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Harnessing the power of Wi-Fi for manufacturing process improvement

Wi-Fi can boost worker mobility and be the backbone for sensors and other devices that give real-time visibility into production and distribution.

Wi-Fi technology is ubiquitous these days, available everywhere from coffee shops to airports to homes. For manufacturers,...

Wi-Fi can offer much more than an easy way to access email or the Internet -- it can seamlessly connect all parts of an organization, from production and distribution to the executive suite. When combined with mobile devices such as smartphones and shop-floor wireless sensors, the potential of Wi-Fi for manufacturing process improvement can be significant.

Before considering Wi-Fi technology, manufacturers should examine the mobility of their operations, according to Byron Blackburn, principal at Blackburn Global, a Woodstock, Ga.-based consulting firm. “There’s no use for Wi-Fi unless your process requires mobility,” he said. “First, do a complete value stream map of the processes of your business. Find out exactly how things flow. Most businesses just go in and cover everything. That’s wasteful and puts strain on IT staff. Cover only what is necessary.”

Paul DeBeasi, research vice president for wireless and mobility at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., also stresses the importance of identifying which processes and applications -- such as real-time control processes, voice, end-user data or email -- will need wireless support. “Do a site survey to understand the propagation characteristics of the facility,” DeBeasi said. “Design the network carefully to ensure proper capacity and coverage to satisfy the business requirements. Make sure you have planned how you will provide problem diagnosis and consider whether the network needs to support a guest network or the use of employee-owned devices.”

Wi-Fi technology, mobile devices make a powerful team
Once a manufacturer has determined that the organization is a good candidate for Wi-Fi, it’s time to choose the right devices to access the network. Experts recommend giving employees Wi-Fi-capable smartphones to keep them connected both inside and outside the facility. But some devices won’t require human intervention and include radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, sensors and monitoring devices connected in machine-to-machine (M2M) networks running over Wi-Fi.

“The way we look at the supply chain in manufacturing, you’re going to see some combination of devices and sensors working with each other," said Kimberly Knickle, practice director for emerging agenda, sustainability and the asset-oriented value chain (AOVC) at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC Manufacturing Insights. "It could mean that the driver has a smartphone and needs a tower to communicate with the office.” Often, the tools used for Wi-Fi can also be used to access other sensor technology, according to Knickle. “That smartphone could have an RFID tag on it or have a scanner application,” she said.

While using smartphones for Wi-Fi connectivity might be a significant initial expense, the long-term visibility benefits are worth it, according to Blackburn. “Anything you can give an employee that makes them more mobile, more responsive, the better,” he said. “Wireless fills that void because you can give employees smartphones or wireless badges. [With Wi-Fi-enabled devices] they can more easily be redirected."

Building networks beyond 802.11 wireless
The standard for Wi-Fi technology has long been 802.11. According to DeBeasi, manufacturers new to Wi-Fi would be safest sticking with an 802.11 wireless network and using the 2.4 and 5 GHz spectrums.

However, Blackburn has seen some innovative manufacturers moving beyond that. “I’ve seen more companies that are stepping away from the 802.11 networks and putting together more proprietary networks to pick up sensors,” he explained. “The next wave of products is going to be proprietary.” According to Blackburn, a customized wireless network can provide visibility into processes that are of particular interest to a manufacturer -- when something on the assembly line moves, when a truck leaves or when employees enter and exit the facility, for example. “Many environments are trying to press that kind of network onto an 802.11 space, but the real progressive companies are moving away from that,” he said.

Knickle emphasized that often a manufacturer will need outside help building and maintaining a Wi-Fi network. “One of our big issues with sensors in general is that often you can’t get it all from one vendor, so you need a partner that takes control and plays general contractor,” she said. “In order for this technology to advance, you have to have enough vendors to play general contractors or enough education to play general contractor yourself. I find that manufacturers tend to behave the way they usually do for other projects -- there are many that believe in build-your-own tech, but [success] depends on how quickly they want to move and teach skills.”

Blackburn cautions new Wi-Fi users to make sure their networks can accommodate the number of users that need to access them. “[Wi-Fi networks] can get overloaded. The only limiting factor is how many people can connect to one access point. In most Fortune 500s, you have one access point and 50 people trying to get onto it at once. The learning curve has been tough for some players.”

The No. 1 area that manufacturers should be focused on when building a Wi-Fi network is performance, according to Blackburn. “Don’t worry too much about the security side -- just having user authentication in place is fine,” he said. “Security is a placebo. If somebody wants to break in bad enough, they will.

As far as planning upgrades go, Blackburn urges manufacturers to not be too thrifty. “Always quadruple what you think you’ll need for technology in the future,” he said. “Don’t be cheap. You’ll just frustrate yourself.”

“Wi-Fi is the future and the present, and it’s only going to get more utilized,” Blackburn said. “From a standpoint of making companies leaner and more productive, Wi-Fi has played a big part. It’s given companies the flexibility needed.”

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