This article will discuss:
- Why industrial wireless will replace wired connections in the factory of the future
- The importance of 5G and the benefits it brings to industrial operations
- How wireless networks will change the operations within the factories of the future
The factories of the future are expected to be Industrie 4.0-enabled facilities, and many of them have begun the process of adopting the business models defined by the 4th industrial revolution. Industrie 4.0-compliant factories will rely on data capture, analytics, and interconnectivity to achieve near real-time automation. Thus, the factory of the future is one in which large data sets will be continuously transferred from machine to machine and machine to the cloud or external computing platforms. To accomplish this, a reliable network that ensures low latency while providing high-bandwidth is required. 5G wireless network alongside other mesh networks has been touted as the connectivity solution of the future.
Wired connections and the challenges they pose to Industrie 4.0 initiatives
Today, wired networks remain the most popular communication and data transfer medium used within industrial facilities. The popularity of wired connections is based on two important factors. These factors are the connectivity technology integrated into shop-floor equipment and its ability to deliver reliable, low-latency data transfer without redundancy.
With wired networks, a pathway to connectivity is generally available regardless of the geographical location of a factory, which is why it is used for data transfers for important factory systems. Also, facilities that make use of large equipment that stays in one location throughout its life cycle rely on wired networks or cable connections due to the permanence their static nature provides.
Although wired connections offer diverse benefits as stated above, the adoption of Industrie 4.0 within the factories of tomorrow poses some challenges to wired deployments. The large-scale deployment of Industrial IoT (IIoT) devices and the interconnectivity they require to function is one challenge wired networks struggle to provide an adequate solution to.
Today, many IIoT devices deployed within today's shop floors are not equipped with wired connectors. These IIoT devices are built to connect to the internet using wireless connections. The slow but certain phasing out of wired connectors is expected to continue as the adoption rate of IIoT continues to soar. Large-scale deployments of IIoT, edge devices, and smart manufacturing equipment also pose challenges to the use of wired connections. The cost of wiring a large-scale facility and maintaining the physical cables, connectors, and tools used is a recurrent cost that must be paid to stay connected. The labor that goes into laying the cables and plugging them into factory equipment are costs that must be considered when analyzing how much it costs to make use of wired networks in large-scale facilities.
Wireless networks, 5G, and the factory of the future
The factory of the future will rely on data-driven business models to grow revenue and deliver products or services to the end-user. Estimates show that by 2025 the manufacturing industry will realize more profit from the services they provide compared to the products they sell, and this trend is expected to seep through all factory-related business models.
To provide optimized services while adopting data-driven business models, a reliable, affordable network is required. 5G and industrial wireless networks are expected to be the drivers of the data-driven factory of the future as they provide answers to the important networking challenges Industrie 4.0 faces. These challenges and how 5G provides a solution include:
- Time-critical process optimization - Factories abound with time-critical systems and operations that can be derailed if real-time data processing isn't provided. These systems include the use of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) navigating shop floors, edge devices, collaborating robots, and equipment.
Using AGVs as an example, these vehicles are expected to transport goods throughout the length and breadth of a facility. AGVs are programmed to receive instructions over wireless networks because dragging a wired cable through the shop floor can lead to accidents. 5G wireless networks capable of very low-latency communications provide the deterministic Wi-Fi AGVs require for their time-critical navigation processes. AGVs that go off-track must also be immediately controlled to avoid accidents. In this case, wearables can be used to control the AGV. For this to work in real-time, a wireless network that connects both assets are required due to the possibility of a broken wired cable when the incident occurs.
- Remote machine monitoring and services - Remote machine monitoring and the option of providing remote maintenance or repair services rely on the reliability of interconnected systems and augmented reality (AR). For remote machine monitoring, factory equipment must be able to transfer machine data to the cloud in real-time regardless of location. 5G networks provide a more reliable and direct transfer pathway compared to wired cables. Remote maintenance services also follow the pattern of transferring machine data to a central network that can be accessed by the service provider. The service provider then accesses the data while relying on AR to assist technicians on the shop floor. In this situation, a wireless network provides the interconnectivity and interoperability needed to provide remote services to factories.
- System interoperability - Industrie 4.0 involves optimizing both shop-floor operations and other interrelated operations that ensure an enterprise provides its customers or consumers with optimized service-levels. For example, supply-chain disruptions will lead to downtime which affects the ability of a factory to meet its production timelines. Thus, a comprehensive data-driven plant performance optimization business model must take into consideration the supply chain and inventory management challenges.
In this example, supply chains and inventory are managed using IoT devices and supply-chain software. The data collected from the software and deployed devices must be integrated and processed within an industrial cloud platform to develop accurate production master plans and operational schedules. 5G networks provide the connectivity needed to transfer data from IoT devices in the field to a centralized location for processing.
The factory of the future will rely on interconnectivity and interoperability between assets within the shop floor and assets deployed in other locations. Wireless networking, and 5G in particular, will provide the low latency and high bandwidth needed to automate and optimize the diverse operations and Industrie 4.0 use cases that will occur within future shop floors.