Wireless technology, specifically the 5G network, is on the rise in the global world today. Advances in these types of networks, like the wireless IoT destined to make factories smarter are bringing huge transformations in manufacturing industries. Many industries now have reached for predictive and prescriptive maintenance, self-healing production with almost non-existent downtime, remote-controlled processes, autonomous robotics and augmented reality systems.
Because of faster network speeds, lower latency, higher data output for the connected devices, and data processing required on the factory floor along with enabling a huge number of low-power battery-powered sensors, 5G is fast becoming the future of communication in the manufacturing industry.
Most companies today are inefficient in their operation. The use of old technologies, broken supply chains, lack of production visibility, and lack of IT integration are some of the factors that are responsible for the companies to keep them from operating at full capacity. In terms of productivity and operational efficiency, converting a manufacturing factory into a smart factory offers enormous benefits. This enables the factories to overcome these inefficiencies. To turn a manufacturing factory into a smart factory, companies are in search of new technologies to improve their performance. This is where the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) comes into play.
What is IoT?
Internet of Things refers to a system of interrelated computers, machines, objects, and even people or animals assigned with unique identifiers (UIDs) that are capable of transferring data over a network without any human-to-computer interaction. IoT refers to all the objects connected to the internet and the communication between them through data transfer over the cloud. Industrial IoT, thus, refers to a network of interconnected sensors, instruments, actuators, and other devices that are networked together with a company’s industrial applications consequently facilitating improvements in the productivity and efficiency of the company.
The success of any manufacturing industry depends on how efficiently the industry can reduce manufacturing costs and make production as effective as possible. The use of IIoT in the manufacturing process enables a company for a whole new level of efficient production.
Challenges in implementing IoT solutions on the factory floor
As mentioned, transforming a manufacturing facility into a smart one results in enormous benefits in terms of productivity and operational efficiency. However, there are a number of challenges while implementing IoT solutions on the factory floor. We are going to discuss some of them below.
Connectivity: One of the main challenges of converting a manufacturing factory into a smart factory is to connect devices on the plant floor. Since the beginning of networking, companies have preferred wired connectivity in manufacturing because of the lower speed bandwidth of wireless networks and their inability to penetrate into the buildings made of concrete. In addition, until the invention of the 5G network, manufacturers had not seen the reliability in the previous generations of networks which could outweigh the risks involved in adopting those wireless networks.
However, with the advent of 5G, companies are starting to realize the reliability and productivity of wireless networks in even the most demanding of applications, such as automation control and high throughput vision.
Yet, wired network connectivity is still present in many factories even today. To deploy 5G successfully in a manufacturing environment, the collaboration between all the systems from corporate information and communication technologies (IT) to the manufacturing operational technologies (OT) is a must.
Interoperability: The latest innovations such as IIoT, Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), etc. have resulted in the integration of automated devices and services into unified networks. As a consequence, the need for interoperability has increased dramatically.
In an interconnected system, all of the components must be able to communicate with each other in an efficient manner. Interoperability is impossible to achieve without all of the components working together and hence, the full potential of IoT cannot be fulfilled.
Security: There's a growing concern that businesses aren't taking strong enough security precautions. Lack of security has resulted in various infamous security breaches in the recent past. Mirai, Stuxnet, the Jeep Hack, etc. are some of the data breaches that have made us realize the importance of security measures.
IoT security is a concern for any device connected to the IoT. If the network is accessible, the connected devices could be hacked which causes obstruction in the production process. For manufacturers, the security of IoT can be challenging in two ways, vulnerabilities within the products as well as from the production halts caused due to security breaches.
Read more: How Will AI Transform IoT Architecture?
Wireless IoT for Smart Factories Today
With the advent of the next industrial revolution, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR) or Industry 4.0, more and more companies are moving towards emerging technology like IoT for smarter solutions to optimize their industrial processes and factories. The global market for IoT clearly reflects this rapid pace of adoption of IoT in industrial applications.
The IoT market in 2020 was 761 Billion US Dollars. Researchers predict that the market valuation for the IoT industry as a whole will cross 1,386 Billion US Dollars by 2026. This rapid rise in the valuation represents a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 10%. Furthermore, this figure is also well within expectations to increase drastically after the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in industries subside.
This trend of adoption is already evident with major technological and industrial players shifting towards wireless IoT technologies in their industrial processes and factories.
