Looking for ways to cut costs and optimize processes on the factory floor? Wireless technology is the next big thing. From location tracking to cable replacement, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies offer a wide range of solutions to help you get the best asset and labor productivity.
The Wireless Revolution
If you haven’t been tracking technology lately, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are terms used to describe wireless technologies that operate on a specific radio frequency, around 2.4GHz, which is available for unlicensed use by the public (as opposed to, for example, FM radio, which requires government licensing).
Since its entrance into the mainstream of networking technology, Wi-Fi has mostly been used as a replacement and augmentation for wired local area networks. Wi-Fi is also what you use when you’re sitting in the comfy chair in the corner coffee shop surfing the Internet. It is well-suited for applications requiring high-volume data transfer and distances over 30 feet.
Bluetooth wireless technology was originally designed to connect small devices in close proximity to each other, transmitting relatively low amounts of data, such as a cell phone and a hands-free headset. Bluetooth’s main advantage is its low power usage and unique frequency-hopping feature, which makes it very secure and ideal for operation in adverse weather conditions.
So what does getting rid of those pesky wires look like in manufacturing applications? The following are some examples of what it can do for you.
Ever want to know exactly how many widgets you have in stock right now? How about the temperature of the room where a specific item is located? Want to get an e-mail if the pallet gets jostled? How about the location of that expensive new machine calibration tool you purchased? Need to find your floor manager?
Wi-Fi tags can broadcast extensive environment and telemetry data back to your servers; some even include their own sensor arrays. This data can be used to evaluate machine performance, inventory stock, labor productivity, or nearly anything else. Bluetooth generally wouldn’t be used for this application because of its short distance.
Sometimes connecting two machines with a cable doesn’t make practical or fiscal sense. For instance, running cable to a machine that has moving parts or is mobile is expensive, even prohibitive.
Another common cable problem involves the standard serial cable that connects a CNC machine tool that operates based on instructions from a central server. The limitations of this serial cable usually prevent the host computer from being more than 50 feet away (by cable) from the machine itself. Replacing a serial cable with a wireless network eliminates the 50-foot limit and eliminates signal degradation intrinsic to serial cables.
No Strings Attached
There are two big selling points for Wi-Fi. First, if your company has already installed wireless Ethernet, you can leverage your existing investment in infrastructure when implementing a Wi-Fi system, unlike an RFID network, which requires proprietary transmitters/receivers. (This is not to say that any given wireless network designed for mobile computing or Voice over Internet Protocol will be sufficient for widespread asset location tracking. There most likely will be upgrades needed for signal coverage.) Second, the bandwidth of Wi-Fi is enough to allow high volumes of data to travel over the air, making it ideal for machine configuration and remote operation tasks.
There are various solutions that combine Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies, but Bluetooth’s low bandwidth and short range make it most appropriate for cable replacement on machines and barcode replacement in a choke-point detection setting.
Tying It All Together
A major drawback to these two particular wireless technologies is their coming obsolescence. There is already discussion of using GPS, wireless broadband (cellular), and WiMAX networks to track assets all over the globe, not just on the factory floor. Even so, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth definitely provide some excellent opportunities to get serious about making your manufacturing supply line lean, efficient, and sustainable.