Pulling answers from the air:
Wireless reliability in industrial automation
Two key considerations—wireless technology and hardware devices—contribute to building mobile and wireless solutions that transform operations
By Scott Thie and Jeff White
Wireless data options in automation abound. They have led to the adoption of new workflow and automation solutions by many companies seeking to streamline operations, empower timely decision-making, and improve customer service and shareholder value.
Field automation technologies provide intangible benefits, too, such as bolstering employee morale. Nothing keeps workers happier than having the right tools on hand to get the job done right—the first time.
Of course, all of these items on the positive side of the ledger can quickly disintegrate when solutions fail to deliver their promised value. For this reason, reliability has become a critical focus for field technicians, warehouse workers, and customer service representatives. Every link in the service delivery chain must be able to rely on the technology tools provided them in order to be successful.
Think of the frustration captured in the “Can you hear me now?” and “Fewer dropped calls” campaigns, and factor in that a customer’s happiness, or even someone’s job, may be on the line, and you get a clear picture of the importance of wireless data reliability.
Holistic approach value
There are countless success stories where wireless technology has driven positive results, however, these kinds of stories are causing organizations to investigate closely the value of wireless data solutions.
Tennant Company, a world-leading manufacturer of indoor and outdoor cleaning equipment and supplies, deployed rugged notebooks with embedded wireless access to the EV-DO data network of Sprint.
Thanks to this next generation data network, the company’s field technicians can now send 85% of customer orders directly to invoicing and billing without any additional human intervention, saving the company more than $600,000 per year in data entry labor costs alone. This is only one of several key business metrics they saw enhanced by their use of these technologies. Another well-known global brand deployed a solution using the 3G data network of Verizon Wireless. As a result of their program, technician productivity jumped by 16%, and first-time repair rates climbed to 90%. They were also able to reduce call center and dispatch costs due to the improved efficiency of their field force. All of this happened by using a variety of software solutions and rugged mobile PCs with embedded antennae for wireless access.
Many organizations in the public and private sector have deployed similar solutions with equally significant impact on their operations. Wherever projects succeed, it is generally because project leaders have taken a holistic approach to pursuing a reliable mobile and wireless solution. They factored in the impact on their workforce, the kinds of information they would need to access, the environments in which they would be working, and other geographical considerations that influence the software, hardware, and wireless decisions they made.
Two key considerations—wireless technology and hardware devices—contribute to building reliable mobile and wireless solutions that can transform operations.
Wireless solutions wired right
There are numerous options to consider when looking at wireless technologies. A successful mobility project will likely incorporate more than one of these solutions.
Local area wireless (wireless LAN, Wi-Fi, or 802.11) is most commonly used on location at an office, a warehouse, or a job site.
Simply and cost-effectively deployed with an off-the-shelf “access point,” these solutions deliver data speeds ranging from 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps) to 15 Mbps, more than suitable for sharing data.
The range of this technology is currently limited to within approximately 150 feet of an access point and is not a suitable option for remote connectivity users can count on.
Wide area wireless (mobile broadband) is adopted because of its promise of anytime, anywhere connectivity.
Known as 3G wireless, most wireless voice carriers, including Sprint, Verizon, Alltel, and AT&T now offer wireless data services on EV-DO Revision 0 and Revision A or EDGE/UMTS/HSDPA networks cap-able of delivering speeds from 70-700 kbps—in some cases up to impressive speeds 2.0 Mbps.
Roughly translated, this means remote users can easily access everything from e-mail to complex files, like schematics, when they are on a job. The cost to implement is reasonably low, with most carriers charging a monthly fee in the $60 range.
4G (fourth generation) or WiMAX networks are also in development. A natural extension of “hot spot” technology some major carriers and infrastructure companies have begun to build out these fourth generation (4G) networks.
Municipalities are adopting these solutions to create a wireless mesh or umbrella to provide ubiquitous connectivity for public safety agencies, schools, and commercial users.