Caterpillar is one of the most well-known companies to adopt Wireless IoT. Only a few years ago, the company began to install its machinery with sensors and make them capable of connecting to a network, hence enabling the users to closely monitor and optimize processes. Their digital solution Cat Connect Technologies and Services, with installation on more than half a million vehicles, collects and analyzes usage data from the machine with regards to equipment management, safety, sustainability and productivity. With this huge database, users can create predictive maintenance solutions and discover new ways to increase efficiency.
Hortilux is another company using Wireless IoT to make its factory smarter. Just as Caterpillar, Hortilux helps customers to make better and more informed decisions with accurate data analysis. Hortilux installs its equipment with cloud-enabled sensors which connect growers to HortiSense, a software solution that analyzes growing conditions including weather forecasts.
Faurecia is a renowned manufacturer of interiors and emissions controls for automobiles. Among its clients are Volkswagen, GM, and Ford, to name a few. Faurecia, like other component manufacturers, is undergoing a massive digital transition. The company constructed a 400,000-square-foot facility in 2016 with Industrial IoT and automation in mind.
The facility's PLC-enabled machines are all connected to a single computer, dubbed the "lake," which connects plant floor activities to their execution and reporting systems. The resulting integrated system provides accurate operational transparency, unrivaled production quality control, and seamless components traceability.
The new technology also improves the quality and speed of communication throughout the company. A stable high-speed internet connection is available on both the plant floor and in the management areas, allowing operators and management to respond promptly to any issues that may emerge.
Tesla’s Wireless Industrial IoT strategy is about looking at the factory as a product, rather than a place. Tesla solves manufacturing issues as if they are debugging software by developing solutions that draw from their diverse technical and engineering backgrounds.
In Tesla’s Gigafactory, you’ll find Autonomous Indoor Vehicles (AIVs) which improve the transfer of materials between workstations. These vehicles operate based on a complex logic algorithm, meaning they don’t require any preset path to carry out their duties. The vehicles can carry payloads up to 130 lbs., and can even charge their own battery without intervention.
Among these companies, Airbus is probably using wireless IoT at a prominent level.
How Airbus is using Wireless IoT
Airbus is using Wireless IoT to support the assembly of aircraft. During the manufacturing process, thousands of rivets are used to attach panels to an airframe, and the panels need to be drilled and fastened in a very particular way. Riveting must be done in the right order and the correct torque settings used for torque wrenches.
Airbus drills an estimated 120 million holes a year to fasten aircraft panels. Only 25% of this activity is automated while 75% of the work is done manually.
The manual processes for drilling and fastening panels require tools to be configured with very specific settings, and panels must be fastened to the airframe in a consistent way.
If a tool operator works at a station on the aircraft production line for an eight-hour shift, but the panel being fastened takes 12 hours to finish, the work needs to be passed on to another operator. There is a potential problem at the hand-over interface between the end of the first operator’s shift and what is then communicated to the next operator, who has to carry on where the first operator left off.
If the second operator, then takes over but works in the wrong way and the work needs to be redone, this could prove very expensive. The answer is to monitor the work each operator does in near real-time so that production errors can be corrected immediately.
Today, the tools used by operators working on an aircraft’s construction have sensors. Typically, IoT applications deploy sensors at the so-called edge, onto physical devices, which then feed data back to a centralized control and feedback system, which acts like a supervisor.
The IoT application in a centralized architecture assumes it will always have a network connection. It depends on a reliable network supporting hundreds of operators using tools with sensors, all operating at the same radio frequency. The tools will all be sending data to the back-end system simultaneously, and this is likely to cause a network contention issue at some point.
But Airbus realized that such an architecture would not be practical on the factory floor. Instead of relying on a back-end server that knows everything about the process, with dumb clients at the edge, each tool has its own set of capabilities, he says. The tools are preset for the job but can be configured on the fly. The software that supports the tools provides the necessary intelligence to manage the hand-over between shifts, and ensure that production errors are rectified quickly.
So, to avoid potential errors in production, the tools themselves need to have intelligence at the IoT edge. They run a small piece of agent software that sends a 36-byte message to an HPE Edge line server, using a non-standard network protocol, which supports a very low data latency of 50 milliseconds. This enables an adjustment to be made on the tool, or the operator can be alerted about the error, very quickly, which reduces lost production time.
Airbus is an operator-driven company and technology must be deployed as an enabler. This means that digitization cannot stop aircraft production, or get in the way of operators doing their job.
Today, the manufacturing industry has a unique opportunity to update their facilities' wired systems to wireless for increased efficiency. The multiplicity of new applications necessitates improved industrial communication.As a result, wireless communication, especially influential ones like the Wireless IoT destined to make factories smarter is becoming more business and mission important, necessitating increasingly stringent reliability, latency, and security requirements.