What is being termed the fourth industrial revolution—or Industry 4.0—is offering distribution and warehousing companies the capability to completely reinvent the way they run their operations. The primary protagonist behind this revolution is data. As a result, a stable and robust network infrastructure is vital if companies are to exploit every benefit they can from their new smart devices, machines and plants.
Access to this data and its interrupted two-way flow—especially in real time—means that companies can act almost instantaneously to issues, such as changing in-plant dynamics and varying market demands. This instant access can resolve issues far quicker, adapt processes to current variables and change business operations parameters, often with just a few key strokes.
But this data also has benefits even when it is not used in real time. Trending and analytics are creating huge opportunities for distribution and warehousing companies to react to historical trends to counter seasonal variations, issues brought about by shift patterns and even quality problems arising from utility supplies. In both cases—real time and historic—actionable data, when leveraged effectively, can have a huge impact on time, efficiency and, of course, the bottom line.
Like any data-based solution, seamless data collection and flow is the key to success. As a result, a robust and rugged data-capable network, linking all levels and all devices within an enterprise, is essential. What is more, the solution as a whole must be approached from a holistic standpoint. No single device, branch or infrastructure is more important than another. As the saying goes, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. With this in mind, even the simplest open/shut digital door switch is just as important as the higher-level controller with which it eventually interfaces.
All elements of the solution must be fit for purpose and have the capability to speak to each other in the clearest and most effective way possible. This means that open solutions offer the most flexibility, which is why Ethernet and standard industry-hardened Wi-Fi are the protocols of choice in a majority of cases. But even these have to take into account the various challenges presented by industrial operations, which often far exceed those found in an office environment. Wi-Fi presents even greater issues than wired solutions.
The deployment of stable, reliable, plant wide industrial Wi-Fi has to take into account multiple factors, such as range, capacity, electromagnetic interference (EMI) and dead spots. In offices where stationary desktop PCs are often in line-of-sight of a router or repeater, Wi-Fi deployment rarely causes any issues. But factories, warehouses and other industrial facilities present a huge list of hurdles that are often outside the capabilities of even the most able “office IT” practitioner. It is for this reason that companies are now looking for outside help. To address this demand, reliable industrial wireless LAN solutions are now being offered as a service, where the service provider takes on the mantle of responsibility for the network’s deployment, performance and maintenance.
This type of service is of particular interest to manufacturing, logistics and warehousing operations, where multiple data-capable devices – such as vehicle-mounted terminals (VMTs) and handheld tablets and computers – have to be useable in every corner of an operation in order to address the holistic demands of the network’s design. In these situations, off-the-shelf solutions will simply not be up to the task and bespoke network solutions must be considered. By handing the network design, management and maintenance over to a specialist service provider, maximum effectiveness, coverage and uptime can be assured.
The ability to offer Wi-Fi as a Service (WaaS) forms an intrinsic element of Industry 4.0 solutions going forwards, which is why new, comprehensive technology service offerings are needed that include site surveys; installation and deployment services; hardware and wireless as a service (HaaS/WaaS); as well as project management. When engaging the services of a specialist WaaS provider, make sure you get a turnkey, enterprise-level wireless LAN solution, which is designed to exact specifications, following bespoke survey, design and configuration steps. Once deployed and optimized the service provider needs to be able to proactively manage and monitor the network’s health 24/7 in order to optimize performance. Such a WaaS program will act as an extension of your existing IT teams, allowing this personnel to focus on other business priorities.
Networks are arguably the foundation of any reliable data-capable approach and often form the starting point for any new project or redevelopment. With open platforms and standard interfaces device-to-device handshaking is far less problematic; it is the means of connectivity that presents some of the larger challenges. Close proximity makes wired solutions an obvious choice, but in dispersed and mobile operations, industrial Wi-Fi networks have proven their worth in countless applications.
Wi-Fi is ideal for mobile applications, but only if it is fit for purpose and delivers the goals defined in the Industry 4.0 plan. Only a full-service company—with the necessary experience and hardware—can deliver on all fronts, creating the all-important peace of mind that the large investment a company is making in its digital transformation is in safe hands. Flexibility, uptime and total coverage are key. Get them right at the front end and your data-capable solutions will start showing an ROI almost immediately.
Eric Miller is the CEO of JLT Mobile Computers Inc.