The automation networks in automotive assembly plants have begun an evolutionary process that could change fundamental operating parameters, improve productivity, and enhance efficiency. Instead of relying on cables, plant managers and systems designers are increasingly using wireless technologies to connect robotic systems and assembly machinery.
Like many other manufacturing facilities, conditions in these plants are particularly challenging for data and process control cabling. Because assembly machines are often in constant motion, network cables kink or break, and connectors fail or separate. Hazardous chemicals and grease corrode the cabling, greatly shortening its lifespan.
To make matters worse, troubleshooting and repairing broken cable and connectors can be time consuming and expensive. Examining a control cable that winds throughout a factory, isolating one bad cable in a bundle of dozens covered with dust, metal shavings, and grease to find the break or bad connection is not a simple task. Maintenance can take hours if not days, when every minute of downtime costs thousands of dollars in lost productivity.
The Wireless Alternative
Many plant managers have found that it makes economic sense to simply abandon cable and connectors and install a wireless network. A technician can quickly install a wireless network, and even when the cost of the equipment and the installation are combined, the return on investment of the migration to wireless is quickly realized.
Ongoing maintenance is also easier with a wireless infrastructure. Industrial network systems, such as Honeywell Sensing and Control's Limitless line, often include a "health" monitoring function that ensures that the wireless switch or sensor is working properly. Alerts are sent when a problem occurs. And smart health monitoring technology overcomes temporary signal interruptions caused by moving vehicles and equipment. For example, the Limitless technology re-transmits signals to ensure reliable throughput.
If devices are battery powered instead of mains connected, many wireless systems provide a power diagnostic that not only makes sure the device is working but also provides advanced warning when batteries are losing their charge and need to be replaced or recharged.
The Value of Flexibility
Another factor driving the automotive industry's adoption of wireless is the ease with which these networks can be reconfigured. Every few years, automakers move equipment to accommodate new automotive designs. Re-running network cables to new locations is a major expense and logistical challenge. By using a wireless network to link machine-mounted nodes, plant engineers simply have to power up the sensors, and the devices automatically reconnect with their controllers, without having to go through the identification and pairing processes that occur during the installation.
In some instances, the initial assembly architecture and design may need to be fine-tuned. By using wireless, the plant manager does not need to spend time and money moving and adjusting cabling because the wireless device will be able to easily find and communicate with its router and controller network.
The easy and affordable installation, low maintenance requirements, and high level of flexibility are the primary factors driving adoption of industrial wireless. As this trend gains momentum and adoption becomes more widespread, the face of manufacturing networks will change dramatically.