Wireless technologies have evolved significantly over the years. Wireless solutions used to be limited to sensing less-than-critical applications and connecting user devices. Nowadays, wireless technologies are able to support bandwidth-intensive worker productivity applications, reliable mobility for critical assets, increased data collection from all areas of the plant, and applications that boost operational efficiencies and production uptime.
Wireless is finding uses in every industrial setting. For example, autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) on manufacturing floors, remote-controlled cranes in shipping terminals, trains moving at 200 mph, and autonomous vehicles in mines and oil and gas sites, to name just a few.
If you need high data rates, the main candidates for wireless are Wi-Fi 6 and 6E, public and private 5G, and Cisco Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul. But which technology is best? The best wireless technology depends on your use case and is determined by considerations such as the amount of data, the number of devices, the area of coverage, the criticality of network availability, and whether the data will be used for real-time decisions. (A little lag is acceptable if you’re capturing manufacturing data to study trends—but not if you’re remotely unloading a 50,000-pound container or steering a tele-remote mining vehicle around a bend.)
In this blog, we will review the benefits of each of these three wireless technologies. For more details, check out our new white paper: Choose Wireless That Is Best-Fit and Not Force-Fit for Your Industrial Network.
Wi-Fi: The default wireless for most industrial IP devices
The latest standards, Wi-Fi 6 and 6E (IEEE 802.11ax), deliver more throughput than earlier standards, and lower latency. Wi-Fi 6 also works with equipment using older Wi-Fi standards. Wi-Fi 6 is an excellent choice for connecting devices via their default Wi-Fi interface, especially in small areas or production lines. It can be difficult to provide good Wi-Fi 6 radio planning for coverage over large areas. Maximum transmit power is regulated, and dense materials like shipping containers or metal walls can interfere with signals.
Public 5G: Enhanced mobile broadband
Like Wi-Fi 6, 5G promises high data speeds and low latency. The enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) 5G service is comparable to wireline networks, with data rates up to 20 gigabits/second (in mmWave frequency bands). Like LTE, public 5G relies on the new C-band spectrum to increase throughput in Sub-6GHz bands. Public 5G is now available in many countries, an advantage for multinational organizations that want to standardize on one wireless technology. Consider it if you’re looking to centrally monitor and control remote SCADA sites, HD cameras, or new operational technology (OT) tools like augmented-reality helmets. The drawback is that 5G-enabled devices and C-band services are not widely available.
Private 5G: Private spectrum
Consider private 5G if you operate in countries where the C-band spectrum is available for private organizations. It’s a good choice for connecting mobile phones, tablets, and IoT gateways that have a built-in 5G interface. Compared to Wi-Fi, it has higher transmit power and is less susceptible to interference since the band is dedicated to private 5G. That’s a winning combination for large areas like aircraft factories, ports, and terminals. You can either manage a private 5G network by yourself or use a managed service. But be aware that people with the networking, cybersecurity, and automation skills to deploy and manage 5G networks are in short supply. Another drawback of private 5G is that few of today’s devices support 5G standalone access (SA). Most support non-standalone access (NSA), which uses the 4G LTE control plane.
Cisco Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul: fiber-like throughput and seamless handoffs
Cisco Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul delivers fiber-like performance and can be deployed very quickly. This option shines if you need 700 Mbps or higher data rates, are connecting moving assets, linking locations that are a few miles apart, or need temporary connectivity where it is not practical to pull fiber. Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul uses unlicensed (free) spectrum and is available everywhere. Because the underlying technology is Wi-Fi, you have complete control over your network. Keep in mind that Cisco Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul is the infrastructure, not an access mechanism. That means you can use it to connect any industrial device with an Ethernet or Wi-Fi interface. Watch this short video to learn where this technology is being used.
Matching wireless technologies to your use case
Here are some sample pairings of industrial IoT use cases and wireless network technologies.
Manufacturing. Manufacturers have very distinct connectivity requirements for warehouses, production lines, AGVs and AMRs, and control loop processes. Reliability is the top criterion—a network glitch that pauses operations can be costly. Which of the three wireless technologies is best depends on your location, bandwidth and latency requirements, cybersecurity needs, the degree to which you want to automate management, and your budget for devices and network infrastructure. To control machinery or mobile equipment over the network, choose Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul. With 99.99% availability and seamless handoffs, it avoids wireless hiccups that could stop production or lead to wasted material. If you’re connecting stationery devices and workers’ mobile devices, Wi-Fi 6 or 5G are good options.
Connected rail. On subways and trains, the onboard network provides passenger Wi-Fi and connects security cameras, digital signage, payment systems, and train-to-ground radios. The trackside needs connectivity for sensors that monitor track status, signaling, level crossings, axle counters, and more. Both 5G and Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul are good candidates for connected rail. Which is best depends on the coverage area, bandwidth requirements, and cost constraints.
Ports and Terminals. Ports are using industrial wireless networks to load and unload containers faster and improve worker safety and operations. Popular applications include terminal automation, automated container movement using Optical Character Recognition (OCR), and autonomous vehicles. To connect workers’ phones and tablets in common areas, Wi-Fi and cellular can be good choices. For coverage across the entire area, with seamless handoff as vehicles move from one coverage zone to another, use Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul. Malta Freeport uses Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul to connect its terminal operating system (TOS) to 250 quayside cranes and rubber-tired gantries moving up to 25 miles per hour. The TOS sends the next job order to crane operators wherever they are, eliminating unproductive time spent driving back to the operations center for orders.
Connected cars. General Motors uses Cisco Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul for vehicle-to-trackside connectivity. GM engineers capture data from vehicle sensors during performance testing in real time and adjust the vehicle on the track. This shortens testing cycles and shortens time to market. If you are connecting cars in one location—think Indy cars or vehicles used in open mining—you do not need anything other than Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul. If you are connecting vehicles over a regional or countrywide-area—e.g., passenger autonomous vehicles—explore 5G V2X development.
With all these great choices, you might find yourself using not one, but two or even all three of these technologies in your operations. The good news is that Cisco provides equipment, security, and automated management tools for all of these, helping you fit wireless smoothly into your end-to-end IP network. Check out our solutions for industrial Wi-Fi, private 5G, and Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul.
For more industrial wireless use cases and a deeper dive into wireless technologies, read our new white paper:
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