Applicability of wireless technology for manufacturing

Wireless manufacturing applications include machine-to-human and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. Can wireless applications augment your manufacturing productivity or that of your customers?

By Bryan Christiansen, Limble CMMS November 13, 2018

Wireless technology has become one of the fastest growing and adopted platforms businesses use today and is beneficial to all categories of organizations, including manufacturers. Wireless is finding applications in every stage manufacturing workflow, from development to production, warehousing, and distribution.

As more organizations in this sector continue to witness wireless opportunities for business, its expected wireless use will expand. With the collaboration of the Internet of Things (IoT) coupled with LPWAN (a WAN subcategory), wireless system use will continue to expand.

Wireless manufacturing applications

Industrial wireless networking is attractive because it can provide cost-effective deployment, usefulness in hazardous environments, and overall operational convenience. Two areas where manufacturers commonly use wireless are machine-to-human communication and machine-to-machine (M2M) communication. Industrial wireless manufacturing technology applications and benefits for both areas follow.

1. Machine-to-human communications

Worker safety and the drive to achieve zero incidents remains a challenge in manufacturing companies. Interestingly, wearable devices, first popular as a trendy fashion accessory, is now taking center stage in improving safety.

Online statistics portal Statista estimates the number of connected wearable devices worldwide will grow from 325 million in 2016 to 929 million by 2021.

Wearable wireless devices are fitted with smart sensors that connect through wireless to the internet. Although this technology became mainstream through smart watches and sportsgear, factory wearables can improve worker safety and comfort, which can improve productivity.

Hazardous work in the industry is now being managed through the practice of connecting personal protective equipment (PPE) to a network that remotely monitors workers’ interaction with their working environment. Plant managers can track workers’ exposure to toxic gases, low oxygen, radiation, and use similar technology to avoid collisions between humans and moving equipment such as robots.

Other products that are catching on for manufacturers include smart helmets that monitor fatigue and how long a wearer’s eyelids are closed, radiation-blocking underwear and smart safety shoes. Wearable tech is becoming a staple, rather than a luxury, on the factory floor because of its safety and productivity benefits for workers.

2. M2M communications

In manufacturing, unlike many decades back when everything on the plant floor was controlled manually, wireless communication now allows plant owners to reinvent several aspects of manufacturing through automation integration. Automation engineers are exploring the possibilities wireless offers to convert factories into intelligent and unified systems.

For instance, several industry organizations use wireless signals to monitor every stage of production and control — with very little error — every sequence to deliver quality products. Application examples include:

  • Using wireless technology to control simple to complex equipment like conveyors, wrapping machines, and coating machines at painting stations.
  • Wireless-controlled robots can be guided to manufacture products with minimal human intervention. They are beneficial on automatic assembly lines, for automated machine tools control, packaging and labeling, product inspection and testing, and more.

3. Wireless maintenance management

A limitation of using wired Ethernet to connect industrial equipment to a network has been the costly and inconvenient issue of running cables across a factory. But, with the advent of wireless sensors, it is now feasible to monitor different parameters (temperature, vibration, pressure, noise, and others) in real-time without cables.

Wireless sensors also mean equipment can be moved from one location to the other, if necessary, with fewer problems. Even mobile equipment like cranes and forklifts can be monitored on this platform. For critical assets that require non-stop monitoring from remote stations (power lines, oil fields, gas lines, etc.), these M2M applications are supported with video streaming surveillance products, which allow maintenance personnel to take immediate action.

Other applications continue to evolve for maintenance management. Workers can wear smart glasses with augmented reality (AR) support, which allows them to receive maintenance instructions from experts while in the field.

For better inventory management, businesses can use radio frequency identification (RFID), which is used to identify individual assets and makes it easier to track them, especially if they need to be moved from one location to the other.

Wireless maintenance management benefits from a robust wireless infrastructure. Frequent downtime, excessive production stoppage, and escalating maintenance costs are all indications of reactive maintenance, which is repairing or servicing equipment after it fails. Plant managers should consider switching to more proactive maintenance strategies like preventive, predictive, or reliability-centered maintenance (RCM).

Manufacturers also need to consider energy management. The U.S. industrial sector accounts for almost one-third of national energy consumption with bulk chemical companies taking the lead at 28%.

Operators can optimize their energy consumption to remain competitive. To do this, they’ll need to start by installing measuring devices that capture the electrical parameters of assets. Wireless sensors can measure these parameters and generate actionable insights to manage energy use.

Potential wireless dangers

All wireless applications discussed above can work through the connection of industrial assets to the internet because the IoT enables cloud-based device data exchange.

However, any company that adopts such a resource must understand the potential security challenges and threats from industrial espionage and sabotage to managing authentication and authorization issues.

Before buying into a wireless solution, identify what in-house problems it will address, the risks, and how to mitigate those risks. There’s been much progress in making wireless networking secure and many products address industrial cybersecurity concerns.

Wireless technology has already had a large impact on the manufacturing industry. It will be interesting to see what impact future technologies and developments will have and how they will further shape manufacturing. It will be interesting to observe how wireless technology continues to shape the manufacturing industry.

Bryan Christiansen is the founder and CEO at Limble CMMS. Limble is a mobile CMMS software company that helps managers organize, automate, and streamline maintenance operations. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,

KEYWORDS: Wireless technology, maintenance

  • Wireless use is expanding for manufacturing with greater use of automation.
  • Wireless communications can be between humans and machines or between machines.
  • Maintenance can benefit from wireless technology.

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What wireless applications can bring greater manufacturing productivity?