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A recent report from IMS Research on wireless communications in factory automation shows that obstacles not found in the office environment continue to hinder adoption.

Wireless communication and its associated benefits are now well established in the commercial and consumer environments.

However, in 2007, the estimated worldwide market for wireless products in factory automation was only 0.5 million units.

This total included products with built-in wireless functionality, such as sensors, operator terminals, PLCs, remote IO, drives and wireless access points.

By 2013, shipments are forecast to increase to almost four million units; however, they are dwarfed by shipments to commercial applications.

Currently, the biggest obstacle to adopting wireless communications for machine builders and end users alike is reliability.

The presence of heavy machinery that can interrupt wireless signals, together with the increasing importance of gathering dependable, detailed machine data has convinced most, for now at least, that wired solutions are best.

The conservatism in factory automation has also inhibited the adoption of wireless communication networks.

However, an increasing number of companies are now beginning to experiment with wireless products that have been specifically designed and ruggedised for use in a factory environment.

They want to improve, having chosen the correct infrastructure and wireless technology, the performance and functionality of industrial networks.

The falling cost of wireless-enabled products is a further incentive for companies to convert from a wired network, or to use both types of network alongside each other.

This is especially attractive in the current economic climate, since the initial outlay to install a wireless network is lower than that of a wired network.

For example, a significant cost saving is achievable in an application such as a waste water treatment plant where pumps can be located several hundred metres from the control room.

The adoption of a wireless network for applications such as condition monitoring also saves component costs, such as slip rings, which were previously required to monitor rotating components.

With a wireless sensor, a user can now more closely monitor applications incorporating rotating parts, without incurring costs that may have previously deterred any kind of data acquisition.

Wireless communication through battery-powered wireless sensors can also be used for monitoring in plant areas previously unsuited to wired sensors.

It is therefore expected that, between 2009 and 2013, worldwide shipments of wireless communication systems in factory automation will grow at an average of 40 per cent each year.

In part, this growth will be driven by automation component suppliers, who continue to see wireless technology as the next big step to increasing plant efficiency and assuring the safety of customers.

Machine builders and end users now need to select those applications best suited to a wireless network to reap the benefits that it can offer.

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