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18 April 2019

WiFi 6 coming to a factory near you as WBA lands IoT trial

The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) is heralding what it calls the first WiFi 6 trial project for enterprise and industrial IoT applications. In partnership with Mettis Aerospace, a designer and manufacturer of components for the (you guessed it) aerospace industry, the project will explore how IEEE 802.11ax can be used in live manufacturing environments.

We’ll get our usual rant out of the way, before diving into the meat of the project itself. We have heard far too many claims that either 5G or WiFi is the future of the industrial IoT, that low latencies and large bandwidth will power the assembly lines of tomorrow, and we are pretty much sick to the teeth of hearing it.

We’ve yet to hear a compelling argument in favor or replacing an existing wired connection with a wireless one. Sure, new applications and installations are opportunities for WiFi and 5G, but in an age where 100G Ethernet is not really a stretch for enterprises, you’d have to have a hell of a sales pitch to convince the operations manager to rip out the Ethernet run and replace it with a WiFi router – both in terms of throughput, as well as latency.

So, it’s a good thing that this project is exploring applications that one can’t simply dismiss with the insertion of an RJ45 port. Named in the announcement is augmented reality and equipment monitoring. The use of AR in these applications has been covered pretty comprehensively, and the ability to use retrofitted sensors to monitor existing equipment that can’t be replaced or overhauled to upgrade it sufficiently also necessitates a wireless connection.

But to reiterate, any application that is mission-critical is very likely going to use a wired connection instead of a wireless one. The dream of MNOs and systems integrators waltzing into a factory to rip out all the wires and replace them with LTE or even private LTE networks is fanciful, and that’s a dynamic we can’t see changing in the 5G world. As these are the highest-value applications, in terms of dollars-saved from outages, the task of convincing the operations leader that this is a good idea is that much higher.

Instead, the wireless approaches should focus on things that these high-value wired connections can’t do. If one wants to monitor a paper mill, using a hundred sensors, it is not practical to run power and ethernet to all of the sensors that you would affix to the embedded machinery. As such, a battery-powered wireless network is the ideal choice here, and the same can be said about AR headsets – where dozens or hundreds of workers trailing cables around a factory becomes a health and safety nightmare.

IEEE 802.11ax, or WiFi 6 as it has been branded, is a very high bandwidth protocol, and is most distinct from 802.11ac due to its ability to use a number of additional frequency bands between 1GHz and 7Ghz, and not just the 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz bands. With top speeds of 11Gbps, about four-times faster than 802.11ac thanks to its used of MU-MIMO and OFDMA and 1024-QAM modulation, it also claims 75% reductions in latency over its predecessor. With 802.11ay looming on the horizon, the 60GHz variant that is essentially WiGig v2, these two WiFi protocols certainly seem to pack a punch on paper.

Now, how they operate inside active industrial environments depends rather a lot on the environment. Powerful machinery throwing off a lot of RF radiation and signal noise, or high densities of WiFi devices, is going to hamper the top speeds claimed by the protocol, but that’s going to be one of the main concerns at the WBA test in the Mettis plant – a 27-acre facility in the UK’s West Midlands (which does sound a little more scenic than the southern outskirts of Birmingham, we suppose).

“Wi-Fi 6 has inherent capabilities that enables wireless to be more deterministic, which is important for mission-critical IoT assets being used in manufacturing automation”, says Matt MacPherson, CTO Wireless at Cisco.  “When we look at mission-critical IoT programs, and accelerating digitization initiatives, we also need to keep security top of mind. The ability to enforce policy through Wi-Fi 6 scheduling and segmentation means much better control over these environments.  We are delighted to be supporting the Mettis trial and to demonstrate the power of Wi-Fi 6 in the very challenging environments typical to Industry 4.0 use cases.”

The WBA says this is the first in a series of trials. Mettis serves the likes of Airbus, Boeing, and Rolls-Royce, and is situated inside the West Midlands region of the UK’s 5G Testbed – part of a government initiative headed by the DCMS. This trial is being supported by other WBA members, including BT, Boingo, Broadcom, BSG Wireless, CableLabs, Cisco, HPE Aruba, and Intel. The trial is due to go live in the second half of 2019.