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Industrial Automation

Why Low Latency & Wireless are Critical to Digital Transformation

Sylvia Feng

From paper mills to oil and gas refineries, industrial plants survive on the operational technology (OT) systems that monitor and control their devices.

 

It’s no secret that these OT systems have traditionally trailed behind IT when it comes to innovation. Because the implications of downtime are so detrimental, there tends to be a “don’t fix what isn’t broken” approach. If production lines are moving, then don’t change anything! Another reason that OT lags in new technology adoption is because, historically, the performance of an OT system was more dependent on reliability than speed. This “reliability-before-speed” approach kept production going, but it didn’t allow for major improvement.

 

Increasingly, we’re seeing the invisible line between OT and IT fade as the two groups move closer together. As this happens—and OT adopts IT protocols like Ethernet and IP—the adage of “reliability over speed” no longer holds true in the industrial world. Instead, it’s now “reliability and speed.”

 

As OT and IT come together, this also brings more devices to networks. And as more devices connect to industrial networks, this can introduce more latency that slows down network performance.

 

Why Does Latency Matter?

 

Low latency is the foundation of production efficiency and uptime. The higher the latency in your networks and systems, the more your processes will lag—and the more time you’ll waste. The amount of latency introduced into an environment varies based on how far a signal must travel, what it has to travel through, whether it relies on a wired or wireless connection, how many devices and users are using the network at the same time, etc.

 

It may not sound like much, but a delay as seemingly insignificant as 50 milliseconds could be the distinction between massive amounts of profit and massive amounts of loss. A deficit of 50 milliseconds on one production line might not create too many problems, but when the delays stack up across multiple production lines throughout an entire shift, day after day, you lose countless hours of valuable time. And in today’s world—where increasing client demands mix with growing competition—the margin of error gets smaller every day.

 

If you invest in automation technology like autonomous vehicles and robots to drive smart manufacturing, it will require extremely low latency for proper operation. 

 

The Use of Wireless in Industrial Applications

 

Because low latency is so important to the production process, critical industrial infrastructure networks didn’t rely much on wireless connectivity in the past. Compared to wired connections, wireless typically creates more latency and offers less bandwidth. These factors historically reserved wireless for non-mission-critical, non-time-sensitive applications. Combine that notion with possible opportunities for signal interference in an industrial environment—from EMI/RFI and steel machinery to temperature extremes and vibration—and wireless didn’t always seem like a great fit.

 

As wireless technology matures, however, industrial environments have no choice but to consider it: Movements like IT/OT convergence, Industry 4.0 and IIoT mean that wireless can no longer be ignored. Although it may not be used to support the entire plant or production process, wireless technology has matured and advanced in industrial application usage. Wireless is now a reliable way to at least connect sensors and fringe pieces of the network—if not more.

 

How Belden Supports Your Wireless Projects

 

When it comes to supporting industrial wireless, Belden is in a unique position. From our cable and connectivity to our devices—switch infrastructure, converters, etc.—speed, reliability and low latency are inherent. With Belden industrial solutions, you never have to worry about signal aggregation, which leads to high latency and signal loss.

 

We’re one of the only manufacturers in the world that offers wireless solutions that work with demanding technology like safety control systems that require sub-10 millisecond latency.

 

Want to learn more? Learn about industrial wireless solutions here. Learn about communication hardware for the industrial automation market here.

 

Belden Field Support Engineer for Sales, Scott Kornblue, helped me write this blog, and he is a tremendous resource who can address any of your digital transformation questions. If you want to know more about this topic, email me (Sylvia.Feng@belden.com) or Scott (Scott.Kornblue@belden.com).