It’s hard to remember that there was a time when the Internet of Things was defined by networked manufacturing machinery installed in factories.
We didn’t use the term then, but computer controlled production machinery along with the tracking and accounting systems that supported them have been around for decades. Many of those machines had their own computer and they were connected using proprietary protocols over what were then called busses.
Things have changed, but not quickly. More and more factory automation now uses Ethernet, for example and in some situations there’s some WiFi. Because production equipment lasts far longer than IT hardware, it’s usually not upgraded before it’s replaced.
But the time is coming when industrial networks will have to move beyond the restrictions of wired infrastructure. By going wireless, the factory floor or the warehouse can become more flexible, more adaptable to change and more capable of keeping up with the demands of product designs that seem to change at the speed of light.
Unfortunately, moving an industrial IoT network to wireless can be a daunting task. “There are a lot of challenges,” said Rick Candell, an electronics engineer for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Candell is the principal author of NIST’s new ebook, “Guide to Industrial Wireless Systems Deployment.” The publication is considered a science-based set of guidelines for taking your factory floor wireless.
“The key is to keep your operation running,” Candell explained. “You’re not doing this to download movies.” The goal is to reach whatever level of reliability a manufacturing operation requires, he said.
Candell’s guide is intended to be read by the IT and engineering staff at a company with manufacturing facilities, whether those facilities are inside or outdoors. But it’s actually an invaluable reference for business wireless planners, regardless of whether they have a factory or a warehouse.
The guide does not assume a deep knowledge of wireless technology, although it does help to be somewhat versed in basic networking. What’s important is that a factory manager can use guide to work with the company’s IT shop to come up with a logical, well-chosen plan for wireless transformation.
Candell said that the document, which he calls a primer on wireless, is intended to help companies do wireless correctly. “This is not like a process standard or process document,” he explained. “This is just about getting people to think in the right way.”
The guide covers a lot of ground, from understanding the basics of wireless to understanding how wireless networks will perform in an industrial environment where interference from other equipment is a concern and where signal paths may be hard to predict.
It’s also notable that Candell does not assume that there’s any one solution to industrial wireless, but rather he focuses on finding the right network design for the specific task that needs to be done.
“It depends on what they’re using wireless for,” Candell explained, “If they’re wanting to use wireless for controlling robots, then the focus is on integration.” He said that it’s important to try to think of all the possible scenarios that can happen.
“What I’m hoping is that people will download the document and try to use it,” he said. “It will make them more knowledgeable about making choices. Knowledge is power.”
“If they can make informed choices it’ll help,” Candell said.
One area where Candell stresses making the right choices is with wireless security. He said that he frequently hears concerns that industrial wireless is unreliable because it’s prone to interference and that it’s insecure. But he said that done properly, neither is true. “Wireless systems can be very reliable,” he said.
In this case, wireless security plays an important role in the guide, including the obvious, but frequently overlooked need to change passwords and use encryption. Candell also refers readers to the NIST Guide to Industrial Control Systems Security, which covers the topic in depth.
The wireless guide is written with the idea that it’s going to help you choose a wireless system provider. There’s a great deal of information that’s useful for doing that, including a series of checklists to help you through the process. It also includes a section on candidate selection and scoring.
I was impressed that NIST put together such a comprehensive guide that’s done in a way that’s really useful for wireless planning. Such guides are rare because the ones that exist seem to be pushing specific products or services, are out of date or both. The NIST guide is current and Candell says it will stay that way.
“I have a technical working group managed through NIST and people are welcome to contribute,” he said. “We can always make improvements.”
Even if you’re don’t have immediate plans to take your factory wireless, this eBook is worth a read. If nothing else, it helps the IT staff explain just what’s possible and what’s not with a wireless network and that information alone is valuable.