How to Leverage Wireless Networking to Support Industrial Transformation

Ryan Spurr

For most manufacturers I engage with, their wireless networks have long been an afterthought. Most are deployed haphazardly to support spontaneous requirements like conference rooms and supervisory mobile devices, rather than as part of a broad industrial strategy. There is nothing wrong with this. It’s a product of how demand for wireless has evolved in industrial spaces over the years and often reflects tech adoption within factories and warehouses. 

It is worth asking why this is? For many companies, wireless access points are nothing more than moving packets from point A to point B, but does wireless hold more potential than that? Is wireless changing how we empower our workforce and integrate new technologies? Are there new capabilities to aid smart manufacturing and the industrial transformation underway? 

The short answer is YES! 

In fact, you may be surprised how quickly this technology is changing to meet the needs of our time. In this brief examination, I will touch upon how wireless solutions can radically transform the future of manufacturing and whatever comes next. Before we highlight what is changing, let’s reflect on the typical challenges and the rationale for adopting these new solutions.

It’s so easy for manufacturers to look only at the typical reasons for upgrading wireless. These generally include focuses like capacity, ease of maintenance, security, and supportability. Surprisingly, in manufacturing, these reasons are not always sufficient to justify investment in new wireless, because as the adage goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But what if our wireless networks were becoming something so much more? 

Unify Devices with a Modern Networking Approach

Instead of the typical approaches to the investment decision by way of IT lifecycle, let’s reimagine a decision-making process that includes consideration of capabilities to enable business excellence and growth. Modern industrial transformation driven by the rapid adoption of equipment from mobile devices, scanners, sensors, AVGs, augmented collaboration, wearables, and tracking solutions demands a different pedigree of network to support its objectives. With the advent of Industry 4.0, everything in the environment is becoming smart, connected, and ready to transform our businesses. When connected and integrated into our operational processes, these technologies create new advantages for manufacturing businesses focused on reducing costs, improving quality, and increasing throughput. More importantly, they must ride atop of a strong foundation, and that should compel manufacturers to move to next-generation wireless.

With Industry 4.0 and new business technologies as the genesis for change, let’s examine how wireless solutions are evolving to connect and enable a smarter business.

  • WiFi 6: Also known as 802.11AX, this next-generation wireless standard delivers on the capacity to add more devices, transmit simultaneously from all devices at faster speeds, and improve energy efficiency, meaning all those devices with batteries will last longer. WiFi 6 also offers better coverage and signal management, which is hugely important for factories and warehouses full of metal, machines, computers, and robots emitting interference. With an astounding 46+ billion devices expected to be connected by end of 2021 it’s no wonder why we must be prepared with modern networks capable of handling these devices.
  • BLE + Zigbee: Today’s access points now include Bluetooth Low Energy antennas or other technology standards like Zigbee. Simply put—these devices do far more than their predecessors. 
    Adopting these newer technologies makes your access points capable of much more than basic wireless. More importantly, it means that a wide range of new devices and business use cases can be solved with corporate wireless solutions, making the business justification for them more appealing. 

    Imagine that you don’t need to implement one-off infrastructure to connect a sensor or tracking device. These next-generation access points can now act as the foundation for unlocking a wide range of IoT and tracking solutions, simplifying how organizations adopt Industry 4.0—while alleviating many historic infrastructure hurdles to scale and transfer across facilities. 
  • Industrial Protocols: Traditional enterprise networking has long focused on ethernet and lacked the ability to support industrials protocols. That is quickly changing with solutions that now natively support industrial protocols like Modbus, Profinet, BACnet, or OPC-UA, to name a few. What does this mean? Not only can we process industrial protocols, but we can intelligently secure and optimize the lateral traffic between industrial devices such as PLCs, RTUs, and more, while simultaneously integrating these devices with the balance of our enterprise. 
  • Industrial Security: It’s now widely understood by executives that with the adoption of Industry 4.0 comes increased risk and an expanding attack surface. With 60% of business leaders viewing security as the biggest challenge for IoT deployment and scale, coupled with the long lifespans and unsupported industrial equipment, security solutions at the edge, networking, and across the enterprise have never been more critical. Next-generation wireless devices now include embedded security and sensors, deep packet inspection of industrial protocols, operational technology context, and full integration with corporate Security Operation Centers (SOCs), plus Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) platforms. 

This approach allows modern networks to introduce threat awareness to the very edge, not just where the enterprise network meets the industrial network. This change allows for security monitoring of traffic at cell zone layer 0-1, including devices such as PLCs, RTUs, and sensors. IT/OT convergence is now possible, alleviating risks and challenges while meeting both stakeholders’ needs.

  • Resilience with 4G/5G: Many wireless solutions offer redundancy options on the local area network, but what happens if your network goes down? How do you continue to operate critical machines, sensors, mobility, and communications uninterrupted? Many wireless solutions now offer secure cellular backhaul options ensuring flexibility with Secure WAN (now referred to as SD-WAN) connectivity options and serving as a backup to minimize plant disruptions.
  • Fit for Environment: In addition to all the significant IT and OT capabilities already discussed, another area to be aware of is the diversity of most access point product lines. Not only can they unlock new value, but many come in new formats designed to operate in some of the most challenging and regulated environments typical of the industrial space. These include high IP ratings that protect against liquids, particulates, and high impact ratings. Options also exists to meet hazardous locations or intrinsically safe mandates to prevent spark or explosion. Because of these new formats, any manufacturer can operate wirelessly in harsh environments inside and out. 
  • Edge Compute75% of data will be created and processed outside a traditional data center or cloud by 2025. As a result, we now see many wireless solutions offering edge compute solutions and allowing operational technology teams to distribute containers and virtual machines atop edge compute on the access points themselves. This capability transforms how DevOps design, deploy, and support intelligent solutions across the entire enterprise, including the operational technology environments. This capability allows manufacturers to make decisions at the edge and change how data is processed and integrated with data centers and the cloud.

All combined, next-generation wireless solutions enable smart manufacturing adoption, integrate operational technology with information technology breaking down long-standing barriers to digital innovation, and deliver security solutions with the promise of a single pane of glass. With a shared network at the foundation, today’s modern wireless networks are now a prudent investment allowing for more than just checking email. Manufacturers can now set a course for a more digitally integrated and operationally excellent organization.

To learn more about Connection’s Manufacturing Practice or to discuss the challenges and networking solutions highlighted in this article, contact us today.

Ryan Spurr is the Director of Manufacturing Strategy at Connection with 20+ years of experience in manufacturing, information technology, and portfolio leadership. He leads the Connection Manufacturing Practice, go-to-market strategy, client engagement, and advisory services focusing on operational technology (OT) and information technology that make manufacturers more digitally excellent.