Industrial Wireless: From Data Platforms to Strategic Solutions

Aug. 9, 2021
Industry 4.0 has created opportunities for expanded industrial wireless solutions and capabilities. Discover what questions your company should ask themselves when headed into the development of their industrial wireless standards.

If you are reading this article, you are most likely a consumer of wireless technology—at least in your personal life. In the industrial space, wireless has been utilized for dozens of years for the transmission of data from personal devices or fixed assets and based upon a specific job function or where wired communication was not feasible or desirable. However, the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and Industry 4.0 drivers such as digital twins, augmented reality, gamification, and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has created opportunities for expanded industrial wireless solutions and capabilities with a much broader range of users and use cases. This includes everyone from shop floor users and geographically dispersed asset management teams to the top floor where executives are realizing that wireless isn’t only a technology platform; it offers technology solutions delivering safety, efficiency, and cost reductions with positive impact to the bottom line.

There are four major wireless platforms in use within the industrial space today: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Cellular, and Zigbee. These can be used independently or in more recent years as hybrid solutions to provide a more comprehensive platform for multiple solution implementations.

This increase in user demand, a growing and diverse set of solutions, and tangible value for industrial wireless solutions is driving a sense of urgency for companies to use more wireless solutions. It is then critical to create policies and procedures specific to wireless technologies that will become part of the overall corporate information Technology (IT)/operational Technology (OT) strategy.

Once wireless is considered strategic, a more comprehensive wireless technology plan is required to ensure there are standards for approved platforms, installation guidelines, security, and ongoing management and maintenance. Here are a few key questions for a company to ask and answer heading into development of their industrial wireless standards:

1. Who will be involved in creating the industrial wireless standards?

For any corporate standards initiative, there must be at least one executive sponsor who will provide updates to the rest of the executive leadership team and align the wireless standards with the organization’s current policies. In addition, the executive sponsor will offer the organization’s 1-, 3-, and 5-year business and financial goals and set funding expectations. The remainder of the team should minimally include representatives from multiple departments such as IT, engineering, operations, safety/HR, and finance. These diverse perspectives help flesh out the content that should be included in the wireless standards including, but not limited to, the technical requirements, system selection and ROI requirements, vendor qualifications, security and cybersecurity prevention, and staffing needs for ongoing maintenance and support. If a company does not have a lot of experience with wireless technologies, it is suggested they retain an outside organization with depth of knowledge in wireless technologies and security to participate in this process.

2. What wireless solutions are in use today and what value are they providing the organization?

If the team developing the wireless standards is small and/or not fully dedicated to this initiative, an outside company may be contracted to help identify and assess the current wireless technologies that are in use today within the organization. This includes a technical evaluation including, for example, the platform firmware and software components, lifecycle and obsolescence analysis, support—internal and external, cost of use and maintenance, etc. In addition, the operational or impact evaluation should be done to determine the value provided in the form of cost or risk reduction, or revenue increase, and if that value was short-term or ongoing. The combined technical and impact assessment for existing wireless technologies will identify the platforms and solutions requiring remediation, and those that may be considered as part of the wireless standards moving forward.

3. What factors may be considered in evaluating existing or new wireless technologies as part of a wireless standard?

Every organization will value features and functionality differently, so it is important to establish not only the list of evaluation factors, but their weighted value. Is reliability more important than speed? Is durability more important than cost? Once the factors are established an organization can scorecard current and proposed wireless platforms and solutions. In some instances, where wired versus wireless is being discussed, these factors may also be helpful in that evaluation. Examples of factors to be considered and weighted include:

  • Coverage range: Distance required, continuous coverage or is “hopping” acceptable, indoor or outdoor, public and/or private space or properties to be a part of the wireless coverage area.
  • Use Environment: Temperature ranges, weather conditions, potential for interference or damage, installation or placement requiring special consideration (e.g., confined space), identify if wired or hybrid wired, and wireless is an option.
  • Security / cybersecurity risk: Established and proven security measures already  exist, remote installation physical or cyber-attack risk potential, monitoring methods and procedures, security breach response and responsibilities.
  • Speed and reliability: Identify the data packet volume and frequency required, criticality of data being collected.
  • Costs for: Installation / Security / Maintenance: Evaluate the initial cost for these (and other) areas related to ownership and use of the system, ongoing licensing fees, hidden charges or variable rate contracts, ownership of the intellectual property (IP) for contracted solutions “built to order”, current depth of knowledge within the organization, cost and time to train.
  • Compatibility: How will the wireless technology co-exist with existing systems, considerations for co-existence from installation to maintenance, play with existing wired or wireless technologies.
  • Product Lifecycle: Where is the platform or technology in the product lifecycle, are there upgrade paths, if newer to market what is the manufacturer or vendor history, maintenance and support programs.

There is no doubt that industrial wireless platforms and technologies will continue to gain momentum as use cases prove the viability, flexibility, and reliability of these solutions. Companies would benefit by creating a diverse, wireless standards team and dust off the old Wi-Fi handbook for an update. Better yet, organization should throw the Wi-Fi Handbook out and evaluate which industrial wireless technologies available today should be considered strategic solutions.

Laurie Cavanaugh is a Business Development Manager at E Technologies Group. E Technologies Group is a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about E Technologies Group, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange