As wireless technology has become more prevalent, we are witnessing ever more examples of its practical applications beyond the realms of the office and living room, where its use was originally envisioned.
Until recently, most companies within the industrial sector relied on fibre optic cables to support their network infrastructure. These cables are hardwired into place and devices are connected through set access points (APs). Whilst they permit high transmission speeds and large volumes of traffic, fibre optic cables degrade over time, causing signal degradation and a reduction in data transfer speeds. Many such cables that were installed in the late nineties are now coming to the end of their operational lifespan.
As companies have grown and expanded, some wired networks have become limiting, due to the way in which the networks were first embedded in the premises. For companies based on a large site, the installation of a wired network will require cable trenches to be dug, which can be an expensive additional cost.
As more systems have gained wireless functionality, and the associated hardware has become more durable, heavy industry have begun using wireless technology for their network infrastructure.
Taking the leap
Choosing when to upgrade is critical. Most companies that choose to upgrade to a wireless network do so when they would otherwise be replacing their wired network. Other companies choose to upgrade when they are moving to new premises.
Despite the cost of having to upgrade the networks to using wireless systems, such as installing wireless routers through the site, this can be negligible compared with the cost of installing new fibre optic cables on site. Wireless systems can also be used in harsh environments, which would otherwise require heavy protection for fibre optic cables, saving further costs for the company.
Freezing, for example, can cause temporary signal degradation, or permanent damage, while high radiation levels causes clouding of fibre optic cables. The clouding absorbs the signal being transmitted along the fibre optic cable, thus causing the signal to degrade.
Wireless technology has improved productivity, as it makes the network more accessible and adaptive, rather than being situated in predetermined locations. When combined with handheld or wearable technology, this allows employees to always be able to access the corporate network for a variety of applications.
Ford’s production line employees in Valencia have recently begun using wireless networks as part of a pilot scheme. Using a wrist-worn portable quality assurance device, factory workers are able to connect to the company network and check the specifications for each vehicle, which could be one of hundreds of possible design specifications.
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Allowing for instantaneous access to this information has reduced human error by 7% and decreased vehicle checking times by seven seconds for each vehicle. With 400,000 vehicles inspected each year, this is a saving of nearly 780 man-hours each year.
“We have varied options and features across our vehicle range, and digital innovation in our plants helps us to generate lean methods within the manufacturing process,” says Linda Cash, vice-president of manufacturing for Ford of Europe. “The ability to simply consult a smartphone screen to check any aspect of a vehicle’s quality and specification helps to guarantee highest levels of product quality, and improves work processes and manufacturing efficiency.”
The Bluetooth-enabled device used by Ford operates by recognising the quality inspection requirements for each vehicle and displaying them on the touchscreen of the device, allowing employees to instantly refer to the appropriate vehicle details.
Health and safety
In other industries, wireless technology has also been used to improve plant safety, whereby rather than taking measurements in person, it can now be conducted remotely. There have been instances of wireless drones being used to inspect elements that are in toxic or hard-to-reach places, on a far more regular basis than would otherwise be practical.
Wireless technology allows access to remote devices and blind spots in a facility, where measurements are not performed as often as they perhaps should be. This increase in readings allows plant managers to detect minor degradations long before they evolve into serious situations, which could potentially be hazardous and require greater downtime and financial expenditure.
Freedom to innovate
Using a wireless network means companies are no longer reliant on network point locations when proposing new office or factory layouts. This freedom of movement allows directors far greater options when developing their companies, as well as no longer having the cost of installing new network points, should they wish to increase employee numbers.
Nottingham-based Agilitas is an ‘inventory-as-a-service solutions provider’ for companies throughout the UK. Six years ago they upgraded their 35,000 square-feet warehouse to a wireless-network.
With the flexibility that wireless networks allow, the warehouse team at Agilitas now use barcode scanners to identify each part – all of which have a unique stock reference number – through a handheld barcode scanner attached to a laptop computer.
“The benefit is to the stock accuracy,” says Agilitas operations director John Street. “Our KPI [key performance indicator] for stock accuracy is 99.5%. From a stock accuracy point of view, guys looking around the warehouse for a missing part is a non-benefit for us.” In addition to these benefits, accessing this information through the network-connected laptops means their parts database is constantly updated with the latest inventories and no longer runs the risk of there being duplicate requests for the same part, as a result of the inventory not being updated as promptly.
This wireless network cost approximately £1,000 to install, and eventually provided 100% coverage throughout the warehouse once the gaps were discovered and corrected. The cost of the installation was soon recovered through increased operating efficiency, especially during subsequent stock-takes. Using the previous wired network for a stock-take, warehouse operatives needed to download the inventory information in batches. Now, however, the information is constantly to hand, accessed through the network connected devices that the operatives carry upon their person.
The recent expansion of their warehouse into the mezzanine was also relatively simple. “We just told our IT department that we were expanding, they made plans and tested the coverage to ensure it was at full strength,” explains Street. “The alternative would have been the cabled option, but that was not something we wanted in the warehouse, due to the trip hazard.”
However, wireless networks are not without their downside. Due to their very nature, in that they are wirelessly broadcast, wireless networks are far easier to eavesdrop. This is something that wired networks do not have to worry about as much, since they are generally a closed system and much harder to interfere with.
The potential for eavesdropping can be mitigated through the application of end-to-end encryption. Using this encryption, even if a third party attempted to eavesdrop on a wireless network, they would require the encryption key to understand what was being transmitted. Companies could also use frequency hopping, where the wireless signal is repeatedly switched to mitigate possible snooping.
Wireless networks have also been subject to interference and noise. However, as wireless technology has advanced, allowing them to become more robust and the signal more stable, this is not as much of a problem as it once was.
Wireless networks are currently unable to sustain heavy bandwidths with a high connection rate. Thus, if companies expect a high data flow through their network, then they should avoid using wireless networks.
Likewise, companies that require high-speed communication rates and response times, such as those that have anti-surge systems or high-speed motor controls, will find that wireless infrastructure is not suitable for their network.
The greater the distance the wireless network signal has to travel, the weaker it becomes, but with appropriately distributed routers and signal boosters this is no longer as much of a problem as it once was.
The hybrid option
Some companies operate a dual network, using separate wired and wireless networks as part of their overall infrastructure.
For example, due to the high-risk nature of the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing and decommissioning site, Sellafield is looking at operating multiple levels of networks. Anything that is considered low-risk could be connected to a wireless network, while high-risk systems would be restricted to a closed wired-network.
As wireless technology has improved and become robust, companies need to consider upgrading their networks to wireless systems, or risk being left behind by their competitors.
Wireless networks may not be an appropriate network system for all companies. Yet, for those that can use them, they offer a low-cost, flexible network infrastructure. When used to their fullest, wireless networks allow companies to increase productivity, reduce costs and mitigate risk.