Make the connection: Industry 4.0 happens with industrial-grade private wireless
You may have noticed that talk of Industry 4.0 dominates trade media these days. After decades of lagging productivity compared to ICT businesses, many industrial and asset-heavy businesses are now embracing digital. Driving this shift are technologies like IoT and cloud, which provide a way to translate the physical to the digital. When you add machine learning (ML) and AI into the mix, you get Industry 4.0.
Except, wait, how do we connect all these things together? Digital transformation, after all, only works when everything is connected to everything else.
Cabled networks, such as Ethernet, will play an important role in Industry 4.0; but connecting millions and billions of IoT devices won’t be done only with wires. There are literally ‘too many moving parts’. And even with parts that aren’t moving now, they will need to be moved later during re-tooling or reconfiguration. Businesses expand and contract when markets shift. Above all they have to be agile and scalable. Cabling all these sensors and machines together, will be too expensive and constraining.
In order to keep Industry 4.0 technology connected to the network and the cloud, businesses need to find a complement to cabled networks, one that is more economical, flexible and agile. Next-generation industrial-grade private wireless is the missing ingredient.
By next-generation industrial-grade private wireless, I mean 3GPP mobile technologies like 4.9G/LTE and 5G. It may sound strange to call LTE “next-generation”, given that’s it’s been around for a decade, but the spectrum hasn’t been available for private networks — the licenses were monopolized by mobile operators. And mobile operator LTE networks, although they could be used by industry, weren’t set up for business- or mission-critical performance. And LTE technology itself has been significantly advanced along the way – all the way to 4.9G! It offers many improvements that are very important for industrial applications – higher speeds, lower latencies, support for loT and more.
The big change is that to drive advancements in industry, governments are releasing tranches of radio spectrum dedicated to private networks. This is a game changer as it makes cellular technology accessible for industrial use and will prove to be a major contributor to the widespread adoption of Industry 4.0.
‘But wait,’ you say, ‘we’re using Wi-Fi and it works.’ Of course, Wi-Fi-based industrial solutions have been widely deployed. Many have proven themselves sufficient for isolated point solutions. But they are limited in coverage, reliability, security, predictable performance, multi-user capacity and mobility. Simply put, they won’t take us to the next level required by Industry 4.0.
If we look at factories, mines, port terminals or airports, Wi-Fi has been tried in all these situations. In many cases, it is still being used, but it is being pushed to its limits. In surface mining applications, for example, there are currently a number of cases of autonomous ore trucks being used by big mines. In initial trials with Wi-Fi, as the remotely operated trucks moved from one Wi-Fi zone to the next, they would often lose the network connection — Wi-Fi doesn’t manage the hand-off very well not being a truly mobile protocol. When this happens, the trucks are set up to stop immediately for safety.
Not only can it take up to one minute to re-connect, but these are 390-ton vehicles carrying ore and when they stop suddenly, there is wear and tear on the vehicle and tires and, if they are on a steep slope, always the possibility of losing control. With a truly mobile wireless technology, such as LTE or 5G, none of this is an issue — unless the truck is moving faster than 350km! LTE is now powering autonomous truck applications around the globe.
Wi-Fi has other shortcomings. It isn’t especially secure and can be hacked quite easily. LTE and 5G are highly secure, and in a decade of use in public mobile networks, LTE has never been breached. While Wi-Fi can be very high performance, including quite low latencies, that’s only when there are a few devices per access point. It degrades rapidly with extra devices or heavy load. This lack of predictability is a critical problem for many automated operations. A Wi-Fi access point can handle 30 to 50 connected devices at a time. An LTE radio cell can handle 840 active and several thousand connected devices. And, because it manages the spectrum use differently, it ensures that all users have the same level of consistent, reliable performance.
Fully implemented, Industry 4.0 will introduce way more devices into the operation, so the high number of connected devices is relevant. Also relevant is the lack of support for low-power IoT devices with Wi-Fi, whereas LTE/4.9G and 5G have narrowband IoT (NBIoT) and LTE-M support built in the same radios providing a single network for all applications.
There really are a lot of reasons to be excited about Industry 4.0. The range of applications for automation, machine learning and sensors are almost unlimited. Building safe, affordable and reliable Industry 4.0 applications is just beginning. A large majority of them can be handled by LTE/4.9G today and, in the near future, 5G will support anything we can dream of.
To find out more about the what next-generation industrial wireless can do for you now, download our white paper here
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