Trillions of connections to billions of devices, all of them “smart.” That’s the future. Digital transformation at its best. New wireless technologies are just now emerging and evolving more every day that will enable industries to thrive again. It’s the dream of the future for industries like aviation, logistics, manufacturing and more, to overcome production and efficiency challenges, supply chain and labor shortages, while meeting public and commercial demands. Can we meet the challenge of this industrial “Internet of everything” while finally making it private, secure, and risk-free?
The answer is yes. But how do we get there?
We’ll explore the technologies available right now that enable industrial IoT (IIoT) technology, and those just on the horizon. With this basic knowledge we hope you’ll be better able to wrap your head around what it will take you to get you from here… to that perfect automated future.
Understanding the technologies
Technology is always changing and evolving. It’s hard to keep up. So, let’s first define the different technologies you hear about and how they each address IIoT.
Wired connectivity is a more mature technology, but it can be expensive and bulky. You are essentially cabling every single device and component together. So space, flexibility and complexity are key considerations.
Local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs) and low power wide area networks (LPWANs) link devices together to a computer network within a specific area, building or group of buildings. This technique allows you to hard wire some devices but also employ other types of wireless connectivity for others. Having limited space, too much complexity, and limited bandwidth are all downsides of using these solutions for advanced IIoT applications.
Most of us confuse these terms because they’re so closely related. Wireless is the generic term for device connectivity using radio waves. It’s an umbrella term that covers cellular, Wi-Fi, and low power technologies like Bluetooth. Each method connects to these radio waves in slightly different ways. We’re going to concentrate on two of these – Wi-Fi and cellular – and try to simplify our definition. Think about how your various devices connect and consume data.
Let’s talk Wi-Fi first. Wi-Fi is a standard for short-distance wireless communication. It uses unlicensed spectrum that is shared by all Wi-Fi users, making it easy to access and cost-effective. Wi-Fi is available in most consumer devices, and the latest version of Wi-Fi, called Wi-Fi 6, can reach impressive speeds. The downside of Wi-Fi is actually caused by some of the same things that make it so great. Because it uses shared spectrum, and because so many devices use Wi-Fi, it can easily have interference issues or become congested. In an industrial IoT environment where business-critical applications need to work 100% of the time, Wi-Fi simply cannot be relied on.
Cellular connectivity generally comes from mobile carriers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile) accessing radio waves via their vast network of cell towers. Because of their size and power, the range for cellular can be quite broad (cities, towns, etc.). Today’s cellular offerings are generally described as 4G and 5G. What’s the difference?
4G means 4th generation of cellular technology. 4G was developed when the first iPhone came out with capabilities for data intensive applications like video.
You’ll hear comparisons of each generation in terms of:
1) speed (simply how fast is the connection?)
2) bandwidth (how big is the figurative pipe feeding the connection?)
3) latency (what are the lags or delays in the connection?)
Next-gen 5G cellular technology has been designed specifically for IIoT – to improve connectivity between billions of devices. It has the ability to deliver the sophisticated connectivity needed to safely accommodate autonomous vehicles, and to support data-intensive virtual reality applications. With 5G, the smart city of the future may be just around the corner with real-time surveillance for public safety, fast delivery of real-time medical data for connected health services, Artificial Intelligence to drive smart robots that learn as they operate – the list is truly endless. Blink twice and we’ll be talking about 6G and beyond.
Now, add to these tech-generations the concept of public or private networks and the questions regarding how you pay and who owns the data.
Public 5G vs. Private 5G
Public 5G is what you’re most likely familiar with from the news or TV commercials where one mobile carrier claims that their 5G network is so much better than the others. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have spent billions of dollars in licensing to operate their cellular networks over very specific public-spectrum radio waves. They also recently spent millions more to upgrade their cell towers from 4G to 5G capabilities. The result is better coverage and higher speeds on your phones – especially if you’re outdoors where the radio signal is strong. The costs for these licenses and upgrade is, of course, passed along to you and me, the consumers.
