November 8, 2004
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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TransAlta Combines RFID and Wi-Fi for Plant Inspections

With all the attention being paid to radiofrequency identification (RFID) tags to transmit basic information from containers and packages, other forms wireless machine-to-machine communication sometimes get lost. As promising as RFID is, it doesn't completely address the needs of organizations that need updated status information from meters and other equipment, since RFID's data is static. That's why Canadian energy company TransAlta supplemented its use of RFID with an 802.11b network in its power plants, using RFID tags on its equipment to identify themselves as inspectors come by and then using Wi-Fi-enabled transmitters on the inspectors' handhelds to transmit their readings to TransAlta's SAP database when the inspectors' handhelds come in range of the corporate network after they exit the machinery areas.

Traditionally, inspectors would go to each piece of equipment on a certain schedule, read the gauges, and write down the readings. The data was then transferred manually into the SAP database, which is used to analyze potential faults so they can be prevented before a problem occurs, since a failure could disrupt energy generation or delivery.

TransAlta deployed its new wireless system earlier this year at a Canadian power plant and is scheduled to deploy the same system across 47 oil, gas, hydroelectric, and wind plants in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and Australia. "We've had pretty good success with wireless," notes Paul Kurchina, wireless program director at TransAlta.

The new system works as follows: Equipment that needs to be inspected and/or from which have reading taken has an RFID transmitter attached. When an inspector's handheld comes within range, it uses the RFID signal to identify the device, and the handheld's software uses that ID to display the relevant form for the inspector to complete. This ensures that inspection reports don't have errors such as reporting readings from one device but mistakenly ascribing them to another device. The handheld also records the device's ID and the data and time, so there is a log of the inspector's visits, which prevents false inspection reports. Some inspectors photocopied the readings from previous inspections, to avoid visiting hard-to-reach equipment or equipment they figured had no problems, and then just changed the date. "You can't do that with RFID," Kurchina notes.

Having accurate records and knowing that all required inspections have actually taken place is a key benefit for TransAlta, Kurchina notes, even though it's hard to quantify the financial benefits of early detection. "It's allowing us to be more proactive and not do so much firefighting," he says. It also gives employees more investment in their work, he adds: "The things they were finding were very real to them, which led more credibility to the wireless strategy. It lets them focus on where the issues could be, so they can adjust their rounds to be more preventative."

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