Eric Miller discusses the infrastructure challenges manufacturing companies face when implementing data-capable operations as part of a smart factory or connected enterprise. One weak link can jeopardize the efficiency of the entire system

It is hard to dispute that worldwide the industry is in the grip of what some are terming the fourth industrial revolution – or Industry 4.0, as it is more commonly known. This revolution certainly does offer the capability to bring about a sea change in the way companies run their manufacturing, processing and logistics operations. And at the heart of it all is data and the demonstrable effects it can deliver.

Access to real-time data, backed up with intelligent analytics platforms, makes it possible for companies to act almost instantaneously and modify their processes and procedures on the fly to optimize their operation. And even those procedures that don’t require real-time actions can benefit. Data delivers historical trending information, which can be used to spot shifting or seasonal patterns, which, when addressed, can have a huge impact on time, efffectiveness and, of course, the bottom line.

In order to have the greatest positive impact on plant operations in the manufacturing industry, this data-driven paradigm relies heavily on robust and rugged data-capable systems at all levels and in every discipline. As the saying goes, ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’. For this reason, plant operators must consider the hardware and software behind their Industry 4.0 approach in a holistic sense, which addresses every facet of operations. From the simplest open/shut digital door switch, up to the enterprise network, all elements must be fit for purpose and, just as importantly, speak to each other in the clearest and most effective way possible.

The spine or foundation of any Industry 4.0 solution is the network – the information superhighway upon which all this data will travel. In manufacturing and production environments, where the possibilities of interference and dead spots are more prevalent, Wi-Fi setups can be very complex, with many companies facing difficulties getting stable networks in place. Even experienced IT professionals can face unique hurdles. Office networks, which feed stationary line-of-sight targets are relatively straightforward, but shop floor environments present a whole raft of new challenges, often outside the skillset of even the most capable IT practitioner. As a response to this, reliable wireless LAN solutions are increasingly being offered as a service, where the provider takes full responsibility and guarantees constant connectivity, or, if the network goes down, provides break-fix services to support a hot swap in the field.

Examples where this type of service offers immediate and tangible benefits include manufacturing, logistics and warehousing operations, where multiple technical devices such as vehicle-mounted terminals (VMTs) and handheld units will weave paths in and around natural obstacles, machinery and shelving – both indoors and outdoors. In this instance, it is plain to see that, a) an off-the-shelf solution will most likely not deliver reliable connectivity, and b) every corner of the plant or site needs to be covered in order to offer the best possible continual coverage. This is where industrial networking, developed specifically for these types of applications, comes to the fore; and by handing it over to a service provider, maximum coverage and uptime, can be assured.

To many companies, full-service capabilities are just as important as the technical equipment used, like handheld and vehicle-mounted PCs; as a result, the ability to offer Wi-Fi as a Service (WaaS) forms an intrinsic element of Industry 4.0 solutions going forwards. This is the approach we are taking at JLT Mobile Computers, and we will be rolling out a new WaaS offering to help reinforce logistics and manufacturing solutions.

The JLT WaaS program will comprise a turnkey, enterprise-level wireless LAN solution, which is designed to exact specifications, following bespoke survey, design and configuration steps. Once deployed and optimized the network will then be proactively managed remotely – using a 24/7 network operations center (NOC) – to monitor the network’s health in order to optimize performance. What is more, this WaaS program will act as an extension of existing IT teams, allowing these personnel to focus on other business priorities.

Although I suggested taking a holistic approach, and stated that every facet of an Industry 4.0 capable solution is just as important as the next, the network may actually be just a little more important. Undoubtedly, it should be the first step considered in any modernization or new build program for successful implementation. Industrial Wi-Fi networks are working incredibly effectively all over the world with many benefits over cabled solutions, including greater flexibility, coverage and capability. Using Wi-Fi instead of an outdated wired alternative is ideal for mobile applications; and manufacturing and logistics operations will see almost instant benefits as well as longer-term performance improvements. With the support of a full-service company, any trepidation regarding the deployment of mobile technology and connectivity can be effectively addressed and new operational procedures put in place, backed up by the peace of mind that maximum flexibility and uptime are assured.

Eric Miller is CEO of JLT Mobile Computers Inc. Established in 1994, and with over 100,000 computers shipped, JLT has grown to become Sweden’s largest PC manufacturer and remains an independent, publicly-traded company. JLT pioneered the rugged computer market, shaping it over the last two decades by instigating and championing a level of design and manufacturing quality demanded by the leaders in the world’s toughest end-markets.