So what about private 5G? While that network buildout was happening, the US government decided to set aside a big chunk of spectrum (radio waves) specifically for enterprise use (in many cases without needing a license) in order to foster business innovation. This is the foundation for private 5G.
Now, each enterprise can set up a network behind their private firewall, keeping access to the network and all their data secure. Parts of the network can be outdoors, like in a stadium or a warehouse yard, but the location is local and specific to the enterprise. Bandwidth and latency issues are minimized without any external interference. So private 5G networks leverage the advantages of wireless technology but in a controlled and secure environment that assures high reliability and low costs.
Private 5G networks enable these real-life advantages:
- Delivery of ultra-low latency connectivity with superior bandwidth, both indoors and in otherwise hard-to-reach places outdoors
- Coverage that is targeted, local and precise, enabling complex IIoT connectivity
- Mobility of connection that is perfect for automated guided vehicles and mobile robots
- Network configuration that can sit behind an enterprise firewall the keeps all data secure and in the company’s control
Now that we understand the tech-lingo better, let’s examine what is needed to implement IIoT, what planning is still in order and what obstacles we must overcome before we can begin to realize what’s possible.
Enabling Industry 4.0: What are the challenges?
Industry 4.0 is really just another buzz word for applying IIoT automation to industry. As we look at how to make that a reality, some challenges still exist. What are they and how close are we to navigating our way around them?
Complexity of deployment
We talked about speed, bandwidth, and latency. The more devices we have to connect the more potentially complex our network solution to accommodate them. Which applications are business critical, which are not (or less so)? What are the physical limitations of the equipment, the operating space, and the range of connectivity? For instance, IoT for fleet management may require maximum range capabilities.
This ‘Internet of everything’ we talk about doesn’t quite yet exist. Everything does NOT work in harmony. There may be obstacles connecting existing fixed equipment hardware or sensors with other devices for environmental controls or predictive maintenance. Perhaps upgrades are available or can be budgeted for in the future, or can they continue to work independently?
IoT sensors, set-up, connectivity
A thorough understanding of how IoT devices are set up must be put into the planning of an efficient network. For instance, warehouse sensors that read barcodes or RFIDs can’t function properly if there is interference of any kind. This could be caused by geography, physical space, storage racks, or moving elements like vehicles, humans, or mobile robots.
Cost and mindset for change
It’s one thing to imagine a perfect IIoT operation, and quite another to make it a reality. A lot of people and processes have to come together for a common goal to finance such investments. This may take years of planning and budgeting, which can be especially hard when the technology itself is changing so quickly. Yet when done right, integrating building and warehouse management solutions for instance, can improve your bottom line for years to come. And the improved efficiencies and safety of airports and factories can have a tremendous impact on cities and the economy.
Productivity and safety
Digital transformation makes the promise that industry will operate more productively. But people and machines can be at odds with each other. For instance, imagine an automated vehicle as a key component of your modern manufacturing production line. But what happens if a human gets in the way of the vehicle sensor? Will it be able to stop in time? Can the system handle the interruption in the workflow and recover in a safe yet efficient way? With more integration of automated devices and tools comes greater security risk — in more ways than one.
Data security and control
This brings us to cybersecurity, a hot topic for just about any business or industry. Enterprises cannot afford undue risk — to their intellectual property, their infrastructure, their assets, or their bottom line! Not only do you want to control access to data, devices, and applications, you want to own it. This is one way in which private 5G networks are ideal for IIoT, because, as we’ve mentioned you own and control the network and your data. And think about it, the only topic possibly hotter that cybersecurity right now is big data. Data itself has become a valuable commodity to industry for what it can tell you, and how it can help you to forge the future of your business.
One last challenge to address and that’s staffing — technical staffing to be precise. So maybe you’re ready to build that perfect network and enable IIoT wireless technology. But how do you go about building it? It’s unlikely you have current staff who are well versed and current on IoT network management and infrastructure. Who manages it? Should you hire and train in-house staff or find a provider who can build and manage it for you?
