Manufacturing requires highly dynamic operating environments that rely on an ever-growing number of sophisticated applications. Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) have been common buzzwords in manufacturing for several years now as OEMs embrace automation, and their customers expect machines that function in an increasingly connected facility. But for machine-to-machine communication and Industry 4.0 applications to fully materialize, there must be a network underpinning everything. Before the things in IIoT can communicate and function seamlessly, they need a solid network to function.
However, network choices for industrial enterprises are limited, requiring fixed infrastructure to ensure communication, which puts a strain on OEMs and the environments their machinery operates in. This is especially true in settings with moving robotics and automation deeply embedded in operations.
Also read: What will 5G do for you?
Three network-connectivity solutions can be problematic for some of the environments where machines function.
Wi-Fi brings the benefits of high speed and capacity to support an increasing concentration of mobile devices. However, local area network (LAN) technology is limited in terms of the distance and climate it can excel in. As anyone who has ever sat far enough away from the Wi-Fi router at home knows, a Wi-Fi connection literally only goes so far. This type of connection is best suited for indoor facilities where the majority of people, machines or robots are relatively stationary. Numerous access points must be added to keep sprawling outdoor operations covered, making the network difficult to design for desired performance. Not only that, but Wi-Fi signals degrade rapidly as one moves farther from access points. These networks cannot work around interferences, which means coverage drops are far more common. These drops are simply unacceptable in the IIoT.
Wi-Fi limits often leave operators to believe that a long-term evolution (LTE) network is what they need. LTE is a high-performance air interface for cellular mobile communication systems. It is an advancement in fourth-generation (4G) radio technologies. LTE’s reach is measured in kilometers, as tall 4G towers can disperse signals over large disperse areas to achieve wide area coverage. LTE solves the problem that Wi-Fi often struggles to overcome.
But challenges with LTE in industrial environments abound. Machine builders who serve customers in challenging physical locations like mines would know this well. LTE still can’t reach shadowed areas like the bottom of an open-pit mine.
Moreover, relocating or adding a tower to achieve everywhere coverage is a complex, costly and time-consuming feat.
LTE data rates also degrade the farther mobile equipment moves from the tower, and most bandwidth is dedicated to downstream access. Because of this, LTE lacks the upstream speeds industrial operations need to run multiple mission-critical apps, such as real-time machine guidance.
5G, the fifth-generation mobile network, promises things like significantly higher performance and improved efficiency that can connect pretty much everyone and everything. While it is true that 5G will take advantage of higher frequencies to deliver data rates faster than 4G, there are still 5G network disadvantages. It isn’t the silver bullet of connectivity for OEMs and their customers.
That’s because these frequencies have a much shorter range and require line of sight, meaning more towers are needed, escalating deployment and maintenance costs. And it still doesn’t solve the root challenge of LTE in industrial settings—namely, that radio frequency can’t travel through common industrial obstructions like thick steel or rock.
A wireless mesh can work in tandem with other networks to ensure that machines and workers stay connected in all environments.
The best wireless mesh choices provide more resilient, fully mobile coverage everywhere across an industrial setting. Look for a wireless mesh network with many nodes—connection points in a communications link—that work peer-to-peer, simultaneously holding multiple connections over multiple frequencies. This creates a phenomenon where hundreds of potential paths to connection are available without throughput degradation or lag. Optimally, nodes can be fixed or mobile and easily deployed on moving equipment to extend coverage in hard-to-reach places. Importantly, this enables machine-to-machine communications, which can be crucial in many dynamic environments.
The key to a wireless mesh network is to have a kind of traffic cop that knows how to direct traffic. Intelligently orchestrating traffic over mesh connections selects the absolute fastest path for delivery among all options. What happens if there is a signal blockage? The beauty of having dozens of nodes in an environment and a smart network to tell everyone where to go is that traffic can be redirected to the next-best available path. Networks can self-optimize, which helps make mobility possible. This means application performance is not hoped for; it is ensured, regardless of when or where apps run.
In short, wireless mesh network can extend Wi-Fi speed and capacity outdoors while simultaneously bringing nonstop mobile connectivity to the table. This type of mesh is a gap-filling solution that provides added machine-to-machine communication and a level of assurance in mission-critical environments. This kind of connectivity allows OEMs to create machines for constant, uninterrupted connection.
Geoff Smith is executive vice president of global sales and marketing for Rajant. Contact him at 484-595-0233.