Factories are beehives of activity – hundreds of skilled tradespeople scurrying back and forth, all contributing in their own unique ways to the fabrication of new products. Mechanics, welders, assemblers, technicians, stockers, forklift drivers, and many others all work symbiotically to produce the final products. And they are all highly dependent upon networking and IT resources to help orchestrate, guide, manage, and measure all ongoing processes. Industrial networks play a critical role in the success of the business and whether or not goals can be reached and surpassed.
The data network is a mission critical resource for modern manufacturing facilities. It transmits information that can track components, time operations, measure processes, and enable communication between employees. It can also facilitate more sophisticated functions like robotics and factory automation. Networks can unlock doors, or dispatch response teams for injuries or emergencies, and even be used to order lunch entrées from the cafeteria. In short, the entire facility is wholly dependent upon the network 24×7. If the network shuts down, the entire factory shuts down.
While the network truly enables the whole factory, the very same things that are dependent upon the network can pose serious impediments to network performance. Wi-Fi is the only sensible networking solution for manufacturing plants, but it is also quite sensitive. Radio frequency (RF) devices (or Wi-Fi) are susceptible to many different types of interference – and modern factories present lots of RF challenges. For starters, the buildings themselves are typically supported by hundreds of steel I-beams, all of which can act as giant antennae. Secondly, many machines located on shop floors that are serviced by the network generate huge amounts of RF interference – a single arc welder, for example, can require 100 amps of current, and although it’s exponentially more current than a microwave oven or hair dryer in a home, those little household devices constantly interfere with local Wi-Fi signals. Lastly, equipment, products, and people are often rather transient in a factory, moving from place to place, or even indoors and out.