The challenges of wireless for manufacturing


By Chris Dyke, Sales Director UK & Ireland, Allied Telesis.

In recent years, Wi-Fi has become the main technology for accessing networks - residential and corporate - gradually replacing traditional Ethernet cable.

Although wired connections are more powerful and reliable, Wi-Fi has the undoubted advantage that users can connect from any location and remain connected as they move around. The transition to Wi-Fi as an access technology has been driven by the spread of laptops, which have replaced desktops, and BYOD in the form of smartphones and tablets.

This migration is now beginning to affect areas not related to typical office activities, such as warehouses or production. Self-driving vehicles, wearable devices for the control of goods and storage, PDAs to track stocks, and many other services and devices require continuous connection to the network without being physically connected.  

Thanks to its continuous evolution, Wi-Fi technology now provides increasingly high performance - comparable to that of wired connections – enabling the possibility of implementing solutions in every possible scenario.

Like any technology, Wi-Fi has some inherent limitations. If wired connections have an Ethernet cable for each computer, wireless connections use the air as a ‘media’, which by its nature is shared between all users. In this way, the bandwidth made available by a single access point is split between all connected devices and must be shared between them. 

Also, wireless transmission is sensitive to the environment, so walls, furniture, people, and every other element, are an obstacle to radio transmission making the coverage area of an access point unpredictable. Unfortunately, it is not possible to increase performance by adding a large number of access points, because wireless signals are sensitive to possible electromagnetic interference between them, which would disturb or make communication impossible.

In critical production environments, these limitations must be overcome.

Wi-Fi in production and logistics areas 

A production or logistics environment presents the most difficult conditions for wireless transmission. The motors of the machinery generate electromagnetic interference, and the quantities of goods in the warehouses change continuously, modifying reflections, attenuations, and interferences between the various devices.

Attempting to solve problems by increasing the number of access points only increases interference between contiguous devices working on the same channel, decreasing overall performance rather than increasing it.

On the other hand, autonomous vehicles, as well as all wireless devices used, need a stable and continuous connection in order to operate at their best. So, to guarantee these services in such a critical environment, it is necessary to implement a specific Wi-Fi technology that guarantees stability in all conditions. One such solution is the ‘single channel’.

The Single Channel Solution

The single channel solution, complementary to the more widespread multi-channel solution, requires all access points to work on the same channel, thus minimizing configuration and planning problems. From the user's point of view, no difference is perceived between the two solutions but in single channel mode, the terminal sees a single virtual access point to which it connects only once. It then remains connected until it maintains the coverage of any access point that is part of the same single channel.

This approach solves some of the main important problems in this area: by working on the same channel, contiguous access points provide connection resilience, and non-interference. Therefore, terminals – both self-driving or handheld - remain continuously connected, or without risk of connection loss, when moving from one access point to another. In this way, an organization can not only optimize network performance, but also reduce the consumption of mobile devices, ensuring uninterrupted productivity combined with an agile and fast experience.

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