The Internet is littered with articles about Industry 4.0. Adoption of digital industrial processes have accelerated since the German government led this initiative to maintain national industrial prowess. For example, with digital twins and modular flexible systems. One of the main features of Industry 4.0 is interoperability for mobile cyber-physical systems. Examples are, mobile robots, AGV(automated guided vehicles), and manufacturing infrastructure. For these processes to run over wireless infrastructure, the communications technology must deliver against strict application requirements for performance and reliability.
Such articles often leave out critical details, such as what is actually needed from the network. I always ask the question: What are the different options to serve these application requirements? This blog is the second in a series, bringing a lens on manufacturing logistics, dissecting the application flow and a little detail on why the serving wireless medium must behave in a particular way to support it.
We will also help you understand the options open to you for digitising processes over wireless as we discuss the second of our three use cases:
1) Mobile robots and AGV
2) Manufacturing logistics
3) Process automation monitoring
I recently learnt that manufacturing supply chains are modeled using algebraic solver techniques and evaluated using statistics. The models focus on maximising output, minimising waste, with optimal use of assets. If you think of a supply chain as a system which can then be broken down into smaller links, each of which forms a function, e.g., transport from A-B, optimal use of warehousing, inventory control, and product manufacturing lifecycle. Each of these domains includes at least one link that can be optimised with wireless technologies.
This use-case consists of some form of inbound transportation, such as a heavy goods vehicle, container ship or freight train, which delivers a pallet of goods. This pallet is then automatically mapped into the factory inventory system, and possibly even opened, distributed, or stored using automatic processes. Some manual intervention may be required, as originally these processes were manual. There may be a similar process for the outbound direction, as final product is picked or built, and then processed for packing and shipping towards customers.
The first area to consider is tracking of pallets when on the road, external to the facility. I often see this done using a low-cost tracking device on each pallet. Public networks are typically the solution for this; however, the complexity comes when the pallet is handed off; how does the data exchange hands, and which wireless technology is to be used inside and outside of the facility. Once pallets are broken up for use, then further granular item tracking can be achieved through wireless technologies for scanning, positioning and identification, as well as typically coordinated with camera data from high-level surveillance and security to high-precision quality check levels.
Logistics Communication Flows
Therefore, communication flows must exist in multiple places for end-to-end industrial process management and automation success. Telemetry from pallets is fed over the public networks and then fed into system preparedness metrics in the Manufacturing Execution System (MES). Once inbound, the telemetry may be followed further on a private network, which in turn can be used to identify individual products. When this inbound material or stock is fed into the process, checks against quality and performance must be made at extremely high rates, which requires a highly reliable and jitter-free network. Information on the parts may be fed into the process to discard or reuse, there may also be some form of feedback into the control system, such as for splitting parts for flexible manufacturing processes. These flows may pass from controller to controller, and up and down to the MES as required.
Therefore, pallets will have to communicate into multiple networks, potentially raising their communication system complexity further with pre-emption,, route-selection, and possibly assurance as they flow through the supply-chain.
Availability: Hub-centricity; high availability inside the hub, lower when external
Reliability: Hub-centricity; high reliability inside the hub, lower when external
Traffic Types: Mostly non-critical telemetry and high-definition video, apart from critical telemetry from production logistics.
Drivers for technology decisions
Some use-cases can be solved in multiple ways, with different technologies. Secondly, technology selection is usually not the only driver for the final architecture. Especially in a brownfield environment, there may be existing technologies and processes in place that are either adopting or driving the new implementation of wireless access.
Some of these additional drivers may be:
- To use existing investments in wireless solutions
- Adhering to the technical strategy of the plant leadership team
- Optimising total cost of ownership by solving multiple use-cases with one technology
- Desire for simplicity and standardisation
- Engineering reticence to remove reliable wired systems
- Financial budgeting constraints
- Available skills and existing technical debt
- Interoperability between the industrial automation solution and the options for connecting systems wirelessly.
Each time a new architecture is selected or enhanced, a very careful analysis of all these factors and the perceived risks in available options should be assessed. Business cases should use empirical evidence and detailed design considerations where possible.
I have not written these blogs to give you definitive answers on which technology is right for your use-case and how to proceed. You should make your own educated opinion on that. This is because of the unknown variables and complexity involved in every deployment scenario. Considerations must be made for tailored radio planning, brownfield systems, and specialist design to maximise the wireless performance and availability.
Cisco brings use-case solutions and reference architectures that enable specific business outcomes for our customers. It important to take a tailored approach each time, to ensure all aspects of your context are accounted for. We will focus on your business requirements, bringing a toolbox of options to suit your application, including: Indoor, outdoor, and ruggedised WiFi, Ultra Reliable Wireless, Private 5G, and LoRaWAN.
Connect with your Cisco account team to discuss your industrial processes, and options for wireless connectivity in your manufacturing operations. The Cisco account team will then help you with a deep dive on your business requirements. We will help you understand the options open to you for digitising processes over wireless.
Finally, over to you!
I’m intrigued to know if you have considered or are already using wireless communications for your robot and AGV systems. I’d love to hear your perspective and experiences.
For more context on manufacturing use cases, visit our
to see solutions created for a variety of manufacturers during their digital transformations.
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