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Focus article

Wireless in the factory

In this exclusive article, the Head of NBC (Nordic Baltics Countries) Torbjörn Lundberg from SMC shares insights on the ever-evolving world of automation and its profound impact on various industries. 

Smart homes

Wireless connections are available in all homes and have been the standard connection to the Internet for more than 20 years, but not many factories use wireless signal transfer in their manufacturing processes. 

The time when you connected to the Internet via a LAN cable is almost over. Of course, for fixed connections it is still used, but as the mobile devices to stream, surf, retrieve information, chat, send mail and more. has become increasingly common, wireless connection technology has completely exploded and is about to take over altogether. 

Smart homes also use wireless connections to the internet, sometimes via a local W-LAN and sometimes via the mobile phone network-3G, 4G or 5G. Also Bluetooth connections can be found here, especially between different local units. 

Smart industry

When speaking wireless in the manufacturing industry, it is usually about IP telephony, warehouse scanners, wireless printout on the factory floor or sometimes unmanned transport vehicles (UGV). Wireless in the production process itself is more unusual. If this is due to conservatism or that you are just unsure of a wireless connection's robustness, one can wonder. One thing is certain when it comes to wireless signal transfer – the industry is far behind houses and homes. 

Although the industry is behind today, in the future, a lot will happen here as well, especially the so-called IoT applications will increase dramatically in the next few years. Already today, however, there are some manufacturing solutions that include a wireless connection. SMC Automation offers, for example, a platform with in and outputs to receive signals and to control processes. 

The so-called I/O device that acts as an interface between the machine's control system, the PLC or the factory's overall control system and the actuators to do a job. Inputs are the signals from sensors and switches in the factory which are received by the platform and are forwarded to the control system. Outputs are the signals or data sent from the PLC either as a response to received signals, from a sensor, or are pre-programmed to control a particular process. 

Endless possibillities

SMC's first thought was to combine this I/O unit with valve manifolds for automation with compressed air, industrial pneumatics, where the signals from the PLC are transmitted wirelessly to distributed nodes with valves to direct the air on the right side of a piston in a cylinder and thus achieve a movement. The protocols for communication with the PLC are the same as for traditional field bus applications why no special solution, just because it is now wireless, is needed – it is the same PLC as usual. With up to 1,280 inputs and 1,280 outputs and since the I/O platform can handle both digital and analogue signals, SMC soon concluded that the area of use extends far beyond the control of valves. It can be used wherever to control something, an engine, open and close dampers, regulate light and temperature and of course valves, but not only for automation but also e.g. process valves. On the input side you can, for example, measure temperature, flows, vibration, pressure, position etc. 

However, it will not be completely wireless, not yet, the actuator that will perform something requires a voltage, e.g. 24V DC, to perform a job, and here cables are still needed. Unlike a traditional field bus installation where the 24 volts are supplemented with two wires for signal transfer, the signal cables are basically missing completely in SMC's wireless platform. It will become even more wireless the day operating voltage can be supplied with batteries and the fact is that today there are already some such examples. 

Why wireless in the factory? Any village blacksmith can measure up and check if there is 24 V, but to check and troubleshoot a field bus application where the signal does not work properly, is to the novice a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack and a major challenge as well, for the most experienced service technician. With wireless signal transfer, that problem disappears completely.