19 February 2009

Industry report: Recession hampers wireless in automotive

Long known for being at the forefront of adopting new technologies, the automotive industry has also taken the lead for wireless adoption among the discrete industries. But the impact of global recession on the industry is likely to restrain the extent of wireless investments in the short-term future.

Right now, the European automotive industry contributes close to 42% of the wireless market in discrete industries, according to a report from industry research firm, Frost & Sullivan. There are various factors that drive wireless adoption across the automotive industry such as the need for real time data, work-force mobility, and substantial saving in cabling costs, but the industry is in a compelling situation to have a strict control over its budgets.

The automotive industry needs real-time data. Real-time information from wireless devices assures quality and consistency at the end of every process. As vehicles undergo multiple processes simultaneously, wireless devices ensure assembly lines work in tandem with each other with the help of the real-time data. This data also helps in verifying if maintenance activity is in phase with the production and the process flow. An example for such an application is the usage of wireless sensors in material replacement process where it transmits signals to inventory area to re-stock the required components. This process optimizes the entire production flow, prevents break-down of the process, and also saves considerable time and manual effort. Few automobile plants have the Real Time Location System that helps in identifying any item located in the plant environment.

Wireless adoption
Source: Frost & Sullivan

Wireless devices greatly assure work force mobility and flexibility in an automotive plant. Wireless sensors are in the robotics applications for the line testing process. Information goes to the robot through wireless sensors, which prepare the vehicle for wind, water, and other tests in the process of line testing. This operation significantly reduces the manual labor and provides flexibility and convenience in the manufacturing process. Ease of installation and commissioning, another major driver for wireless adoption, has enabled wireless devices to be a "plug and play" device. The flexibility that the device provides during the initial installation and the rearrangement of the machinery layout enables quicker process with lower cost attached. 

There could be numerous product variances from one car to another in a car plant as customer choices increase. Routing wires and managing inventory for every product added on in every single process is time consuming and also lots of human effort is required. Wireless provides a perfect alternative for this process: It simplifies the task by accessing the information even from inaccessible and remote parts. Reduction in the cabling cost is another major driver for wireless adoption; almost 30% to 50 % of the cabling cost can reduce by implementing wireless connectivity. The usage of automated guided vehicle AGV, a wireless application that helps in transmitting the vehicle to the next logical point, is providing significant cost reduction in cabling. 

As most manufacturing plants shift focus toward just-in-time and build-to-order marketing philosophies with an aim for cost reduction at every stage of production, the automotive industry should have an assertive approach toward the wireless adoption. This industry with a huge potential for wireless deployment will have a slower adoption over the next two years. However, considering the obvious benefits that wireless offers, the adoption could get higher as the industry witnesses stronger growth over the medium and long-term future.

-Khadambari Shanbagaraman is a research analyst for Frost & Sullivan Industrial Automation & Process Control Group.