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Sensors Working Overtime

Wireless tracking devices are radically transforming how businesses monitor vital equipment.

Is that warehouse about to collapse? Is that turbine about to throw a blade? Is that oil well going to explode?

All good questions, particularly if you happen to be standing nearby. But for managers at asset-intensive businesses, keeping tabs on heavy machinery and vital infrastructure goes beyond the desire to minimize head wounds. Indeed, tracking the status of far-flung equipment is a crucial part of keeping operations up and running.

It’s also expensive. That may explain why so many companies are starting to deploy wireless sensors on and around fixed assets. Sensors go where humans fear to tread — deep inside tanker cars, into the heart of whirring engines, and into countless other environments that can best be described as hellish. And unlike passive radio frequency tags, which transmit small bits of data, the latest generation of wireless sensors produces reams of useful information about machinery, equipment, and structures.

While the concept of using wireless sensors for such tasks has been kicking around for decades, only recently has the technology matured, fueled in large part by research into consumer wireless networks. Also helping was the approval, in December, of a universal specification (known as ZigBee 1.0) that many expect will galvanize the industry. “Until recently, wireless-sensor technology was a patchwork of incompatible systems from a variety of vendors,” says Amit Jain, an information and communication technologies analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a global growth consulting firm in Palo Alto, Calif. “With the evolution of open industry standards — and the deployment of lightweight wireless networking hardware — wireless technology has come of age.”

Strung Out

In-Stat, a technology research firm, predicts that the market for wireless monitoring systems will skyrocket. The company forecasts that the number of ZigBee and 802.15.4 products (a previous wireless specification) could grow at a compound annual growth rate of 200 percent from 2004 to 2009. At that pace, annual shipments will surpass 150 million units in 2009.

Wireless sensors are already showing up on all sorts of assets, from pipelines to purifiers. “The potential applications of wireless-sensor networks are nearly unlimited,” says Mareca Hatler, director of research at ON World, a wireless-technology research firm. She says the industry estimates that up to $1 trillion is spent each year replacing perfectly good industrial equipment simply because it’s too expensive to monitor motors, pumps, fans, and other routine pieces of hardware. “Wireless-sensor networks provide a low-cost solution, so equipment can be replaced right before it fails,” says Hatler.

At energy producer TransAlta, wireless sensors are deployed to monitor a vast array of pumps, generators, and motors. Robert Soeldner, executive vice president of operations at the Calgary, Alberta-based company, says that wireless devices eliminate the need to string cabling across vast distances. Moreover, he points out that the devices can be used differently than their wired counterparts because their signals can easily pass through walls, casings, moving gears, and most other physical barriers.

Wireless sensors help TransAlta avoid spectacular and costly disasters. For instance, when the temperature on a piece of field machinery rises above a certain point, a sensor automatically sends an E-mail alert to a manager’s BlackBerry device, flagging a potentially critical situation. Says Soeldner: “It allows you to manage the asset, as opposed to having the asset manage you.”

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