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."
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."
The technology, while expensive, provides a rapid bottom-line benefit. "The predictive conditioning monitoring that we've put into play has paid back in less than six months," Soeldner says.
Government agencies that oversee highways, bridges, tunnels, dams, and other massive public structures are also looking closely at wireless sensors. "We continually hear about failures that occur under normal wear and tear," says Anne Kiremidjian, chairperson at Sensametrics, a Palo Alto–based company that develops wireless monitoring systems for civil engineering assets. Wireless sensors, she claims, can substantially reduce the need for roaming inspectors and, in the process, save property and lives.
Besides tracking structures for routine physical degradation, wireless sensors can also speed building inspections after natural disasters. "The major losses to businesses that follow large earthquakes are due to the fact that the owners don't know if they can reoccupy the structure and continue operations," says Kiremidjian. Equipping buildings with wireless sensors helps inspectors evaluate a building's general condition in minutes rather than hours. The sensors detect motion and movement, generating data that tells the engineers whether parts of the building have shifted out of their normal alignment (whether walls are tilting, floors are sagging, and so on).
As wireless sensors become standardized, they will get cheaper. Right now, the devices cost anywhere from $100 to $200 each. By comparison, passive RFID (radio frequency identification) tags currently run about 40 cents apiece. But Bill Westerman, an associate partner in Accenture Technology Labs, a research division of consulting giant Accenture, believes the price of a wireless sensor could drop to as little as $10 in about three years.
As the devices become cheaper, say experts, corporate use will expand to new areas, even information technology. Major software companies are already considering how to incorporate monitoring capabilities into their products. SAP, for example, provides RFID integration in NetWeaver, the technical foundation of its mySAP Business Suite solutions. Wireless-sensor support would seem a logical extension, particularly given an ongoing Intel-SAP project to integrate ad hoc wireless networks (a type of peer-to-peer network built around sensors) into NetWeaver.
Other software vendors are also eyeing ways to handle the endless data spewed out by wireless sensors. Managers at Oracle have started talking about sensor-based services that would sit on top of the company's ERP (enterprise resource planning) system. "ERP-system vendors are starting to see this [technology] as the next wave of business data, beyond RFID, that they need to process," says Westerman.
This is not to say that wireless sensors are without problems. As with other radio-based data-transmission technologies, the sensors do present some security concerns. Wireless signals often travel considerable distances and may even be detectable on public streets and sidewalks. Some vendors offer data-encryption systems to help keep wireless information from falling into the wrong hands.
Then again, experts point out that the types of data carried over most wireless- sensor networks aren't likely to tempt eavesdroppers. After all, ferreting out that a pump is operating at 82 percent efficiency is of little value to anyone but the operator of that pump, and provides far less temptation to data thieves than, say, millions of credit-card records.
In fact, at this point, it's hard to see anything dimming the corporate fascination with wireless radio-wave sensors. As the devices decline in price, the applications will undoubtedly multiply. Down the road, Westerman expects manufacturers to begin building the sensors right into products — everything from hydraulic pumps to vending machines to electrical generators, even deep fryers. "And then," he says, "all of these things can start talking to each other."
John Edwards, author of The Geeks of War, is a regular contributor to CFO.
Unplugged: Three Wireless Wonders
EnOcean (www enocean.com). The STM 100 is a battery-free wireless-sensor module that uses a small solar cell and energy storage device to provide several days of operation in total darkness.
Microstrain (www.microstrain.com). The Inertia-Link allows machines, robots, and even people (such as astronauts and athletes) to sense their own angular position. The product can also be used to stabilize cameras, antennae, and other types of equipment on moving platforms.
Dust Networks (www.dust-inc.com). The SmartMesh mesh networking platform combines software and very-low-power sensor nodes to form wireless networks capable of operating for long periods without human intervention. This type of operation is particularly beneficial in building automation, industrial monitoring, and military surveillance.
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According to Harbor Research, there are about 200,000 wireless sensors in use right now. Within four years, annual shipments will be closer to 100 million — a huge increase. Sales of the sensors are expected to skyrocket as well. Revenues in the fast-growing wireless-sensor market will likely jump from $100 million this year to more than $1 billion by 2009.