Hardware built for speed
One of the most important considerations in deploying wireless solutions is a high-speed network does not guarantee high-speed performance by mobile devices. Think of it this way: A BMW performs differently on the Autobahn than a Hyundai because of the cars’ engineering. The two cars provide a different level of performance and a different end-user experience.
The same holds true for accessing wireless networks. Most mobile PCs now come equipped with embedded technology that enables access to Wi-Fi networks as this technology has evolved to a point where it is widely accepted. There are two main options for mobile broadband or 3G technologies, however. PC Cards are add-ons while embedded wireless, where the radio or modem is part of the device, is for better performance.
Isolated from radiated noise and heat, embedded wireless modems generally deliver improved connections to wireless networks. Because embedded solutions also allow users to take advantage of system-power management capabilities, battery performance, critical to any mobile computer user, is better. Finally, because these systems work as a unit, modem loss, theft, or damage due to user error is less.
By contrast, PC cards often suffer data loss due to a number of factors, including signal interference and system heat and noise from internal PC components. When inserted, PC Cards also drain battery life, whether or not they are actively on the network. They also add practical elements of risk. Repeated insertion and removal of PC cards may result in damage to the card itself or to internal PC components. As a non-integrated component, the likelihood of PC Card loss and theft—resulting in higher costs and reduced productivity—also increases. While a non-integrated PC card can certainly provide a level of access to a growing number of networks, it is not a truly reliable alternative.
For all of these reasons, an increasing number of companies are recognizing the value in embedded wireless technology. A recent study by Venture Development Corp. predicts by 2010 more than 90% of rugged computers will have integrated wireless capabilities. Embedded wireless solutions are also becoming more widely available in other types of mobile computers, such as ultra portables designed for professional users. Even for those not destined for extreme environments, reliable connectivity is important.
Field users demand durability
Just as there is no one-size-fits-all wireless solution, not all computer hardware is created equal, and it is important not to force-fit solutions that may not be up to the task of mobility.
Once a computer leaves a desk, it is at risk. Drops, bumps, and spills happen to the most docile technology user in what would seem to be safe environments. Place a typical PC in the hands of a field technician, however, and the likelihood of reliable access—no matter how fast a network—is significantly less.
Field technicians are subject to a variety of conditions that typical devices cannot withstand. According to an October 2005 report by Venture Development Corporation, standard notebooks in field environments fail 36% of the time.
By contrast, rugged mobile computers in the same conditions fail only 4% per year. This is not surprising considering Gartner, Inc., in a 2006 report, stated most notebook PCs fail 15% of the time in their first year of deployment. (This rate is for all users, not extreme mobile users.) These low rates of reliability, combined with the recognition that the workforce is more mobile than ever, has led to attempts by most computer vendors to make their products more durable, resulting in some confusion for technology buyers. There are standards, however, which can make these decisions easier.
The MIL-STD-810F standard offers a set of criteria a device must meet in order to list as “rugged.” These tests cover everything including drops, temperature extremes, and vibration. In addition, Ingress Protection, or IP, ratings provide guidance on exposure to liquid and dust. If a notebook is not MIL-SPEC tested and does not achieve an IP rating of at least 54 (roughly the equivalent of being able to work in a steady rain or sandy environment), it will probably be a less-than-ideal solution for field technicians.
When evaluating mobile devices destined for outdoor use, screen brightness and battery life are also key contributors to reliability. A standard notebook screen generally offers inadequate visibility in daylight or in-vehicle use, while notebooks classified as semi-rugged or rugged are generally much brighter. Screen brightness measures in “nits,” and 450 nits is the minimum rating for sunlight readability. It is critical to achieve a balance between brightness and the battery-life needed between charges.
Think tailored solution
Wireless solutions are ineffective if they are not up and running when end users demand them. Every moment a user spends unable to work due to a hardware failure costs organizations in real dollars and, potentially, in reputation damage. Moreover, do not forget the morale, even safety, of those in the field.
Clearly, wireless is here to stay as a means to streamline operations. A company must consider a number of critical factors to ensure it deploys the most reliable solution to meet its unique needs—the end user, the likely work environment, network coverage in disparate areas, and the design of computing equipment among them.
