Is it time to go wireless?

20 September 2022

Wireless technology has always offered many benefits over traditional cabling. Today, the technical improvements in both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 make wireless technology an even more appealing choice for industrial applications, says Oliver Hammarstig.

Ignoring any technical requirements, the benefits of wireless solutions over traditional cabling are numerous and significant. A smart factory offering true flexibility where Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) can go wherever they are needed and where robotics work collaboratively to optimise production. This flexibility and automation is not possible without a wireless solution. 

With wireless solutions, users can access and manage or monitor equipment remotely. There is no longer a requirement for personnel to climb a long ladder, descend into the depths of a mine, or enter other unpleasant or potentially dangerous environment to check on equipment.

If the equipment is connected to a WAN, then there is no need to even be near the equipment and as a result you can reduce the cost and the inconveniences of travelling.

Wireless solutions are also cheaper to install and easier to scale or modify. Maintenance costs are also reduced as there is no need to manually connect to the equipment and the connectors are less likely to be damaged from constant use. Replacing worn or damaged cables is no longer a concern.

So, why haven’t industries already moved to a wireless solution? The two most common reasons are, firstly apprehension – there is a fear of change. The second reason relates to the technology.
There’s a concern that the wireless technology is not good enough, that the latency is too high, bandwidth too low, or the connection is not stable or secure. 

A common mindset in industry is ‘if it’s working don’t break it.’ This is understandable as caution is fundamental in industrial applications, we want to ensure safety and prevent downtime. But the transition from cables to wireless does not need to be complex and wireless solutions are already in use. It’s not a step into the unknown. 

Wireless concerns 
Concern that wireless and cellular standards don’t meet the requirements are becoming less valid with every wireless advancement. The key thing is to establish your requirements and then look at the options, including the wireless and cellular standards. If stability is key, the amount of data is low, and no internet connection is required, then Bluetooth is a good choice. 

If you need an internet connection, but with low bandwidth, low cost, and low power then a cellular connection using Low-Power Wide-Area Network (LPWAN) standards is an excellent choice. If you want low latency, high bandwidth, and high security then the newer wireless solutions may meet your needs, and this is where wireless solutions will be a key driver over the next few years. The advancements of 5G compared to 4G and Wi-Fi 6 compared to Wi-Fi 4 and 5 enable more industrial applications to cut the cables and install a wireless solution as the wireless technology can meet more technical requirements. This means that more industrial applications can take advantage of the benefits of wireless solutions which we outlined above such as automation, flexibility, and remote management. 

Comparing 5G with 4G
5G is not just an incremental improvement over 4G LTE, it is a major evolution providing significant improvements such as 50 times more speed, 10 times less latency, and 1,000 times more capacity

In industrial applications this opens lots of possibilities. Volkswagen, for example, has created its own 5G network where the increased speed and capacity, and reduced latency enable robots to complete complex tasks which would have been impossible on a 4G network.

However, 5G adoption does not mean that there is no place for 4G LTE in the industrial applications. LPWAN standards can provide the wireless connections required for large IoT applications where low cost, low energy, and small amounts of data need to be sent over long distances. Whereas 5G can be used in Critical IoT applications where reliability, low latency and high availability are required.

Comparing Wi-Fi 6 with Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 4
Wi-Fi technology is improving with each generation offering higher speeds, larger capacity, better efficiency, wider coverage, lower power consumption, smarter management, and the ability to serve more devices simultaneously.

The areas with the quickest uptake of Wi-Fi 6 technology are likely to be public Wi-Fi and the home market as with Wi-Fi 6 it’s now possible to connect more devices simultaneously and still have a stable and fast connection. Applications using virtual or augmented reality, such as digital twins for remote monitoring, will appreciate the higher throughput and lower latencies on offer. Smart management techniques such as the Target Wake Time (TWT) feature will reduce energy consumption as the devices will only be active when they need to send or receive data, this will be a key benefit to anything battery powered. 

Both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 can offer significant improvements on their predecessors and as a result, both offer opportunities for industrial applications. Whether you should choose 5G or Wi-Fi 6 will depend on the use case.

Generally, Wi-Fi 6 provides an internet connection either indoors or in defined high-density outside areas such as stadiums, whereas 5G provides an internet connection to all other outdoor areas, including vehicles or people on the move. 

On that basis, a typical industrial use case for 5G would be to remotely track vehicles on the move. While a typical Wi-Fi 6 industrial example would be to provide internet connectivity to capillary networks or any other indoor application falling under the Massive IoT umbrella. But as always, before deciding on the best solution it’s important to go into more detail and check your requirements. Wi-Fi 6 is cheaper to install and scale so if your intended application is indoors or in a high density outside area and Wi-Fi 6 meets the requirements, choose Wi-Fi 6. But if your requirements are more demanding and fall into the critical IoT category then cellular is a better choice even if your installation is indoors. For example, low latency is essential to critical IoT applications, and although latency has improved in both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, the supported levels are lower in 5G. Wi-Fi 6 supports latency down to 20 ms, but 5G supports latency down to 1 ms making it a viable option for all but the most demanding critical IoT applications.

Oliver Hammarstig is the Product Line Director for Wireless technology at HMS Networks Business Unit Anybus in Halmstad, Sweden.

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