Modern manufacturing is increasingly reliant on interconnected devices communicating with each other to optimize operations and achieve automation of key production processes. In fact, a recent study shows that 84% of manufacturers surveyed had already adopted smart manufacturing or are actively evaluating solutions to invest in the coming year, which means connectivity will be more important than ever.
Connected devices provide critical data required to automate production, but connections to the digital realm for simulating processes and outcomes further enhance the ability of manufacturers to transform their businesses to compete on the global theater. Once a luxury, manufacturers have now become reliant on mission-critical connectivity. Current networking technologies used in many manufacturing facilities are often outdated, unreliable, fixed in terms of location, or all three — resulting in frequent downtime and production delays.
The Evolution of Wireless Technology
Wireless technologies have been prevalent in industrial applications for decades using proprietary radios to communicate with sensors for data collection and controllers for managing moving devices. While proprietary networks benefit from the ability to customize the specific implementation to the application, closed ecosystems are often expensive to implement and maintain while also limiting device availability.
The emergence of Wi-Fi offered a low-cost, standardized technology that was embedded in a wide variety of enterprise and industrial devices. While Wi-Fi has been deployed in industrial environments requiring flexibility, the technology has struggled to meet the increasingly complex connectivity requirements for digital transformation. Best-effort Wi-Fi networks suffer from interference that results in poor Quality of Service (QoS) and Quality of Experience (QoE) as the number of connected devices and throughput increase.
The Emergence of Private Cellular Networks
Cellular technology was developed for mission-critical military communications before being adopted by enterprises to increase workforce productivity outside of traditional, fixed office environments. Demand exploded among consumers as the technology became more affordable, evolving to the point where smartphones have become an indispensable part of modern life. Cellular networks are highly secure, mobile, and very reliable with the ability to define QoS based on application-specific requirements.
Unlike legacy industrial wireless solutions and Wi-Fi, cellular networks utilize FCC-licensed wireless frequencies to ensure interference-free operations. Historically, the FCC auctioned wireless frequencies in large geographic areas and at great cost, making it difficult for enterprises to justify competing with the mobile network operators to acquire them. With the recent introduction of Citizens Band Radio Services (CBRS) spectrum by the FCC, enterprises can now acquire low-cost, wireless licenses as the basis for enterprise-focused Private Cellular Networks (PCNs). PCNs leverage small cell infrastructure and a virtualized network architecture that can be easily integrated with existing enterprise IT infrastructure.
Delivering on the Promise of Digital Transformation
A CBRS PCN is an excellent choice when a manufacturing facility requires high throughput, has massive numbers of devices, and needs enhanced security and reliability. PCNs provide more control over data transmission and provide dedicated and secure connectivity with edge computing platforms, keeping data local for analytics and low latency processing. They can also connect a larger number of devices than Wi-Fi without sacrificing performance. PCNs can be customized to meet application-specific requirements such as guaranteed throughput for video used in finished goods inspection or low latency communications required for real-time command and control of manufacturing processes. While current PCNs are largely based on 4G or LTE technology, 5G expands PCN capabilities with higher throughput, lower latency, and massive device connectivity — all crucial enablers for long-term industrial digital transformation.
PCNs have the potential to revolutionize manufacturing processes and help companies achieve key production goals by providing:
- Secure, reliable, low-latency operations for real-time machine-to-machine communication to thousands of devices
- Critical data infrastructure to support automation
- Mission-critical performance for real-time monitoring and control of safety and security systems
- Application-optimized data connectivity that enables more efficient and productive operational technologies to be implemented
Creating a Strong, Future-Proof Network Foundation
Wireless connectivity solutions have become increasingly essential in Industry 4.0 factories, where automation, digitalization, and data-driven processes are the norm. Selecting the correct type of network for a manufacturing plant is critical to ensure smooth and efficient facility operation. The network is the backbone of the plant’s communication system, connecting various devices and systems and facilitating the transfer of data and information. Choosing the wrong network can lead to slow data transfer speeds, dropped connections, and other network-related issues, resulting in lost productivity, increased downtime, and even safety risks.
A PCN can enable faster communication, real-time monitoring, and improved manufacturing processes. While off the shelf “PCN in a box” solutions exist, a one-size-fits-all approach should be avoided when trying to ensure maximum ROI for your next-generation networking investment. Each facility has unique communication needs based on factors like size, layout, construction materials, equipment, and operations. In addition, deployment challenges can include integration into existing Operational Technology and Information Technology platforms, application performance optimization, data security, and interweaving solutions across multiple networks. A customized PCN solution that meets the specific needs of your facility can lead to better performance, cost-effectiveness, and employee productivity. A trusted solution partner can help ensure that you select and implement the PCN architecture and infrastructure that best meets your needs, enabling you to reach your transformation goals.
CTS provides custom, carrier-grade in-building and campus connectivity solutions for enterprises and mobile network operators, solving and managing the most complex networking challenges. CTS only provides one solution: the one that’s right for your business.
Opinions expressed by contributing authors are their own.