The challenges of wireless for manufacturing

By Chris Dyke, Sales Manager UK & Ireland, Allied Telesis.

In recent years, Wi-Fi has become the main technology for accessing networks – both in homes and companies – and is gradually replacing the traditional Ethernet cable.

Although wired connections are more powerful and reliable, Wi-Fi has the undeniable benefit of allowing users to connect from anywhere and stay connected while on the move. The transition to Wi-Fi as an access technology has been fueled by the proliferation of laptops replacing desktops and BYOD in the form of smartphones and tablets.

This migration is now also beginning to affect areas that are not related to typical office activities, such as warehousing or production. Self-driving vehicles, wearable devices for inventory and inventory control, PDAs for inventory tracking, and many other services and devices require a constant connection to the network without being physically connected.

Thanks to its continuous evolution, Wi-Fi technology today offers ever higher performance – comparable to that of wired connections – and allows the implementation of solutions in every possible scenario.

Like any technology, Wi-Fi has some inherent limitations. Where wired connections have an Ethernet cable for each computer, wireless connections use the air as a “medium” that is by nature shared among all users. In this way, the bandwidth provided by a single access point is divided among all connected devices and must be shared between them.

Also, wireless transmission is sensitive to the environment, so walls, furniture, people, and any other element pose an obstacle to wireless transmission, making an access point’s coverage area unpredictable. Unfortunately, it is not possible to increase performance by adding a large number of access points, since radio signals are sensitive to possible electromagnetic interference between them, which would disrupt or prevent communication.

In critical production environments, these limitations must be overcome.

WLAN in production and logistics areas

A manufacturing or logistic environment presents the most difficult conditions for wireless transmission. The motors of the machines generate electromagnetic interference and the quantities of goods in the warehouses are constantly changing, changing reflections, attenuations and interference between the different devices.

Trying to solve problems by increasing the number of access points only increases the interference between neighboring devices operating on the same channel, which reduces the overall performance instead of increasing it.

On the other hand, autonomous vehicles and all wireless devices used require a stable and continuous connection to function optimally. Therefore, to ensure these services in such a critical environment, it is necessary to implement a special Wi-Fi technology that guarantees stability in all conditions. One such solution is the “single channel”.

The single channel solution

The single-channel solution, which complements the more widely used multi-channel solution, requires all access points to operate on the same channel, minimizing configuration and planning problems. From the user’s point of view, no difference is perceived between the two solutions, but in single-channel mode, the end device sees a single virtual access point to which it connects only once. It then remains connected until it maintains coverage of any access point that is part of the same single channel.

This approach solves some of the most important problems in this area: By working on the same channel, contiguous access points offer connection stability and non-interference. As a result, terminals – both self-propelled and handheld – remain connected continuously or without the risk of losing connection when moving from one access point to another. In this way, a company can not only optimize network performance, but also reduce mobile device consumption, ensuring uninterrupted productivity combined with an agile and fast experience.

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