By Helen Titus, marketing leader, Panasonic IIoT Solutions
Although it feels clichéd to say that today’s manufacturers are facing “more challenges than ever before,” it is true that a trio of issues are among the most important currently threatening productivity:
- supply chain shortages
- labor concerns, such as labor shortages, efficiencies and onboarding costs
- social distancing requirements as a result of COVID-19
Industrial Internet of Things approaches are increasingly being used to overcome these challenges. With an IIoT system, manufacturers can manage material flow in real time and provide a framework for new employees to follow without disrupting operations. Perhaps you’re already doing this. From RFID-enabled tracking locators on production assets, to paperless tags and digital instruction manuals that provide step-by-step instructions for the product being assembled, employees can be quickly trained and the company can capture real-time data for analytics to track their performance and development.
For applications requiring high-volume asset identification at fixed points in the process, passive RFID remains the best, low-cost option. However, another well-known technology provides a strong alternative to RFID, due to its high accuracy at a relatively low price point.
Introducing BLE as a high-accuracy, low-cost solution
For many years, the only way to get accurate real-time asset location indoors (without spending a ton on antennae and infrastructure) was to commit to a proprietary wireless solution. Despite many early systems being developed and sold on frequencies from UHF to WiFi, customer satisfaction was low and no practical standard existed for RTLS (Real Time Location Systems).
We all know Bluetooth; from our cell phones to our wireless speakers, Bluetooth has become a part of daily life in a huge way. Over the past decade, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) has evolved to the point that the technology now serves as an “indoor GPS” system for industrial use.
As a result, BLE is becoming a major player in changing how manufacturers leverage IIoT on their factory floors.
In addition to location accuracy, BLE can provide sensor data (such as movements, drops, temperature and moisture) to diagnose issues before they become a problem. Keeping a record of all of this data helps improve processes and can feed AI engines for advanced decision making.
Solutions can visualize assets’ location on a map that can be easily viewed on a tablet. Rules and alerts can be programmed to provide real-time instructions to operators based on an asset location and status. Detailed “what to build and how to build it” instructions, for example, can be served up to an assembler when the asset reaches their work zone. With a BLE wristband, card or belt fob, even the operator is a trackable asset in the system.
The key differentiator is the relatively low cost to implement BLE into manufacturing processes paired with its high degree of accuracy. Bluetooth chips are inexpensive and widely accessible (almost five billion devices shipped last year), and its minimal power-draw allows batteries to last for years. By contrast, another newcomer to the RTLS market, ultra-wideband (UWB), suffers from being too expensive in cost and battery power for most companies to widely deploy.
The way forward
In today’s manufacturing landscape, rife with supply chain disruptions and labor shortages, IIoT can play a significant role in helping manufacturers be more efficient and enabling executives to fundamentally change their business operations. For users looking to track assets with a high degree of accuracy, BLE offers a lower-cost, less-intrusive option.
Leveraging this technology as an industry standard is key to moving past the tired old cliché of “more challenges than ever before” and into the golden age of smart manufacturing.