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Maximizing the Value of Wireless Networks Throughout the Manufacturing Enterprise

Innovative manufacturers are increasingly deploying and discovering a wealth of new wireless applications and their benefits within factories and across their distributed enterprises.

Wireless solutions and challenges

     Innovative manufacturers are increasingly deploying and discovering a wealth of new wireless applications and their benefits within factories and across their distributed enterprises.  Convenience, low costs and real-time visibility for security, process controls, asset utilization and maintenance are just some of the reasons behind the proliferation of wireless systems among manufacturers, particularly in the oil and gas, power generation and chemicals industries.

     According to a recent report from the ARC Advisory Group, the market for industrial wireless devices will exceed 150 million units and over $1 billion annually in just the next few years.   These new systems bode well for manufacturers constantly striving to find better ways to manage their operations.  Their benefits and business value are well documented.

     However, manufacturers realizing the successes of wireless systems now are being confronted with a new problem:  How do you manage the sheer complexity of disparate wireless systems that are frequently used in ad hoc applications, and which can often function at cross-purposes.

     Zigbee … Wi-Fi … Wi-Max … 802.11 … Sensors … Passive and Active RFID … VoIP … Bluetooth … Mesh Networks, and so on – each technology can be leveraged and applied for specific beneficial purposes.  As these systems become more widely utilized adjacent to each other or even spread throughout an enterprise, they can increasingly cause all types of conflicts with each other.

     For example, some of the emerging challenges accompanying the growth of wireless systems among manufacturers include limited spectrum allocations for certain radio frequencies, a confusion of what standards to follow, interfering and conflicting frequencies, different wireless protocols, different processes and different gateways linking wireless and wired software communication systems.

     The consequences of these challenges are especially acute when one department implements a wireless system from a particular vendor and then another department does the same from a different vendor.  While this evolves in various departments and company locations, a host of issues may arise, such as security vulnerabilities, increased interference in the gateway links, interruption of transmissions, availability problems, data loss and performance degradation.  There may also be failures to deliver time-sensitive data when different wireless systems are competing for the same finite spectrum.

     It is clear that in order to maximize the full value of multiple wireless systems, manufacturers need an overarching, enterprise-wide platform to manage and optimize their multiple wireless systems.  Instead of ad hoc implementations and “point solutions,” manufacturers need to take a “big picture” approach that analyzes specific best wireless applications and then tie them together on a common software platform that is aligned with overall business objectives.

     Think of this platform as a musical score that a symphony conductor follows to ensure that each note from each instrument is harmonized into the overall musical theme. Instead of a cacophony of noise, you get music with harmony and themes working together toward the same objective.

Key elements for successful management of wireless networks

     So how does this work in the real world of wireless technology and manufacturing?  The same general principles of wired network systems management also apply to wireless networks, but since the radio spectrum is finite and most wireless devices operate in unlicensed frequencies there are new and unique challenges. As with wired networks, it is essential now to apply enterprise-level management practices for the operation of wireless networks.

     In order for these wireless systems to truly improve productivity, security and efficiency while reducing costs, managers must address the following elements:

          • Manage and scale the system architecture,
          • Prioritize business value at the enterprise level, and
          • Integrate security measures and policies system-wide.

     Manage and scale the system architecture.  Optimum execution of any enterprise-wide policy requires a communications architecture that can accommodate the technology of the best categorical network technologies and vendors, emerging standards, and best wireless integration practices. The architecture must be based on a well developed security model that includes functions like authentication and role-based access control.

     Eventually, your network management center should treat your wireless systems the same way it would any another network, by focusing on managing enterprise-wide communications – not the individual technology.  Because there will never be a single wireless protocol and frequency, and therefore the appropriate technology must be matched with the right application, the best approach for system-wide growth is to have an integrated yet flexible management strategy that can deliver immediate benefits, but also can be “future-proofed” to adapt to business changes and technology developments.

     Few companies have the resources to maintain the staff necessary to manage a complete wireless infrastructure, especially since demand for specialists with relevant skills is very high and supply is limited. As a result, outsourcing to one of the emerging specialist firms can be a cost-effective strategy to maximize benefits and minimize risks.

     Prioritize business value at the enterprise level.  Like wired networks, wireless networks link and deliver data between different points.  However, the potential for far more granular data and detailed measurements in areas such as “process variables” exist with wireless because they have the advantage of being implemented more cost-effectively, and there’s none of the cost of running wires between multiple points.  As a result, it is possible to set up measures for virtually any point or process of the enterprise and receive this information in real time.

     Each department undoubtedly can make a strong case for deploying wireless networks within its internal operations, but issues of scalability, security and investment protection make it imperative that these decisions be coordinated at the enterprise level, where priorities such as process controls, security or logistics needs can best be evaluated and executed.

     For example, a company competing in a mature marketplace on a strategy of being the low-cost provider might deploy wireless vibration sensors that tell when any asset is not operating optimally, and see savings on maintenance show up immediately in the bottom-line.  In contrast, a company competing on fast, reliable delivery might find the added cost of an RFID product tracking system would improve its competitive position.

     Implement security measures and policies system-wide.  Sloppy networking practices, rather than intentional malicious interference, are

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