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Wireless solutions for the smart factory


With the importance of wireless connectivity growing in the manufacturing industry, efficiency and productivity are reaching new heights. Elliot Robinson explores the impact this technology is having on the industry and the solutions that wired communication can offer manufacturers.

Manufacturing is becoming a more intelligent, dynamic, and flexible industry thanks to wireless technologies that are taking productivity and efficiency to new levels. Wireless connectivity is becoming increasingly important for business success, with a growing demand by manufacturers for flexible, connectivity to replace wired communication.

Research predicts that the industrial automation market worldwide will reach $296.7 billion by 2026, almost double its estimated value in 2019. This increase is mainly attributed to companies being forced to adjust to a new digital reality much earlier than expected due to the pandemic.

Smart factories and 5G

UK manufacturers are operating in an unprecedented, challenging environment with constant issues such as socio-economic turbulence, lockdowns, decisions around trade deals with Europe and the potential impact on supply chains. With a backdrop of such uncertainty, manufacturers need to consider what they can do to improve productivity and safeguard their business against external unpredictability. This is where technology, in particular 5G, can help. For the manufacturing sector, 5G has the power to be truly revolutionary.

Across almost every industry in the world, the application of 5G technology has the power to drive positive change and dramatically improve efficiencies. One of the main benefits of 5G networks is that they are designed to be truly secure, highly scalable, and versatile. For the manufacturing sector, the introduction of 5G enables the creation of smart factories.

The level of automation permitted by smart factories promises a host of benefits, including real-time linkages to customer demand forecasts, reliable quality, predictable production capacity and lower cost of production. The heightened visibility, pace of production and efficiency allowed by smart factories are key factors that contribute to driving higher productivity levels in manufacturing.

The advantages of 5G are especially important in lockdown environments, where businesses are forced to move more towards remote operating models. 5G can be a valuable ally here, with its low latency, reliable connectivity and high speeds meaning that workers can connect in real time from different locations. For example, 5G powered virtual reality could be used to connect an engineer at a site with a colleague in the office, allowing them to collaborate and work together, without the need for them to be physically close.

When it comes to networking technologies, 5G is superior to anything else available today, although some businesses may question the benefits of 5G over other technologies, such as Wi-Fi or 4G. One of the major benefits of 5G is its scalability. Unlike Wi-Fi, 5G’s wireless nature means that critical availability can be deployed rapidly across a given environment, with minimal waste and maximum benefit. It is also significantly faster, more reliable, and manageable than any other wireless solution, and able to support a much wider range of applications. This is made possible thanks to network slicing, a functionality that is not available in 4G networks. Network slicing allows for multiple virtual networks to be created on top of the common shared physical network. It enables the complete isolation of services and applications, guaranteeing their delivery within strict performance targets.

“Network slicing will play a critical role in 5G networks, helping to ensure that the network can support multiple use cases and services at any one time,” Vassilis Seferidis, founder and CEO of Zetta Networks, says. “Each use of a case or service places different demands on the network, and the right functionality must be delivered to the right place, which is what network slicing achieves. When considering this in an industrial setting, network slicing is especially beneficial for low latency applications, for example, the real-time control of industrial machinery.”

Managing big data

Over the last decade, advances in performance monitoring capabilities have improved the industry’s ability to analyse large volumes of data in real time. Wireless sensors, particularly those monitoring large or complex processes, can gather lots of data, which is then stored in a format such as comma separated values for analysing in a spreadsheet. Manually analysing all this data can sometimes be laborious and time consuming. Asset managers need a better place to store, visualise and monitor their data repository, combined with a customisable automated alerts system to let them know when there is a problem so they can act immediately to protect key assets.

In the era of Industry 4.0 and the widespread adoption of industrial internet of things (IIoT) technologies, the benefits of installing cloud based remote monitoring systems across a facility are more compelling than ever. It is the most convenient and cost-effective way of managing system performance. By remotely monitoring and managing assets over long periods, the industry reaps the rewards in the form of lower operating costs, faster response times and better service levels.

Cloud based remote monitoring systems are becoming increasingly popular across a variety of industrial sectors including agriculture, food and beverage, and construction. Site managers are recognising the benefits of being able to store and analyse all their data in one easy to use umbrella platform, rather than having to consolidate several complex spreadsheets. Having the ability to customise your data dashboards, from simple numerical displays of operational parameters to in-depth graphical summaries, will inevitably save a lot of time.

There are also financial benefits associated with data monitoring methods to consider. “The installation can be more efficient for companies because a wireless system removes the need for running cables, which removes the need for sending personnel to site for data monitoring and extraction for the company,” Stephen Hosgood, sales manager at signal conditioning and wireless telemetry specialist Mantracourt, says.

The vast potential of IIoT and 5G

The development of IIoT, which is vital for enabling connectivity in manufacturing, has not been a major focus as capital spends have been directed more towards the development of 5G since the pandemic began. However, as everything moves forward and communication capabilities continue to become more robust, affordable, and the essential need for manufacturing to be more connected increases, the development of IoT within the space is set to grow significantly.

5G is expected to increase factory capabilities, boost agility and free entire operations from a wired connection. When comparing a 5G automated factory with other similar operations that are not yet automated, output per employee has been found to improve by 120 per cent and manual material handling reduced by 65 per cent. A recent study carried out found that factories utilising IoT have the potential to achieve a value equal to an additional one dollar per square meter every day, which for large factory floors could mean tens of millions in added value over a 12-month period.

“A great example of this would be the Atlas Copco Airpower factory,” Dr Paul Carter, CEO and founder of Global Wireless Solutions, says. “They use a wireless network to provide connectivity across its 20,000m2 facility, supporting intelligent and flexible manufacturing processes as well as autonomous control across a range of machinery and monitors connected at every stage via 5G, offering a glimpse into how goods and services will be produced in the future.” Factories of all sizes will benefit financially from this shift. Greater automation in manufacturing processes, smarter plant operations, and flexibility enabled by seamless wireless communications have already improved efficiency for many household names. Recent survey data found that 62 per cent of US organisations are investing in smart factories. However, there are still challenges ahead, including transforming dated legacy infrastructure and the UK’s slow adjustment to 5G deployment.

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