Wireless: Adoption trends in factory automation

Wireless devices are perceived as the next big technological wave in factory automation. However, the current adoption trends are moderate at best, despite requirements for real time data, mobile workforce, remote access and flexibility in operation. This is mainly because wireless devices are not found to be robust enough by end users. Concerns include reliability, security and interoperability.


Wireless devices in European factory automation by sector

Wireless devices in European

Wireless devices are perceived as the next big technological wave in factory automation. However, the current adoption trends are moderate at best, despite requirements for real time data, mobile workforce, remote access and flexibility in operation. This is mainly because wireless devices are not found to be robust enough by end users. Concerns include reliability, security and interoperability, and others.
Concerns using wireless devices
Major concerns towards wireless adoption in factory automation are reliability and security. End-users perceive that for a plant to operate round-the-clock, the current wireless technology does not provide the necessary robustness. This is mainly because of many possible technical issues, such as signal mismatch, electromagnetic induction, data loss in transmission, and other interference problems, that are quite common in a factory automation environment. For example, in industries such as automotive and plastics, inconsistent wireless connectivity occurs due to disturbances from metal grids present in the plant.

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In addition, data transmitted wirelessly can easily be hacked. Thus, it must be properly encrypted and decrypted for secured transmission. End user conservatism, which is evident in industries such as food and beverages and plastics, is also restraining investments into wireless devices, as end users are less willing to implement new technology without being assured of its potential benefits. Many end users indicate that they might jeopardize their current operations if they shift to this new technology. Other concerns hampering wireless device adoption include high initial investment cost, low battery life, interoperability, and non-uniform wireless standards.
Key reasons for adoption
The key reasons for wireless adoption in factory automation are needs for real time data and work force mobility. Wireless devices track states of silicon wafers in the semiconductor industry, and are involved in the diagnostic testing of the vehicles in the automotive industry. In these two applications, in which real time data are crucial, information can be efficiently obtained via wireless devices. End users indicate that constant processes monitoring is a major requirement to ensure quality at the end of the every process.
Work force mobility is enhanced using wireless devices such as PDAs in numerous applications that previously required the operator to spend more effort. In packaging industries, wireless modems fixed to the end users’ machines enable technicians to remotely diagnose and fix machines in case of malfunction. This capability significantly reduces manual labor.
Wireless devices also offer greater flexibility and cost-reduction in monitoring and alerting applications. Cabling costs and installation costs are reduced by using wireless technology in remote applications. Wireless devices also offer the possibility of measurements in areas that are difficult to access by cables, such as moving or inaccessible parts. Temperature measurements from furnaces or rotating coils present in the semiconductor industry are now possible by use of wireless devices. End users believe that the plant performance could be greatly improved with the availability of this untapped critical information.
Supplier expectations
Despite its potential, penetration of wireless technology into the factory-automation environment has not been up to the expected level. Wireless device vendors must take the first step in addressing these technical issues. Educating end-users about wireless products and their benefits will help in changing their conservative mindset. This will, in turn, help suppliers learn about end-user requirements, and help them offer wireless solutions best suited to those needs. Offering end users products for testing and trial would be another important step towards increasing wireless adoption. Overall, the adoption of wireless in factory automation is expected to increase gradually as more and more end users realize the technology’s benefits.
By Khadambari Shanbagaraman is a research analyst for Frost & Sullivan Industrial Automation & Process Control Group. Contact him by email through Joanna Lewandowska with the following information: full name, company name, title, telephone number, e-mail address, city, state and country. Requested information will be sent to you by email.
— Edited by C.G. Masi , senior editor
Control Engineering News Desk
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