Manufacturing plants can be a twisted snarl of machines, conveyor belts, robots, and cables. These busy floors become hard to navigate and nearly impossible to troubleshoot: if the line goes down, it becomes a titanic effort to trace every cable and point of connection.

This impedes repair, which slows down production, which hurts profits in the long run. So how can industrial automation move forward? How can it best protect its industrial computers, HMI panels, and robots from all being taken down by one bad or broken cable in a nest of thousands?

It’s simple: wireless automation.

What is Wireless Automation?

Wireless industrial automation is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a concept devoted to removing as many cables from the manufacturing process as possible.

Primarily, the idea is to combine wireless industrial tablets, wireless-equipped industrial HMI panels, and “Internet of Things” devices to create a network of machines that act in concert without needing twelve miles of cables.

The “Internet of Things” devices are primarily used to replace the sensors that are so vital to the automation process. Be they temperature sensors, vibration sensors, weight, size, or any other, there are wireless alternatives that can connect to a “wireless sensor network,” most commonly referred to as a WSN.

This network then not only monitors and analyzes data from these sensors, it can then feed that information to any industrial computer or HMI panel on the lot.

The Struggles of Wired Networks

Machines on the factory floor often move as part of their function: robot arms have to swing around and access different areas of the product, for example. These movements can be greatly restricted by a braid of control cables, which limits freedom and tends to be a main source of failure.

The more the cables move, the more chance they have of being snagged, breaking, or even just getting yanked out of their ports. It also means the machine is often set to operate at less than ideal agility for fear of causing these issues when they reach “the end of their leash.”

In the past, full wireless industrial automation was difficult due to latency, or lag. In the past, the only way for computers to communicate reliably and at speed was through physical data connections. However, wireless networks and WiFi radios have advanced to the point where a hardline is unnecessary—modern WiFi speeds are faster, the networks are more secure, and they are designed with IoT uses in mind.

Future networks, like the 802.11ay (to be released in Fall of 2019), can pull down up to 20Gbps with a 60Ghz frequency, which is just as fast or faster than many modern data hardlines.

Where is Wireless Industrial Automation Most Effective?

Wireless industrial automation has already been deployed in a number of businesses, and its efficacy has already been well-tested.

For Safety and Cleanliness

Wireless sensors and connected control panels have been put to great effect in the petroleum industry, and are used to detect, control, and contain dangerous leaks and flares that could otherwise have caused massive damage to people and property.

Factories with particularly dirty or dusty conditions can benefit greatly from wireless industrial automation. Cable connectors and ports get corroded by high humidity, they get caked with dirt and lose conductivity, or can even be filled with metal shavings and cause dangerous shorts.

Lastly, manufacturing plants with a lot of moving parts need wireless automation. Machines choked with cables are dangerous machines, are difficult to repair, and add literally hundreds to thousands of points of failure that can be easily eliminated.

Out in the Field

Wireless automation has done well in outdoor areas and in-the-field.

In field conditions, it’s often impossible to lay all of the control and data cable that will be needed for massive operations. Sometimes even power is hard to come by, and machines often have to rely on batteries or nearby gas generators.

For oil or agricultural uses, a wireless solution is often the only solution. Even in areas without WiFi access, an industrial box computer can be equipped with a mobile broadband modem to connect to 3G/4G LTE network. A wireless sensor on an oil pump or in the soil can send data back to a control panel or tablet and can be powered by either a battery or its own generator.

Tips for Deploying Wireless Industrial Automation

The first step to deploying a wireless network for industrial automation is to invest in strong network architecture.

A Powerful WiFi Network

Because this network will be handling a large host of HMIs, tablets, sensors, robots, and other IoT devices, it has to be fast, have a strong signal, and come with solid security measures.

Industrial environments also tend to cause havoc with weak WiFi signals. The heat, rapid temperature change, and even the electromagnetic interference coming from all of the machines in on the factory floor can all contribute to degrading WiFi signals in an area: this is why it’s wise to invest heavily in heavy-duty, large bandwidth WiFi routers.

Industrial Panel PCs and Rugged Tablets for Control

Rugged tablets make for excellent industrial control panels in a wireless automation environment. They are portable and can go anywhere, and since all of the devices in the factory will be on the same network, it means the tablet user can move from station to station and bring the control panel with them. These are called “mobile operator terminals,” and have already been used to great effect in a number of industries.

Industrial HMI panels are always still a good option if you want control panels to be dedicated and to stay where they’re installed. Any industrial PC can be easily fitted with wireless radios or dongles, so don’t feel like you have to use a tablet if that’s not in your plan.

Making Logistics Easier with RFID

Another way to more easily deploy wireless automation is by combining the technology with RFID technology. A rugged tablet with an RFID scanner is great for covering the inventory-tracking and inspection-duties, as well as security, digital lockout/tagout procedures for machines under repair, and for scanning and maintaining the wireless sensors themselves.

The HiFi WiFi Future

No system is perfect, of course: wireless networks do come with their own challenges.

However, the IoT revolution is here, and wireless networks have finally come to the point of safety, security, and speed to support it. Imagine a clean factory floor, where every unit can be controlled from a rugged industrial tablet, a phone, or even from the other side of the country.

To learn more about the future of wireless industrial automation and the best kind of gear you’ll need to implement it, contact Cybernet today.