Ultimately, the best plan of action will be a tailored solution built by trusted partners. It is also possible multiple network providers will be involved, depending on the scope or scale of a deployment.
If the fundamental goal is to maximize uptime, everything should be on the table in service of that goal. The answers are out there—it is just not quite as simple as pulling them from the air.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Scott Thie (Scott_Thie@us.panasonic.com) is the field automation national manager at Panasonic Computer Solutions Company where he works with field service technicians. Jeff White (jeff@ pssid.com) is president of Paradigm System Solutions, and he works the utilities, transportation, oil & gas, and public safety industries.
When looking to build a reliable mobile and wireless solution, buyers are challenged with a sea of choices—in technology, vendors, and solution providers—and a number of the same superiority claims being made by interested parties.
How can you be sure you are making the right choices? While there is never any guarantee for success, here are some recommended questions to ask those seeking your business:
This list is not exhaustive, but it should point to areas that need addressing as you look to create long-term partnerships in support of a long-term, reliable mobile and wireless solution.
Wireless inroads: User comfort zone ahead
The vast majority of respondents to InTech’s industrial wireless usage survey have the technology already performing in their workplaces, and they intend to acquire more of the equipment and services soon.
Over 200 plants, factories, and manufacturing facilities responded to InTech magazine’s nine-question query asking after users’ adoption of wireless technology.
Since wireless is now a part of all our personal lives and we demand it in many areas of our professional pursuits, the wireless comfort zone is ever broadening.
It seemed for a while there was a disparity between users’ knowledge of wireless on a grand scale and as pertaining to their non-work lives, and that which they were knowledgeable about in an industrial setting and willing to take a chance on in their facility.
The survey also asked readers what sort of control takes place at their plants. Process control (47%), discrete control (22%), batch (16%), and hybrid (13%) were the answers with the raw numbers suggesting about 38% of the respondents answered and use more than one kind of control.
InTech also asked whose products the respondent owned or whose products they would consider buying, and the survey gave a list of some 20 wireless vendors. The responses favored the usual suspects in automation, but no company had more than 13% of the responses. We asked users to “check all that apply” in this question, and the raw numbers suggest that folks chose two companies and a few chose three suppliers. These results are available.
—Nicholas Sheble (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Terms and Technology
3G: In mobile telephony, third-generation (3G) protocols support much higher data rates, measured in Mbps, intended for applications other than voice. 3G will support bandwidth-hungry applications such as full-motion video, video-conferencing, and full Internet access.
4G will be a fully IP-based integrated system of systems and network of networks achieved after the convergence of wired and wireless networks.
MIL STD 810F is a U.S. military standard and includes testing protocols to simulate environmental stresses from rain, humidity, salt fog, sand/dust, vibration, shock, temperature, and the like. A copy of MIL-STD 810F from the United States Army Developmental Test Command is at http://www.dtc.army.mil/pdf/810.pdf (539 pages!).
Nits: Candela per meter square; used as a measurement of screen brightness for display cubes
IEEE 802.11 is the Wi-Fi standard and denotes a set of wireless LAN/WLAN standards developed by working group 11 of the IEEE LAN/MAN Standards Committee (IEEE 802). The term 802.11x also denotes this set of standards and is not one of its elements. There is no single 802.11x standard. The term IEEE 802.11 also refers to the original 802.11, which now is 802.11legacy.
IEEE 802.11g is a proposed standard describing wireless WLAN that operates in the 2.4 GHz radio band (ISM—Industrial Scientific Medical frequency band). These WLANs will be able to achieve a maximum speed of 54 Mbps and are backward compatible with the 802.11b standard.
IEEE 802.15 are the low power wireless personal area networks such as low-complexity Bluetooth, UWB-based high-rate PANs, and mesh networks.
IEEE 802.15.4 ZigBee is a published specification set of high-level communication protocols designed to use small, low power digital radios based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard for wireless personal area networks. The ZigBee 1.0 specifications started on 14 December 2004 and are available to members of the ZigBee Alliance.
IEEE 802.16 is WiMAX: Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, a point-to-multipoint broadband wireless access.