using wireless, they just keep on adding and adding.”

Baird experience is shared by his competitors. “Middle Eastern
customers have a tendency to wait and watch,” says Feroz Qureshi, technical sales
consultant at Honeywell. “Not only in wireless, this is true for all technology
innovations, it’s a general tendency in region. They are waiting for others to install
first, so that it has been proven, then they will go and try it out.”

However, Honeywell also testify to substantial interest in their
wireless products. “We are seeing a huge interest in the Middle
East, and are running pilots in several countries. I have no doubt
that there will be some bigger projects coming to us soon,” says Diederik Mols,
EMEA business manager for industrial wireless solutions at Honeywell.

One key reason why the technology took a little longer to hit
the market in the region is the need for certification needed for wireless products.
That process can take several months and even up to one year, says Mols.

“A lot of things have to do with approvals,” agrees Baird. “The
local telecommunication regulatory authorities in every country in the Middle East have to give approvals because its a wireless
technology.”

Others feel that the awareness levels in the Middle East for
what wireless solutions can do for a utility provider are not yet adequate. “The
root of the problem lies in the awareness levels about the existence of such intelligence solutions. Every organisation
today is confronted with its own unique set of problems and this is why solutions
need to be devised based on a customized approach,” says Mike Meranda, CEO of Tagstone.

Despite the belated start, wireless technology has started to
gain traction in the region. “We have done everything from irrigation plants, desalination
and power plants, to oil and gas. There isn’t a country in the Middle East that hasn’t got a wireless application in it,”
states Baird.

Are wireless applications more prominent in water or power? “Our
wireless solutions get used mainly on the water side, because when we look at the
power plant itself we do a lot on the water side, like measuring the conductivity
and the PH. We are now doing a lot of temperature measuring in boilers as well.”

Apart from its use in plants and water networks, wireless technology
is also becoming more widely used for meter reading and billing purposes in residences.
One of the companies involved in supplying radio technology products to this end
is Techem. MENA regional manager Hans Altmann sees a growing market for his products
in the Middle East.

“The UAE especially is known for the usage of latest technology and we already have
heavy users of wireless technology in many industries there,”
he says, adding. “Wireless applications will be used for
all kinds of purposes in the future – why should this not all be the case with the
measurement of consumption?”

Process monitoring

Wireless business is boosted by a move towards process monitoring
in power plants, says Baird, and a trend towards what he refers to as ‘preventative
maintenance’. “Emerson moved from being a preventative maintenance company to a
predictive maintenance company,” he explains. “We try to get the end user to be
more predictive. If you can predict what is going to happen, than the shut downs
and anything else
are reduced.”

While the transmitters used to monitor plants are often wired,
wireless technology will stand to profit from this trend. “We can take a wireless
transmitter, and get immediate access to measurement points we never had before.
So wireless technology
gives us more measurement points,” explains Baird.

The cost effectiveness of joining up remote part of a plant or
water network to the control centre through wireless networks leads to optimism
amongst purveyors of the technology.

“If you have the network, you can plug in applications at your
convenience that otherwise would be cost-prohibitive to wire,” says Mols. “For example,
if you have a remote pump station for seawater pumps and you want to monitor their
health, it is usually cost-prohibitive to monitor the vibration levels of that pump
in real time and invest in a couple of kilometers of cable before you can do that.
But with wireless technology you can plug into the network and get that data to
your control room.”

This means that important data used for monitoring the condition
of equipment reach the nerve centre of a utilities operation in real time. Even
if there is no wireless transmitter attached to the equipment, maintenance crews
are often able to relay information back to the control centre faster, while increasing
the safety of the crew. “You can see if there is pressure on a certain pipe, or
you can see the process data at the position where he is in the field. Maintenance
staff can also enter data into the system in real time, so it works both ways,”
says Mols.

Meranda also believes that the management of maintenance staff
can be improved through wireless applications. “Utilities companies are heavily
reliant on remote technicians to complete repair jobs, monitor usage and meet customer
need for longer than most other field service industries have existed. Managing
remote employees is always a challenge for supervisors responsible,” he says.

But operational expenditure can also be reduced by keeping maintenance
crews out of the field in the first place. “Pumps, turbines, motors, they all use
vibration transmitters, these eliminate need for monthly maintenance. To put infrastructure
in for such non-critical equipment doesn’t make sense,” says Baird. Rather than
sending out people with hand held devices, says Baird, wireless networks to the
job for them, with transmitters sending the information back to the control centre.
“So you save on infrastructure, but more on the operational expenses.”

And in the regions climate, spending less time in remote areas
of a plant or a water network will come as a relief to maintenance staff. “If I’m
running a power plant in the Middle East, and I
have to check on things in 43 degree heat, isn’t it easier to sit at my desk rather
than you having to go outside and find out if there is a problem,” asks Baird.

Wireless devices rely on the erection of a so-called wireless
mesh network (WMN). First developed by the military, these networks are robust,
as they spread communication between several nodes, or connection points. The stability
of the network, and its ability to cope with the tough conditions in
the Middle East, thus is not something that concerns
the wireless companies.

They do, however, have some convincing to do when speaking to
potential clients. “We get asked: ‘What about sandstorms? Can the wireless deal
with the high temperatures?’” says Mols. “The answer is: yes. Although there is
some deterioration in the signal, it will just continue perfectly.”

Mols is also keen to allay concerns about battery life. “The
batteries in Honeywell applications are designed for ultra long life. We are talking
about eight years and up, even in this hot region.”

Utility projects in the Middle East,
and the GCC in particular, often take on massive proportions. Yet this does not
perturb wireless providers such as Honeywell, with Mols stressing that wireless
networks are not only robust, but also scalable. “You’re not limited to 200 applications
but you can really talk about thousands of applications per network, and we can
run networks over each other – that is also a key point for investment protection.”

Investment protection

For utilities considering whether to adopt wireless, investment
protection is of course an important issue. In this context, it helps that the industry
has adopted an official standard, the ISA 100.11a. The standard was adopted in 2009,
after representatives from vendors, end users and technology institutes had developed
it for over three years.

The standard was crucial for wireless to get out of the blocks,
says Mols. “Once the standard was official, that was a starting point and peace
of mind for end user.” A common standard protects the investment made by the end
user because the technology is not proprietary, and the client is not locked into
one supplier. “When you invest millions of dollars, you want to make sure that you
get support in 10 to 20 years from now, and that you are not locked in with one
supplier.”

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