Mission-critical industrial applications are increasingly reliant on wireless communications. This is particularly true in discrete operations in both manufacturing and transportation, where use of wireline infrastructure is precluded by harsh operating environments and the need to connect mobile and, increasingly, autonomous assets.
As the functional requirements of these applications continue to expand, so too do the options for wireless transmission of critical network traffic. Ongoing improvements to the IEEE 802.11 WiFi standard continue to extend its reach into critical applications, while current and potential cellular options, such as private wireless and 5G, are expanding the application landscape into analytics, AI, and edge computing.
The choice of appropriate wireless network type for critical traffic is driven by the requirements of the specific application, which can vary widely. The reality is that most customers will continue to employ a mix of wireless network types for critical network traffic through the foreseeable future.
This paper highlights current and emerging wireless options for mission-critical network communications with a focus on applications in discrete operations and transportation. The objective is to highlight that the primary determinant of success lies not in the choice of a particular technology, but rather the need for purpose-built solutions tailored to the needs of the specific application.
Network Requirements for Critical Communications
While the functional requirements of a given application are primary determinants of the appropriate industrial wireless technology, certain universal specifications are also applicable. Availability and reliability are top priority, particularly since failure of remote, mobile, and other critical assets can result in extended asset downtime or even injury or death. The ability to support safety protocols via support for hitless communications is also paramount, along with availability of system diagnostics.
Expanding Wireless Options Complicate Operational Decisions
Critical industrial wireless requirements have traditionally been served by either proprietary, often mesh-based, wireless networks or by implementations of the IEEE 802.11 WiFi standard. WLANs can meet the needs of indoor, standalone, point-to-point applications, such as communicating between a robot and a control system, but scaling the technology across multiple installations, such as a factory production line, rapidly falls prey to unreliable connectivity, bandwidth limitations, limited spatial coverage, increased potential for interference, and difficulty in managing large installations.
Network availability and reliability at scale remain a persistent concern, despite the incremental performance improvements inherent in the WiFi 6, WiFi 6E, and WiFi 7 specifications. WiFi’s limitations also pose a network consistency challenge in roaming mobile applications, such as on-vehicle, Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV), and robotics installations, as well as in meeting the needs of high-bandwidth applications.
5G and Private Wireless
Ongoing cellular technology improvements, starting with 4G LTE and now focused on 5G and private wireless, are leading to its increased consideration as a primary communication medium relative to WLANs. Cellular is well-suited for use in a growing number of mobile, remote, indoor, and outdoor applications, both in industry as well as transportation and other sectors. Availability of private cellular networks furthers the value proposition by eliminating reliance on public telecom networks, although spectrum availability remains a limited resource that varies by geography. 5G and private wireless both promise significant connectivity performance improvements that meet the needs of critical network communications as well as increasingly automated and autonomous operations.
Stages of the 5G release timeline reflect increasing capabilities in areas important to industrial private wireless implementations, such as latency, connection density, TSN support, and SA (standalone) operation. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) responsible for specifying different aspects of 5G technology and standards issues periodic releases that incorporate incremental functionality in a step-by-step fashion. Availability of products compatible with each incremental release can lag by 12 to 24 months given the time required for development, prototyping, and testing of both components and end products.
The combination of the 5G release timeline and the subsequent time necessary to develop and release compatible industrial devices remains a primary inhibitor to device availability and deployment, as does the significant price premium for 5G products relative to WLAN and 4G LTE.
5G’s low latency, high data rates, and massive capacity are likewise accelerating adoption of industrial IoT edge capabilities in areas such as AI/ML, AR/VR, and edge computing, enabling truly autonomous vehicles, robotics, and logistics operations. Ultra-low latency and massive bandwidth will allow autonomous mobile robots and their support AGVs to communicate in real time while working on moving parts on a production line or in a transportation hub.
Mixed Use Scenarios Likely to Prevail in Near Term
Mixed-use scenarios where a combination of WiFi and cellular, particularly private wireless, are deployed are likely to continue into the near future. Customers are more familiar with WLAN operation, which will continue to enjoy a cost advantage relative to 5G in the foreseeable future. Private networks also require dedicated infrastructure buildouts, increasing investment cost and extending the learning curve and installation timeline.
Use Case Examples Reflect How Differing Wireless Options Satisfy Critical Network Requirements
Discrete operations, ranging from factory production to port operations, have been some of the earliest adopters of 5G and private networks in formerly WiFi-based installations. The breadth of requirements represented by individual applications inherent in each industry segment, however, continues to result in the need to evaluate wireless options on a case-by-case basis.
Discrete operations in factory automation and shipping ports represent some of the most highly automated industrial applications. This automation emphasis is accompanied by escalating demands for data acquisition and analytics capabilities for applications such as OEE as well as safety, performance, and remote access requirements. These typically mobile and remote applications are spurring concurrent interest in enabling autonomous operations via critical network communications that are increasingly beyond the capabilities of traditional WLAN options.
Industrial robots, AGVs, and shipping port logistics equipment are among the lead target applications in this pursuit. These devices, which must be able to travel freely, inherently require wireless connectivity. Communication between the device and the control or management system must happen as reliably and predictably as possible without latency or jitter.
These applications are among the earliest adopters of private wireless to meet functional requirements such as support for reliable PLC I/O communications and troubleshooting, data acquisition, system diagnostics, and hitless communications. Customers with these requirements are likewise looking forward to 5G Advanced’s Ultra Low Latency (URLLC) capabilities. Implementers are concurrently pursuing adoption of virtualized industrial edge applications that run on the mission-critical wireless infrastructure.
Mobile AGVs in Automotive
With private wireless still in its early stages, WLAN installations continue to proliferate in discrete manufacturing. In one large automotive installation with 80 AGV carriers, Belden was successful in meeting critical requirements for availability of control and diagnostic data while ensuring employee safety and uptime via wireless Ethernet and the CIP Safety protocol.
Wireless applications within the transportation sector vary from operational use cases, such as train control, rail signaling, vehicle telematics, and passenger communications, to passenger information, ticketing, and video surveillance. Wireless installations must provide cutting edge bandwidth in a hazardous mobile environment for applications, such as uninterrupted train-to-ground communications while also adhering to industry standards such as EN50155.
Use of WLANs for critical network traffic necessitates availability of hitless roaming. Many train operators are now evaluating use of cellular options, particularly private wireless, to this end due to their inherent support of this capability. This is leading to mixed-use scenarios, with customers looking to migrate high bandwidth applications, such as train-to-ground communications, to private cellular while other, less mission-critical applications, such as passenger information and ticketing, remain reliant on WLANs.
Belden Has the Solution, Regardless of Technology Choice
Leading industrial network infrastructure supplier Belden, whose brands include Hirschmann™, GarrettCom™, ProSoft Technology™, Lumberg Automation™, Tofino Security™, NetModule™, Macmon Secure™, OTN Systems™, and others, has the portfolio and experience to deliver critical network communications regardless of the underlying wireless technology. The combination of their Hirschmann, ProSoft, and NetModule offerings, plus their extensive global partner network and global team of engineers and consultants, ensures delivery of purpose-built, reliable, fast, secure, and flexible wireless network infrastructure for mobile applications regardless of technology choice. Learn more by visiting their website: Industrial Wireless Solutions (belden.com)
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Keywords: Critical Industrial Communications, Industrial Wireless, Industrial Cellular, Industrial 5G, Industrial WiFi, ARC Advisory Group.