While automotive, aerospace, and high-tech equipment manufacturers are early adopters of wireless networks, the overall manufacturing industry has been slow in adoption.

A plausible theory for this slow adoption is that manufacturing plants are, by design, not the most ideal environments for wired networks — there is too much interference caused by equipment. Therefore, wireless technologies are gaining momentum as the communications technology of choice because they operate on a wavelength basis, rather than a copper cable.

When integrated into manufacturing plants, wireless systems are utilized on shop floors and across multiple facilities. Most of the wireless/mobile applications involve logistics outside of the manufacturing plant. Plant managers and floor supervisors who are equipped with wireless mobile devices can track orders, supply inventories, locate delivery trucks, change orders, and handle customer relations.
Surveys have shown that more than 60 percent of executives agree that a wireless infrastructure should be part of their business. A large majority of the high-level executives and management already use wireless communications, followed by the sales and marketing workforce, and trailed by field workers and production teams. These high usage percentages seem to illustrate that the ease and efficiency of inventory and asset management, employee scheduling and production monitoring — as well as safety — should be clear selling points for wireless communications. So what are the barriers to adoption?

Simply put, these barriers are the unknown:

  • Perceived complexity of the wireless install
  • Disruption to workflow
  • Cost
  • Business as usual is “fine”

Wireless/Cellular in Manufacturing

Cellular communications are now a primary means of voice and data transfer. However, a gap still remains to extending these frequencies indoors, across campuses, and in dense metropolitan areas. To fill the gap, in-building coverage solutions are being deployed that enable cellular usage and allow organizations to provide better reception, and manufacturing facilities are no exception.

Unlike traditional offices, manufacturing facilities have more in-depth needs for wireless communications. When integrated into manufacturing plants, these systems are utilized on shop floors and across multiple facilities to enable supervisors to monitor and expedite supply orders, as well as communicate with employees and customers. Because the workforce is mobile, desktop phones are not always sufficient. Wireless service providers can install a microcell and assign employees a four-digit extension, just like a landline. Once outside the facility, a traditional cellular network and telephone number takes over.

Most of the wireless/mobile applications involve logistics outside of the distribution center or the manufacturing plant. Plant managers and floor supervisors who are equipped with wire - less/mobile devices can track orders, supply inventories, locate delivery trucks, change orders, handle customer relations, and more — all without leaving the facility. The ability to communicate anytime, anywhere, will expedite manufacturing tasks, increase customer satisfaction, and produce high returns on investment (ROI).

On the shop floor, employees equipped with wireless devices gain visibility into real-time inventory data and are able to make efficient supply chain decisions. Floor managers possess information for just-in-time initiatives while enjoying the benefits of unparalleled data transaction mobility. With im proved material handling, floor managers are able to manage inventories more accurately while expediting re sponse and security measures. Further more, plant technicians can easily troubleshoot manufacturing and material handling equipment more efficiently, minimizing downtime while maintaining high levels of production.

Assessing Your Cellular Communications Needs

Whether inside or outside the manufacturing plant, clear wireless communications are being utilized more often for:

  • Monitoring production flow
  • Tracking materials/products
  • Managing inventories with barcode readers
  • Managing mobile field workers to ensure delivery of products to the right place at the right time
  • Monitoring customer orders
  • Issuing work orders
  • Ordering new parts

A wall-mounted dual-band repeater is part of anin-building coverage solution that enables cellularusage and allows organizations to providebetter reception.
Before deploying an in-building cellular or wireless infrastructure, manufacturing plants must have their business objectives clearly identified prior to installation. It is important to identify the users and applications that can drive efficiencies within your organization.

Each installation has unique obstacles to overcome. In many cases, the existing infrastructure can be utilized to save money. Typical areas to assess are:

  • Cell Phones — An RF analysis to determine where cell coverage is weak as well as an internal audit to find out where the cell phones are used the most.
  • Wi-Fi — Transmitter testing to determine the propagation characteristics of the facility to ensure a robust design and implementation depending on the applications to be utilized and number of potential users. Applications include, but are not limited to, RFID, VoIP, Work Order Processing, Manufacturing and Prod uction Maintenance, and Building Automation.
  • Public Safety/Emergency Response — Understanding the frequencies the local emergency responders (police, fire, EMTs) use and ensuring coverage is acceptable within your facility.

Public Safety – Insurance Savings and High ROI

In addition to the aforementioned business benefits, fine-tuning the cellular communications and ensuring coverage for first responders helps public safety personnel respond to emergencies in a more efficient and effective manner.

With a wireless system in place, organizations can ensure 99.9% coverage for voice, data, and emergency communications in all building areas, including elevators, stairwells, and multi-level garages. In the event of an emergency, not only can those inside the building have connectivity to reach 911, but the emergency responders who arrive at the site and enter the building can have uninterrupted communications with each other and report the situation to their command post.

Manufacturing shop floor employees can usewireless technology solutions to expedite businesscontinuity.
For example, if an employee is injured on the manufacturing floor, a supervisor equipped with a wireless device (radio or cellular) can immediately call for help. First responders can enter the manufacturing plant, assess the situation, and easily maintain radio communication with outside support teams without fear of frequency interruptions caused by manufacturing equipment or building construction.

Manufacturing facilities present significant challenges above and beyond those faced by typical office buildings for in-building installations. Unfor - tunately, the need for wireless coverage is often realized through the loss of productivity or more streamlined processes exhibited by competitors.

Manufacturing organizations seeking to improve communications or productivity via an enhanced wireless infrastructure need to conduct a diligent needs assessment and map those needs with their infrastructure investment. An expert assessment needs to be conducted by a trained engineer to ensure all wireless frequencies (cellular, public safety, WiFi) interoperate within the high-interference environment associated with manufacturing facilities to maximize the investment and help ensure a demonstrable ROI.

This article was written by Kelley Carr, President of Custom Solutions Group for Cellular Specialties (CSI), Manchester, NH. For more information, Click Here 


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the December, 2009 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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