ABI Research: Short-range wireless solutions require new approaches in smart manufacturing

Research suggests industrial and manufacturing environments need to prepare for a 'long-term transformation rather than an overnight success story.'

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Short-range wireless connectivity solutions such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 802.15.4, and (UWB) Ultra-Wide Band, among others, have a key role to play in enabling the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) according to ABI Research. However, the inherent diversity, complexity, technology fragmentation, and more stringent ROI and KPI requirements of industrial environments are key obstacles which wireless solution providers must overcome to build scale across multiple use cases.

Those use cases range from real-time location systems (RTLS) and asset tracking to industrial wearables, condition-based monitoring, augmented reality (AR), and robotics applications, according to ABI, a market-foresight advisory firm providing strategic guidance on the most compelling transformative technologies.

“Though wireless technologies have made some inroads within industrial and manufacturing environments in recent years, wireless technologies remain relatively small and continue to face several challenges,” said Andrew Zignani, Senior Analyst, ABI Research. Zignani says the industry is still very much in a nascent market phase; companies are still investigating how wireless technologies can enable increased productivity, what technologies and platforms should be used, how to maximize ROI, and how to realize the true benefits of connected systems. Many projects are still in pilot phases or limited to small-scale deployments, which can be difficult to scale up to a whole factory floor and larger environments.

“Wireless solution providers still need to convince industrial equipment providers and end customers that, despite the limitations of wireless technologies, they are worth investigating due to the enormous amounts of high-quality data and the additional value they can generate,” Zignani added. “Industrial solution providers are beginning to come around to wireless solutions for condition-monitoring applications and can see the value of RTLS solutions. However, it is likely to be a long-term transformation rather than an overnight success story.”

In addition, according to ABI, many end users are not necessarily invested in a long-term vision of the industrial IoT that leverages a certain technology but are predominantly concerned with fulfilling the needs of the operations department in the most cost-effective manner with immediate benefits to their operations. Alongside this, an ABI press release continues, industrial equipment is often controlled by a few key vendors who are balancing legacy equipment with increased digitization. These vendors require solutions that are extremely reliable and that can be tailored to specific customers’ needs rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. According to ABI, wireless technology suppliers need to align their offerings with industrial customers’ requirements rather than building their marketing messages based solely on speed, latency, and coverage.

ABI’s research also suggests wireless solution availability is currently quite limited. Partnerships will need to be formed between wireless solution providers and key industrial suppliers to speed up and extend the available wireless solutions across many industrial use cases. However, tailoring existing products to industrial markets can also be very challenging. For RTLS solution providers, translating existing technologies such as Bluetooth beacons to an industrial environment can be difficult, and often the cost of testing for optimal location infrastructure deployment in dynamic industrial settings with changing obstacles and interference can be higher than the rollout of the infrastructure itself. It can also be very difficult to convince industrial customers to invest or accept new technologies. For customers with an existing Wi-Fi infrastructure, introducing them to Bluetooth or other connected sensor devices can be challenging due to the additional infrastructure requirements, therefore a Wi-Fi sensor can often be an easier sell.

ABI’s release states that emerging Bluetooth condition monitoring solutions from ABB and BluVision, UWB based RTLS deployments from Zebra, Sewio, and Siemens, in addition to AR and VR deployments from GE, Boeing, and Honeywell, among others, demonstrate this growing momentum, though the aforementioned challenges are hindering scalability. 

“The enormous benefits that wireless technologies can help achieve, including predictive maintenance, condition monitoring, big data analytics, more flexible workforces, efficiency improvements, safety enhancements, and many others will combine to produce increasing financial and production incentives that cannot be avoided,” said Zignani. “Wired technologies are simply not adequate to address all the multifaceted needs of the varied devices that will make up the IIoT and will be far too costly to implement. However, in order to be successful, short-range wireless technologies must build greater awareness, be easy to understand, implement, integrate, and manage, have robust security and reliability, all the while having a clear value proposition and benefits to end customers if they are to be successful and build scale.”

These findings are from ABI Research’s Connectivity for the Factory Floor: Opportunities and Challenges for Wireless Technologies. This report is part of the company’s Smart Manufacturing research service, which includes research, data, and Executive Foresights.

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