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Not down to the wire

Wireless technology is breaking into the region's utilities sector.

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An Emerson view of how wireless technology could be applied in a power plant.
An Emerson view of how wireless technology could be applied in a power plant.

Wireless technology is breaking into the region’s utilities sector.

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 utilities 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 the battery life of wireless devices.

“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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