When Factories Go Wireless, Costs Come Down

April 23, 2019 Georganne Benesch

Wireless Factory Worker Wireless Factory

In manufacturing operations, it’s a wired, wired world. Today’s factories have miles of cables, wires, and fiber connecting equipment across the production environment. While this model has worked for decades, manufacturers must mobilize to modernize their business.

This is a problem—manufacturers are historically risk-averse. Once a sustainable operating model is in place, there’s little drive to change it. But now, enterprise-class wireless solutions—ruggedized for harsh environments—can enable businesses to boost productivity and save millions of dollars on the factory floor.

The Enterprise Unplugged

It’s hard to imagine going without our mobile devices. At work, at home, and on the road, we take connectivity for granted. But in the past, many enterprise organizations hesitated to deploy company-wide wireless networks due to security and performance concerns.

Today’s enterprise-class technologies such as gigabit Wi-Fi and layered security resolve these concerns—enabling ubiquitous wireless infrastructure across the “carpeted” enterprise—practically eliminating the need to ever plug in. So why should it be any different on the factory floor?

Manufacturers are discovering that by transitioning to smarter, more agile factories, they can gain better insights into production data, monitor assets, increase productivity, lower operating costs, streamline supply chain, and more.

Call it Industry 4.0, the Smart Factory, or the Industrial Internet of Things, the reality is that wireless infrastructure in manufacturing is a game changer—enabling digital transformation. The ever-expanding use of sensors, robots, driverless vehicles, and other “things” is transforming the face of operations.

Take Mohawk Industries, for example. The world’s largest carpet manufacturer achieved measurable results by deploying a wired and wireless network infrastructure.

In just one year it saved $1M and increased employee productivity by 12 percent.

Mohawk operates the world’s largest plastic bottle recycling facility. It recycles an astounding 5.5B plastic bottles annually. One out of every four bottles recycled in North America becomes part of the company’s EverStrand carpet brand.

The company needed better insights to meet its goals of lowering operating costs and boosting efficiency. To do so, it required a way to simplify and integrate a complex set of proprietary control systems—ControlNet, DeviceNet, Data Highway Plus, Modbus, and PROFIBUS. But to take all this disparate information from the plant floor and make it usable for analysis was a nightmare.

To address these problems, Mohawk worked with Cisco, deploying a factory-wide unified network solution. As the company retrofitted its Summerville, Georgia production line with sensors, IP cameras, and other devices, the Cisco Factory Wireless LAN Solution was a key element in the overall infrastructure.

Using wireless connectivity on the factory floor was a game changer for Mohawk. The engineering team is now able to monitor and assess metrics right at the site of the sensor or machine. And it has enabled the company to deploy new technologies like driverless forklifts—improving both productivity and worker safety.

Building a Mobile Factory for Industry 4.0

The Factory Wireless Solution is an essential part of the Cisco Connected Factory platform and provides pre-validated, tested designs to jump-start the deployment process. It comprises a range of products and services, including Access Points (AP), Wireless LAN Controllers (WLC), Mobility Services, and system-wide network management. Back-end and edge ruggedized Ethernet switches securely connect the wireless network to the enterprise infrastructure (Figure 1).

Connected Factory Infrastructure
Figure 1. The Connected Factory Infrastructure

The solution enables access to the immense amounts of data generated by equipment, endpoints, and users across the factory floor. Data collected by wireless IoT sensors—such as vibration, current, particle, temperature, and humidity—is collected via APs that move, reduce, and even discard data.

Similar processes occur through wired connections via Ethernet switches. Regardless of connectivity, information securely flows through the converged network to applications such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) for real-time decision-making.

“With the extended enterprise reaching out to the shop floor, the opportunity enables companies to converge their IT and OT environments,” said Neil Heller, with Cisco’s Manufacturing Industrial Solutions.

Beyond Connectivity and Convergence

People and things are constantly on the move. The solution enables voice and video communications from any location at any time. For example, using a tablet or phone, a worker can troubleshoot an equipment problem with the help of an expert via an impromptu video conference.

“Mobile communications enable workforces to do their jobs where they need to be—anywhere in the factory or the world,” said Heller. “And Wi-Fi enabled voice makes it possible to replace licensed use of handheld paid spectrum and cellular fees by shifting to communicators with built-in Wi-Fi.”

Mobility services connect and track Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) and robots—changing the game in production, material handling, logistics, and shipping. In all shapes and sizes, these nomadic devices can move about independently or in cooperation with humans to accomplish from the most mundane to the most complex tasks.

Location, Location, Location

The ultimate wireless capability may be location-based services. Wi-Fi tags, attached to assets of all types, actively transmit information that is picked up by APs.

Via the Cisco Mobility Engine, the location of assets can be calculated in real time for optimizing flow, utilization, and operation of that asset. “You can actually improve machine utilization, cycle time, worker safety, and productivity. It’s important for people to know where things are in that moment versus where something was last known to be,” said Heller.

Take “person down” as an example. When a worker needs assistance, he or she pushes the button on a wearable RFID tag or mobile communicator, which triggers a “panic alert.” This alert determines the worker’s position so help can be dispatched immediately.

The Factory Wireless Solution WLAN controllers and other devices are powered by Intel® technology, providing the capabilities to build a rugged, interoperable, plant-to-enterprise network. “At the foundational level, Intel provides core processing and technology that enable us to have the industry-leading wireless products,” said Heller.

Looking Into the Future with Augmented Reality

Heller sees additional use cases, such as augmented reality (AR), as drivers for the scaling of factory wireless.

For example, when an anomalous or fault condition occurs, AR can make it possible for a remote support team to have visibility to exactly what is happening.

“Let’s say there’s a machine fault that the technician can’t figure out. They talk into their augmented reality glasses, saying, ‘Need help. Find expert.’ That triggers off a virtual team conference and invites those who can solve this problem,” explained Heller.

An expert can see directly what’s going on, share documentation, videos, and instructions—and even annotate on the augmented reality screen. This means that the technician can address the problem in real time, get the machine back up and running, and prevent costly downtime.

About the Author

Georganne Benesch

Georganne Benesch is the Senior Content Editor and Writer for insight.tech. Before this she was an independent writer, authoring blogs, web content, solution guides, white papers and more. Prior to her freelance career Georganne held product management and marketing positions at companies such as Cisco, Proxim and Netopia. She earned a B.A. at University of California at Santa Cruz.

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