The future is wireless

On September 12, 2017, the geek event of the year happened at Apple Park in Cupertino. The new Apple devices launched in the new theater dedicated to founder Steve Jobs! However, we didn’t get any big surprises at the event, just confirmation of all the rumors we’ve passed around. Some people consider rumors spoilers and claim they minimize the experience. What do you think? I like watching videos and reading articles rife with speculations.

The rumors began over the last several months, where we had some leaked images. Brazilian developer Guilherme Rambo (@_inside) made this discovery during a deep search on Homepod’s firmware. Tech channels and magazines were 99 percent certain that a whole new iPhone would come soon. And several days before the event, even more stuff leaked to the public! Yeah, more spoilers than you could imagine, huh?

iPhone X
Courtesy of Apple

So no big surprises. The new iPhone X looks great but doesn’t seem to bring any new tech to the market. However, the decision to use the Qi (pronounced CHEE) standard for wireless chargers was brilliant! It surprised the Apple fans ready to buy a whole new ecosystem to get the dreamy wireless charger. We’ll talk more about that later.

I fully agree with Phil Schiller, Apple’s Senior Vice President, when he said that “the future is wireless.” Well yeah, because the present is already mostly wireless! Still, while wireless in the process automation world has gotten better, it’s not there yet! Wireless devices show up in a huge range of applications now, but we have limits on things like signal range and battery life.

In my opinion, we haven’t achieved wirelessness yet because some brands have limited mindsets on protocols. Let’s discuss wireless communication, standards, proprietary protocols, and what we can learn from Apple!

The event

I won’t go into detail here; plenty of blogs have great posts reviewing the event. I watched the livestream, more to confirm rumors than to see the devices.

No significant changes in the watch. It has become more independent of the phone, which sounds good! But I’m still looking for integration with Spotify, not just Apple Music.

The Apple TV 4K made its debut, but I didn’t see a good reason to buy it. Why should I? I have the PlayStation 4 PRO 4K. And depending on where you live, you may not get the full experience of the new packages and partnerships with the Apple TV.

Then Apple revealed the iPhone 8 and 8Plus. Same design, a few small differences. This version brings the A11 Bionic chip, 12-megapixel camera (single or dual), augmented reality (AR), wireless charger, Animoji, and more. But why buy the 8 instead of the X?

Finally, Apple unveiled the iPhone X. Again, more rumor confirmation than news. You can read an entire review here. We will highlight the epic fail of the Face ID demo, though. I could feel the shame from software chief Craig Federighi!

Okay, with all that out of the way, let’s discuss Apple’s choice of an open interface standard for inductive charging. Why no proprietary solution? I mean, Apple does that for everything, right?

Open wireless protocol what?

Sure, we talked about whether Apple would go with its standard proprietary tech or open up. But most of us believed Apple would stick with Apple. Nice to be wrong sometimes! The new phones and watches use the Qi standard, so you can charge your Apple devices using a variety of products!

In 2015, during the Consumer Electronics Show in the U.S., we saw a bunch of devices already using the wireless power standard from the Qi consortium. Apple took nearly three years to hop aboard this wagon, maybe to see whether the solution succeeded before investing in it.

I believe Apple learned from a big mistake in the first iPhone generation. The first iPhones had proprietary Bluetooth, which kinda sucked. Anyway, Apple choosing an open protocol for wireless charging will push this solution forward. Soon you’ll see a range of objects and furniture with charging built in! Even in 2015 we already had some of that!

Apple creates and establishes trends on the market, from smartphones without analog headphone connections to wireless charging now. I’ll bet in the next few years smartphones won’t have any plugs; everything from charging to file transfers will happen wirelessly.

Qi consortium

The Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) was formed in 2008 by big companies such as Philips, Samsung, LG, Apple, and others. With 745 products already using Qi, this group strives to establish a universal standard for developers and end users.

Qi protocol

At the moment, we have two types of wireless charging. Induction charging requires the device (receiver) to make contact with the charger (transmitter). Resonant charging can have the receiver up to 45 millimeters from the transmitter. Each option has specific applications, and Qi devices have both. You can read more about this tech on WPC’s website.

Cutting cords in process automation

Wireless communication is far from a new topic. Once upon a time, when the radio first started making its way into homes, people used to call it “the wireless”! In the industry, you can find processes using radio devices to span distances. I remember the first wireless product that I worked with and all the pre-standard discussions as well as the issues after standardization.

The discussion on the new concept of wireless began in 2004. In September 2008, Emerson became the first automation company to launch a WirelessHART device. The industry approved WirelessHART as a standard in April 2010, and in 2014, ISA 100.11a received the final approval from International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).

Courtesy of Emerson Automation Solutions

Emerson had a huge influence in WirelessHART’s popularity, investing a lot in marketing and development. I remember opening technical magazines to two-page ads on wireless tech from Emerson. Now the company has a huge wireless portfolio, and most of the devices in it sport long-lived batteries and update times in seconds.

Honeywell Onewireless and Cisco
Courtesy of Honeywell and Cisco

Honeywell and Yokogawa also have plenty of wireless devices, but they use ISA 100.11a, a different standard. They haven’t made much of a mark in the wireless market, at least in Brazil as of 2016. If someone knows differently, drop me a line.

Wireless in the field

Before we continue, we should separate field protocols from configuration protocols. For integration, you have open protocols such as WirelessHART and ISA 100.11a. Beyond that, you have proprietary protocols to connect field devices to a control system.

All field devices communicate with a master, called the gateway most of the time. This gateway provides a different protocol to integrate the data from the field into the control system; here, you have options such as Modbus TCP/IP, HART-IP, and industrial wireless.

Courtesy of Emerson Automation Solutions

You can find gateways with industrial Ethernet routers already integrated. Most gateway protocols use the Ethernet, so you can connect an industrial router to link the gateway in the field with the control system. Sometimes you have local wifi so you can set up with smartphones, tablets, or handhelds.

New products pop up almost daily now with wireless communication for an easy local setup. These devices have Bluetooth or wifi, so you can use an app or web browser to configure devices locally. Some companies even invest in both technologies; Endress+Hauser has Bluetooth level transmitters and flow meters with wifi.

Pressure goes wireless

With so many pressure monitoring applications out there, companies have begun to offer wireless tech for those too. Now we have excellent pressure devices offering extended battery life and swift update times. Honeywell, Yokogawa, and Emerson have some of the best options currently.

For instance, using Emerson’s Power Module Life Estimator, the 2051 sets up in 2 seconds and has an estimated battery life of 1.3 years in a well-formed network. Plus Emerson’s newest wireless devices now come with antennas inside the housings instead of outside, so this tech advances constantly. Best of all, these new wireless manometers can introduce the wireless revolution to older facilities, providing local visualization and remote data! Well done.

WirelessHART - 2051, Wireless manometer
Courtesy of Emerson Automation Solutions

When I worked directly with wireless devices, I mostly saw radars in temperature and level measurement. However, the advent of this new low-cost wireless pressure transmitter increases the number of pressure applications with wireless protocols. Now, who’ll launch the first flow meter with an integrated wireless antenna?

Proprietary protocols why?

Unfortunately, even today many vendors use proprietary protocols, where you can only use their products in their networks. Against the flow, we have companies such as Schneider and OleumTech betting on proprietary. Some of these companies have potent portfolios, but why should a customer invest in a closed protocol rather than open communication?

A popular nerd podcast in Brazil made the statement, “You criticize capitalism, but you don’t share your wifi.” In a similar way, companies create and use proprietary protocols, then wonder why the rest of the world won’t join them in their tiny pools. Granted, Apple has a larger pool than most, but it still excludes rather than includes.

OleumTech and Foxboro
Courtesy of OleumTech and Foxboro

On the technical side, can anyone name a reason for these companies to keep their products in proprietary protocols? I can’t think of any. The only reason I can see is to keep customers trapped so they can’t buy from different brands! However, competitors with open protocols will cover this issue with sales pitches designed to convince users to reject proprietary products.

If you have a simple application with just one device regularly measuring a process, then maybe those proprietary solutions would cost less than a WirelessHART or ISA 100.11a solution. In fact, that makes a pretty strong selling point for many customers. But if you want to expand the application, then the advantage of an open standard will pop up again in the conversation.

What can we learn from Apple?

Apple took three years to include this wireless feature in a new product. Maybe we should take that as a lesson on examining the demand for a solution.

However, launching an iPhone with a proprietary wireless power charging solution would have been a huge mistake. In the short term, they could generate a lot of revenue. But eventually, Apple would’ve had to address the problem of making a proprietary solution common everywhere. Imagine the effort needed to convince public places to have proprietary chargers, not to mention the high investment!

On the other hand, Androids with open wireless power solutions can find places to charge everywhere. Now iPhones can do that too. Of course, you have many factors to analyze before deciding between Android and iPhone.

Courtesy of xkcd

When process automation companies choose to go proprietary, they exclude themselves from the big part of the market asking for standard solutions. And all of these companies lack the clout Apple has. By supporting standard solutions, they could make wireless tech even more popular in the industry.

I’m not saying all things proprietary suck. I own an iPhone, after all. But as a customer, I think more than twice before buying such devices.

Companies should aim to keep customers through loyalty to the quality of their products and services, not because they’ve sold proprietary protocols to them.

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