Network platform is cornerstone of IIoT integration

Leveraging the potential benefits of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is on the minds of many machine

Von Cameron

Actility's Von Cameron

builders and system integrators these days. We all know this. There seems to be unlimited possibilities for enhancing maintenance schedules, preventing asset losses, and anticipating machine and system breakdowns before they occur.

And the foundation of any IIoT solution is the network-communications platform, which must be chosen wisely, with a thorough understanding of all the pros and cons. You want to be assured the platform you choose doesn’t become obsolete overnight because better solutions are available to address your customers’ needs.

Many OEMs are choosing mesh-based networks for their IIoT integrations, in which every IIoT device also serves as a repeater that relays data toward a centralized server. While that’s a great idea in theory, in practice the architecture means every device consumes a lot of power over time, because as well as doing its own job on schedule, each one also needs to act as a relay with on-board antennas. In addition to draining battery life, mesh network installation is time-consuming, requiring a complex IT set-up and route configuration, creating additional costs.

A fast-growing alternative to mesh networks is LoRaWAN, a Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) specification intended for wirelessly connecting battery-operated devices in a regional, national or global network. LoRaWAN meets the priorities for IIoT applications: secure bi-directional communication, low power consumption, mobility and localization services. The LoRaWAN specification provides seamless interoperability among smart devices without the need for complex local installations, giving freedom to your customer when rolling out their IIoT initiatives.

With LoRaWAN, devices communicate directly with all the gateways in range, without the need for a network configuration. And because of the low power requirements, IIoT devices can last three times longer in the field than most mesh-based devices.

The manufacturing environment can be a difficult one from a radio propagation perspective. We all know this. Any radio technology will have challenges in situations where rooms are covered in metal sheeting or there are large walls filled with rebar. In these situations, installing LoRaWAN solutions requires additional planning of radio architecture to make sure all areas in the plant are covered.

The good news is that LoRaWAN technology uses the 868MHz spectrum band in Europe, and the 915MHz in the US and Asia, which is better for propagation and indoor uses than the higher frequencies of some of the mesh networks (usually at 2.4GHz). It’s also inexpensive. A typical indoor access point will generally cost between $200-$600 and can be easily added to the network to provide optimum radio coverage.

What’s the best way for OEMs to get started with LoRaWAN? The key is to first focus on a specific use case, such as measuring temperature, humidity, air quality, smoke/liquid detection, resource consumption (e.g. electricity, gas or water), etc. Or you may decide you want to track assets such as tools or pallets. You can also track where workers are in the plant.

Once you’ve decided on your proof-of-concept application, a LoRaWAN trial can be set up in less than a day. All that’s needed is to plug the access point (about the size of a two smartphones) into an internet or cellular connection. You then place battery-powered sensors anywhere in the access point’s radio range (hundreds of meters indoors). After a few calculations, it’s ready to run.

Let the network operate for as long as two weeks while you evaluate the performance and the data. If you like what you’re seeing with temperature sensors, for instance, it’s easy to add other sensors to the network to determine the benefits they can provide. Costs for proof-of-concept trials are relatively inexpensive to implement.

So what are the main benefits of LoRaWAN technology for manufacturers?

Number one is the ability to monitor expensive capital equipment with tremendous precision. The biggest fear of most factories is equipment downtime—if the machines aren’t running, you’re losing money. With LoRaWAN you can cost-effectively detect issues before they happen by monitoring vibration, noise, temperature, etc. Just five years ago, this type of detailed detection was either too expensive, not very informative, or both.

Today’s algorithmic software-forecasting models can tell you when a machine requires preventative service—enabling manufacturers to stop production for an hour rather than dealing with a broken machine that’s down for 24 hours or more.

The second important benefit is inexpensive asset tracking and logistics. This is the top application for LoRaWAN solutions because the connectivity price is so low. Previous GPS trackers were expensive and quickly depleted the battery of devices. LoRaWAN devices are a fraction of the cost of GPS trackers and can take a year or more of continuous monitoring before depleting the battery. Look for vendors who also offer assisted GPS devices, which cuts costs considerably. Manufacturers can also create private LoRaWAN networks that completely and efficiently cover the entire plant. All these things put together provide a very attractive tracking solution.

Today, most manufacturing projects and processes can benefit from an IIoT installation. We all know this. With its flexibility, ease-of-installation, extended power and affordability, LoRaWAN technology can bring all of it within reach of OEMs.

Von Cameron is VP Americas & global logistics for Actility.