Are you into smart factories? Here is what’s trending now

Are you into smart factories? Here is what’s trending now
Smart factories, which are manufacturing sites that make use of devices like sensors and connect production equipment, are becoming more and more popular. While connectivity on the floor itself is not a new phenomenon, recent trends highlight the rapid move towards Industry 4.0 where information and operational technology converge to increase efficiency.

According to the research firm Mordor Intelligence, the global smart factory industry was worth US$211.7 billion in 2017 and could reach 358 billion in the next five years, growing at a CAGR of 9.2 percent during the period. Increased awareness of the benefits of smart factories is a major reason for their adoption. As connected equipment allows end-to-end visibility of industrial supply chain with data collected from sensors, operators can easily and efficiently monitor performance. High-end analytics tools help in taking preemptive action to ensure operations run as smooth as possible as well.

The technology that’s in

There are several technology trends that are currently seen in the smart factories market. According to Bob Nilsson, Director of Solutions Marketing at Extreme Networks, digital transformation is accelerating the transition to smart factories and affecting nearly every stage of the manufacturing process. It is driving exponential growth of data-driven sensors and increasing the use of mobile devices in plant operations.

“Traditionally-separate operations technology and IT systems are converging,” Nilsson said. “Along with this comes increasingly-stringent compliance requirements for data security, intellectual property, and asset tracking. The Internet of Things (IoT) is enabling continuous monitoring of tools, inventory, and WiP [Work in Progress] throughout the manufacturing process without human intervention. Last year, the manufacturing industry invested $183 billion in IoT. Included in this broad categorization of things are pervasive robots and surveillance cameras.”

Internet-connected devices and tools can be located anywhere within the factory operation, including indoors on the manufacturing floor, within equipment mezzanines, and outdoors. A torque wrench that is connected to the web, for example, may be disconnected from the network at one end of the plant, and then reconnected somewhere else. The network must provide the flexibility to add, remove, and relocate IoT devices anywhere in the factory, without requiring a maintenance window.

“Production facilities now run the gamut from small specialized plants to Tesla’s enormous 5.5 million square foot Gigafactory,” Nilsson added. “It is critical that secure Wi-Fi RF signals blanket these facilities to connect all the IoT devices and sensors. Production must remain up 24-hours per day. Any events that could bring the network down, such as security breaches, rogue devices, or hardware faults must be protected against. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are now being applied to ensure reliability and manageability of the network in these environments.”

What does the market need?

As technology continues to evolve, the market demands are also changing. To connect and enable the smart factory, a strong wired and wireless network infrastructure is critical. The requirements for this infrastructure include flexibility, reliability, security, and easy system management.

The smart factory consists of thousands of IoT devices, spread throughout the plant. The network must provide complete coverage and accommodate high-density connections. The smart factory network must provide an adaptable topology to accommodate reconfiguring production lines on the fly, without shutting down for maintenance. It is important that management have clear visibility into all network devices and application traffic, so that when a rogue device is connected, or an intrusion occurs, it is flagged immediately and isolated, preventing any possibility of bringing down the network.

“In the highly-reconfigurable environment of the smart factory, the ability to flexibly onboard internet-enabled devices, tools, and sensors is an important requirement,” Nilsson said. “Device authentication based on network policy, rather than long, complicated authorization tables of thousands of devices and users, keep both productivity and security high. Automatic provisioning eliminates the possibility of human error when new tools or devices are added to the network.”

An important aspect to consider in this regard in hypersegmentation. Hypersegmentation, as implemented in fabric networks, delivers a higher level of security and permits different robot and plant tool vendors to be assigned to separate securely-isolated zones. To provide the reliability demanded by the smart factory, fabric-based networks build in resiliency and redundancy.

“Should a fabric node go down due to a mechanical accident, the topology will automatically reroute within 200 meters,” Nilsson said. “With this high level of security, policy-based network access control, and hypersegmentation, the smart factory floor can be on the same network as the business offices, helping to integrate IT with OT.”

Finally, Nilsson added that there is also a growing demand for network-based location services, as provided by today’s Wi-Fi access points and BLE beacons. These services make it possible to track and display where all the devices and workers are located throughout the factory. The multiple communication standards, complicated by dynamically-changing production areas, create a challenge for maintaining a high-quality RF connection between devices and access points. To meet this requirement, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine language are being used to optimize the Wi-Fi signals without human attention.
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