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Wireless IoT - The Manufacturing Solution

March 31, 2017

The Internet of Things (IoT) which ultimately aims for a seamless link between cyberspace and the physical world is already impacting many aspects of daily life. In the manufacturing environment, IoT holds enormous promise, making it possible to build powerful applications and services. Existing industrial Ethernet networks, however, are not well-suited to the rapid deployment of IoT systems as the need to connect the various sensors, devices, and machines operating on the factory floor would necessitate a vast and complex arrangement of cables and wires. Introducing a wireless system is not so simple either as there are a number of obstacles that can impede effective implementation. In this article, we will review an experimental verification project aimed at introducing wireless IoT and boosting manufacturing performance.

Too many devices to connect

IoT facilitates real-time control, measurement, and data collection by interconnecting devices with one another and with the network. The manufacturing environment is ideally suited and is expected to be one of the first areas where the full potential of this exciting new technology will be realized. For example, when devices and machines are connected to the network, operators can see at a glance the device's current status and operating conditions, which can help optimize the timing of maintenance and component replacement. Likewise, when a production line is going to be switched, communication with the line can speed up the switching procedure, minimizing downtime. General enhancements of this nature are being introduced at many plants.

The benefits are obvious, and numerous. So what is holding up the introduction of IoT in the production environment? Simply that there are just too many devices that have to be connected. The myriad of machines, sensors, and other devices must all be connected. One way to do this is to physically connect the devices using cables. Unfortunately, not only will this result in a massively complex tangle of wiring, it also increases the risk of cable breakage, which can in turn interfere with production. In some cases, older machinery is difficult to network as it was often not designed on the assumption of being connected.

Wireless IoT promises to solve these issues and facilitate smooth introduction of IoT in the manufacturing environment.

Achievement of flexible factories by wireless

In 2014, the Flexible Factory Project was launched by a consortium of nine public and private entities: National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT), Omron, Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, NEC, NEC Communication Systems, Sanritz Automation, Fujitsu, Fujitsu Kansai-Chubu Net-Tech, and Murata Machinery. The project was initiated with a view to properly understanding the real problems involved with the introduction of wireless IoT in the manufacturing environment by conducting wireless environment evaluations and other tests in order to facilitate development of a new wireless system appropriate to conditions in a manufacturing plant.

According to Satoko Itaya, one of the leaders of the project and a senior researcher at NICT's Smart Wireless Laboratory, all the organizations involved in the project bring to the table "exceptional expertise in areas of manufacturing, communications, systems, and so on."

Satoko Itaya, Ph.D.
Senior Researcher, Smart Wireless Laboratory, Wireless Networks Research Center,
National Institute of Information and Communications Technology

"In the two years since the first tests were conducted in March 2015," says Dr. Itaya, "we have conducted numerous tests and evaluations at many of the factories operated by participating companies. By the end of March this year (2017), we expect to have completed tests in 10 different factories."

The interaction between technological advances and an ever more diverse range of consumer tastes and lifestyles has pushed a corresponding evolution in manufacturing techniques. Today many factories operate a high-mix, low-volume manufacturing production. For example, while many people view the car industry as the epitome of mass production, in reality cars are representative products of high-mix, low-volume production as each model is produced in a variety of different specifications, colors, and options. In such facilities, conversion of assembly lines takes place frequently. The longer the resulting downtime, the lower the productivity. As pointed out earlier, IoT provides an effective means to facilitate this changeover and ensure that is as rapid and smooth as possible. Continuous monitoring of production devices via IoT maintains device controllability at all times and enables the facility to quickly convert assembly lines.

One of the key requirements of factories today and in the future is the ability to be highly flexible and to respond to dynamic changes in a cost effective manner. That's why the project led by Dr. Itaya is called "Flexible Factory Project." The aim of this effort is to achieve this flexibility through the implementation of wireless technology.

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