Communications & Networks
Modernizing manufacturing with a future-ready mobile network
By Shawn Lemley
By Shawn Lemley
October 9, 2018 – While futuristic technologies like autonomous machines, unmanned systems and smart devices are more prevalent in industrial business applications than ever before; however, manufacturing facilities continue to struggle with the pervasive connectivity required to create the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
IIoT in a factory connects all devices in a secure manner, enabling real-time decisions and business intelligence. For example, a plant can connect robots, forklifts and manufacturing machines to reduce downtime, direct robots to store the finished goods in the right location, and monitor the forklifts to send them to the right location for pickup and shipping – all while monitoring machine health in real time.
However, to support this new toolbox of capabilities and technologies, plants require a mobile network that can provide the connectivity necessary to keep up with demands. The typical hub-and-spoke architectures of cellular and Wi-Fi no longer work in an environment where all devices, both fixed and mobile, need to be connected in a self-healing, resilient architecture:
- Hub-and-spoke technologies require line of sight, which is not always possible in such a dynamic, mobile environment.
- Mobility is essential. Everything in a manufacturing environment – people, assets, devices and machines – is constantly moving, and the network must be able to move with its environment in order to be always connected and truly functional.
- The need for reliable connectivity is critical: All devices and machines (mobile and fixed) must communicate seamlessly – providing an uninterrupted data flow is critical to a safe and productive environment.
- Scalability and future-proofing will ensure that a network can grow with a plant/facility over time without negatively impacting the network– more devices and nodes can be accommodated while maintaining a high level of network performance and reliability, now and in the future.
- The need for capacity on all networks will continue to increase, especially as more IIoT devices join a network and demand for data grows. Today’s industrial networks see traffic creeping from kilobytes to megabytes to gigabytes, so having a network infrastructure that can support that growing demand is imperative.
These qualities can be challenging to find in a network, though. Cellular and traditional networks struggle to keep up with dynamic new applications. Additionally, manufacturing plants don’t always have enough existing cell towers (or any towers at all) located within their range, and it can take an enormous effort to have one installed in a new location. Reliable connectivity issues can leave assets “stranded” without connectivity, limiting productivity and leaving plants in the lurch.
What plants need to prepare for the future is a completely mobile network that can move with and become one with a plant.
Kinetic mesh wireless: A network for the future
Wireless mesh networks are ideal for a manufacturing plant because of their inherent mobility, flexibility of scale and reliability.
In a kinetic mesh topology, all wireless radios, or nodes, can be interchangeably fixed or mobile, communicating on a peer-to-peer basis. With the nodes essentially acting as compact, rugged, transportable, mini cell towers, virtually anything in the organization’s infrastructure can be used by the network.
The network self-optimizes as nodes move and conditions change, reacting immediately to changes in network topology, network load and external environmental conditions to keep operators constantly connected to, and in control of, high-value assets on the move.
Cell towers must break connectivity to make handoffs, which introduces the risk for data loss. A kinetic mesh network features multiple levels of node redundancy and frequency diversity, and every node makes and maintains multiple simultaneous connections. Therefore, no connections need to be broken for new ones to be made. If a path is blocked or interference is identified, instead of dropping connections, information is instantly redirected over the best available path(s), creating total mobility and communications agility.
Line-of-sight issues cease to be a problem as well. If terrain or moving assets interrupt a cell tower’s line of sight, connectivity can be obstructed, with no way around it. Kinetic mesh nodes are mobile, generating more lines of sight, and the mesh networking technology dynamically selects the fastest path from hundreds of potential options – automatically routing around interference, congestion, etc.
Additionally, kinetic mesh is highly scalable, allowing manufacturers to create or augment network infrastructure ad hoc. Nodes can be rapidly deployed virtually anywhere, on virtually any asset (fixed or mobile), to extend or enhance operational coverage, forming an adaptable, dynamic network that has the ability to provide reliable wide-range communications practically anywhere.
Any expansion does not cripple connectivity; rather, kinetic mesh strengthens as it grows. Each additional node establishes new pathways for data to use, making the network more resilient as it expands, without compromising speed or performance. In a kinetic mesh network, a large number of nodes can be an asset and actually improve performance.
These qualities create a network equipped to handle both today’s demands and those of the future – one that is easily deployed and scalable to hundreds of nodes to support device-intensive IIoT environments.
Ensuring a connected future
With the number of connected devices, sensors and technologies on the rise, the manufacturing industry has the potential to modernize their working environments and gain real-time visibility into the status of people, equipment and operations within their facilities – but a solid network foundation is a necessity.
Look for a converged network infrastructure that can connect and support all assets and devices – not just today, but also 10 or even 20 years from now, when the manufacturing floor will look very different. It’s important to invest in a communications infrastructure that can grow with a business, giving a manufacturer the ability to benefit from cost and efficiency improvements. It’s ideal to have a network that can increase its capacity in order to handle the application requirements and data capacity of new future solutions.
Building a reliable network starts with reliable hardware. Kinetic mesh networks provide manufacturing operations with complete mobility, mission-critical reliability and scalability – a future-ready network.