Putting private 5G at work in key industries
A few industry sectors are already finding ways to embrace IIoT through private 5G networks. Let’s talk about the best applications for each of these three front-runners.
Industry 4.0 is driving manufacturers to support factory floor robotics, devices like cameras and scanners, and a whole lot of data. Private 5G networks are finally able to offer a secure connection without interruption and at an affordable price. Early adopters in manufacturing include the automotive sector and those industries hoping to address recent supply chain and staffing issues that came to the fore with COVID. The IIoT use cases include predictive maintenance, modern automation, fleet management, machine learning, improved productivity, safety compliance, production scalability and flexibility. Here are some specifics:
IIoT technology can enable the accurate tracking and monitoring of everything from raw materials and tools through final production and shipment of goods.
Modern predictive maintenance devices help you to improve and maintain the health of your production line equipment with condition-based monitoring and artificial intelligence.
By integrating collaborative robotics into your production line, you can achieve a level of superior agility and precision previously unattainable with manual labor alone.
IIoT integration can provide employees access to systems and interfaces that deliver production controls, analytics, and a better understanding of what machines are doing — all for the well-oiled plant of the future.
Warehouses like those operated by Amazon and Walmart are offering new opportunities for jobs and growth in both urban and rural America. IIoT innovations have made these enterprises more expansive and complex, introducing new ways to improve inventory control, just-in-time delivery, and operations efficiency.
Smart warehousing needs more than accurate knowledge of what’s on the shelf. Modern IIoT inventory solutions address inventory tracking from supplier, to shelf, to truck and trailer routes and customer delivery.
Automated Guided Vehicles
Integrating automated vehicles with human-interface product picking and shipping operations can speed production efficiency.
Rugged Device Connectivity
IIoT network solutions can prioritize critical on-premises worker communications anywhere on the warehouse campus without interference to or from on-floor operational computers and equipment.
Airports were hit hard with COVID and are only starting to bounce back. And even before the pandemic, the challenge of delivering superior passenger experiences while also addressing operational efficiencies, security concerns and rising costs was top-of-mind for airlines and airports. IIoT connectivity has helped to address these industry-specific use cases above and below the wing:
Baggage and Cargo Handling
Automated asset tracking and scanners for baggage and cargo handling streamline airport and passenger operations from departure kiosks to destination arrival terminals.
Streamline Passenger Journey
With well-connected wayfinding, arrival and departure airline signage, ticketing kiosks and even retail operations, airport operations can be optimized for a streamlined, and touchless passenger experience.
Private networks allow IIoT devices to be integrated and delivered with optimal security. CCTV, security scanners, access control and even plane telemetry data and controls all work together to deliver safe domestic and international travel.
A roadmap to IIoT innovation
It’s obvious by now that private 5G is an important enabler of IIoT. But the road is not always clearly marked and easy to implement. Early adopters are paving the way for those who choose to follow. Are you one of them? Are you ready to embrace the possibilities of IIoT innovation in your enterprise? (For those ready to create an IIoT-ready network of your own, check out these resources: Your Private 5G Network Planning Checklist — for Warehouse and for Airports).
The good news: Scalability is built in.
With the right professionals to help you plan, design, and install a private 4G/5G network you’ll be able to scale as you grow. You can build a networking solution that meets the demands of your business now, and that also progressively enables future advanced technology as it becomes available. Managed service providers like Betacom can help.
And with 5G as a Service, Betacom will help you manage the daily operations of your network, backed 24x7x365 by their Security and Service Operations Center that address any and all connectivity and security issues, leaving your team free to focus on your business.
The time is now for Industry 4.0. And private 5G networks are enabling automation for ‘smart’ enterprises of the future. What are you waiting for? Get started with your 5G enabled IIoT operation now. Contact us.
To learn more about private 5G networks check out these resources: