There are many advantages to using wireless communication in industrial systems. However, the challenge is to provide the required reliability in an industrial context.

By Jeppe Pilgaard Bjerre

In industrial systems, the reliability of data communication is often valued above factors like bandwidth, particularly when dealing with control signals and critical component monitoring. In these contexts, it is important for operators to be able to trust the data they are presented, such that they can make decisions founded in facts, based on information that is correct and up to date.

This is one of the reasons that wireless technology has yet to seriously make inroads into industrial systems. Wireless communication has been unable to provide the reliability required for satisfactory operation of industrial systems.

Wired or wireless?

There are advantages and disadvantages to both wired and wireless set-ups. The right choice depends on each individual use case and requirements specification. For this reason, it is impossible to point to either one and say that it will always be better than the other.

A solid understanding of what matters for your particular case is essential. Waiting until after deployment to change technologies is expensive.

The choice between wireless and wired communication in industrial systems depends on the use case and requirements specification. A combination of both may also prove to be the optimal solution.
The choice between wireless and wired communication in industrial systems depends on the use case and requirements specification. A combination of both may also prove to be the optimal solution.

Best of both worlds

Wired and wireless systems both have their advantages, but there are also use cases where the "best of both worlds" is the only solution. There are also wireless technologies that guarantee better reliability than wired connections, which was previously an advantage reserved for wired systems.

One example is Smartmesh IP. As the name suggests, this is a technology based on a mesh topology in which multiple parallel communication routes can exist. The advantage here is that if one communication route fails, another can be used, so the communication is not interrupted. Similarly, there are mechanisms for ensuring that the radio frequencies a network device uses are available. To do so, the device checks whether something else in the area is already using a given frequency. If so, the device dynamically changes to another frequency.

Something else that makes this technology interesting is its ability to build and restructure the network on its own. This makes it possible for devices to leave a network and return to it at a later time to transmit data, meaning that it can also be used for mobile objects like vehicles and transportable equipment.

The opportunity for mobility is interesting, since this enables asset tracking — that is, tracking where equipment is located and when it is in use, all in real time. This can provide valuable input for optimising equipment usage, so that equipment that represents a greater investment can be used as much as possible.

The environment affects system performance

Choosing the technology is one thing. Using it and configuring it is another. The environment in which a wireless network is set up affects the network's performance. But how, and how much? Which environmental parameters can cause performance to decline?

Ordinarily, a product is (e.g.) IP tested before deployment if it will be installed outdoors, but this only speaks to the product's ability to physically tolerate being in an outdoor environment. It says nothing about the effects that an outdoor environment might have on the performance of the system and its wireless technology.

Details of the installation are also part of the environment; that is, which materials are used, and how antennas are installed relative to any materials that can degrade antenna performance, such as carbon-rich materials.

The environment is also an important consideration when choosing a technology that uses ISM frequencies. These frequencies do not require a license, so they are available for all to use (with some restrictions). This could mean that there is heavy traffic on the radio frequency you intend to use, making it impossible to transmit data at some times or causing data transmissions to "drown" in all the other communications you have no control over.

What does the future look like with 5G?

Looking into the future, 5G is a major topic. The technology promises wide bandwidths, but also support for far more devices than existing 4G technology, plus low response times and high reliability. The latter of these is a necessity when we consider use cases like self-driving cars and production facility control.

One important factor to consider when choosing wireless technologies for a new network is who will manage the infrastructure. In the case of 5G, this will be telecom companies.

This means that you do not need to build the infrastructure yourself. You can have it supplied for you — at a cost, of course. In this case, consider whether this risk is worth taking in light of the fact that all of your communications will depend on the vendor you choose continuing to provide the service you depend on.

Naturally, you can always switch to another vendor, but doing so may take time. Beyond taking this into account, you should additionally prepare a plan for this in case it becomes necessary someday. In this context, the ability to switch connected devices over to another operator without physically accessing each one and replacing its SIM card may be critical. This is by no means impossible provided that you use a technology like eSIM, which already exists.

The technology is mature, but assess risks

Wireless technologies have nearly reached a level at which they can be seriously adopted in industrial settings and in more critical infrastructure. The ability to monitor hard-to-access systems in real time will open doors to new business opportunities which some start-ups have been working on for several years.

5G has the potential to unlock brand new possibilities in these segments, where the opportunities for optimising industrial facilities and improving their efficiency increase as reliability increases. Of course, you should be careful about running headlong into sweeping infrastructure changes, and remember to conduct a sound risk assessment before cutting all the cables and going fully wireless. At the same time, do consider the opportunities that this may present and how they can affect your business.

This article was published in Elektronik & Data.