While wireless technology will never be problem-free, the margin of error for manufacturers grows smaller by the day, driven by global competition as well as increasing client and consumer demand for quality and reliability.
For a time, manufacturers could hobble along with various wireless problems. That’s no longer the case, though. Add to the competition and demand mentioned above a new industrial revolution bolstered by 5G and the IIoT, and issues that yesterday would be categorized as “nagging” now become “potentially catastrophic.”
The sheer volume of connected devices is one reason why. Our reliance on them — not only as an industry but as a species — seems to grow exponentially with each passing year.
Another issue: the legacy designs of manufacturing facilities. Many of them were likely designed and built at a time when wireless communications in manufacturing plants was a fictional concept best reserved for an episode of “The Jetsons.”
These two areas are the ones where the collision between today and the future is the harshest. Below, we examine each and how leaders of today’s manufacturing plants can overcome the challenges they present.
1. The Manufacturing Plant Environment
Walls, glass, radio frequency interference: in standard business settings, these can all disturb wireless signals.
Plant environments provide numerous additional barriers to reliable wireless signals, including:
- Extremes in temperature, humidity, moisture, shock, and vibration
- Interference from plant elements such as vehicle cages, ductwork, machines with electrostatic discharge, and shielding.
What’s more, the wireless networks within plants have a lot with which they must contend. That includes:
- A level of device density so great that it compromises reliability
- The array of radio signals spanning across the Industrial/Scientific/Medical within the plant environment
- Incorrect antenna type and/or use
- Faulty channel assignments
… and more. And the density only promises to increase as manufacturers leverage mobile technology to provide plant workers access to data that can help improve production and efficiency. That may include wearables that provide interactive work instructions.
An intriguing tactic, albeit one that will only create an even more crowded wireless field. So what can be done?
- Plants can begin immediately addressing bandwidth constraints and latency fluctuations with a site survey. It’s a step overlooked by many — often alongside the command simply to add more access points — but in our experience carries remarkable predictive power. One that definitely requires more than additional access points. No other single measure will play as significant a role in reliable wireless power in a plant of any notable size and complexity.
- Look at 5 GHz, considered effective in high-density deployments because of its greater number of non-overlapping channels.
2. The Limitations of Legacy Hardware in Manufacturing Plants
A few years back, the Bureau of Economic Analysis pegged the average age of U.S. manufacturing assets and equipment at nearly 20 years. When you consider that the Apple iPhone debuted about 12 years ago, the amount of technological change over 20 years comes into better focus.
It’s a lot of change for some manufacturers to catch up to. Coupled with the “cynicism and complacency” that consultants Pramal Lad and Paul Blackmore suggest can take root in some business leaders — which they say contributes to a decreased willingness to produce new designs — and overcoming legacy hurdles can become the greatest challenge of all.
On the legacy hardware front, plants must contend with:
- Older machines that lack connectivity and/or are limited in the data they can produce
- Poor access point deployment (which could be addressed by the site survey recommended above); this could translate to outdated firmware, too many or too few access points, or access points so old as to lose efficacy
- Machinery that must be kept in a fixed spot
About that final bulleted item: addressing machinery whose virtual “roots” within the plant pose a wireless problem is possible but may incur either pricey cabling costs or pricey downtime to relocate.
This is a situation where the process complexity of modernizing a plant for wireless can stop business leaders in their tracks. And all that does, of course, is compound the problem of aged equipment preventing full modernization/digitization of the location, to the eventual detriment of the bottom line.
- There may be a service provider out there for you capable of helping to modernize your plant without large up-front costs. For example, “Robotics as a service (RaaS)” is growing in manufacturing. RaaS allows companies to pay a subscription fee for robots instead of buying them upfront. Imagine if RaaS allowed a manufacturer access to connected devices (the robots) that did not contribute to interference issues impacting your plant’s wireless signal (unlike, say, components that increased RF interference). That’s a twofer any enterprise would be happy to have.
- More companies are looking at leasing equipment to keep pace with today’s rate of technological change without incurring the big costs of frequent purchases. That leasing power could be leveraged to update equipment with the robust connectivity features Industry 4.0 requires.
- Collaborating with an experienced team capable of shoring up the plant’s technical foundation and, afterward, available for immediate on-site or virtual support. There might just be cabling solutions here that obviate the need for machine relocations and the downtime that comes with them.
CTC Technologies: Here to Help
There is, of course, one final consideration: contacting CTC Technologies today for help in overcoming wireless challenges in a manufacturing environment. We’ve successfully deployed many wireless solutions for clients in manufacturing and many other industries. We’re also ready to deliver measurable results. Contact us today to learn more.