Having been active in the industrial space for decades, I’ve witnessed the incredible evolution of factories first-hand. One of the key trends of the recent decade, one that has truly dominated manufacturing in almost every vertical and become impossible to ignore, is mass customization.

Mass customization has transformed factories

In the past, shop floors were fairly static, producing one product, or line of products for long periods of time with minimal turnover. Today, mass customization and rapid innovation are driving factories to produce many more products in the same environment at faster rates with higher throughput. To keep up and stay competitive, manufacturers need machines and production lines that are substantially more flexible, versatile, scalable, and cost-effective than ever before.

Connectivity is vital for flexible manufacturing

There is no question that connectivity is the key to achieving those goals. Traditionally, manufacturers depended on wired communication on the factory floor because its high reliability and low latency allowed them to use it for both machine control and monitoring.

But cables limit a machine’s flexibility and agility, can degrade or break, causing downtime, and are costly to maintain. And you can’t put a wired sensor on a fast-rotating part. Moreover, when we look at dynamic machines, like the increasingly popular AGVs and robots that move on tracks, wired communication is simply not feasible.

On the other hand, standard wireless protocols like Wi-Fi, Zigbee, and Bluetooth can’t meet the strict industrial requirements for consistency, latency, and scalability; and they simply aren’t reliable or fast enough to use for machine control.

Industry leaders agree that there’s only one solution

I recently sat down with industry leaders at a roundtable session to discuss how they’re dealing with these challenges. The answer was clear across the board—they all need smart, simple, low-cost, industrial-grade wireless communication from the device level (sensor, actuator), to the fieldbus (PLC, industrial PC), and from there all the way up to cloud and enterprise applications. Their consensus: IO-Link Wireless is integral to such an end-to-end communication solution as it is the only available technology that can provide on-machine communication for cable-grade real-time control and monitoring.

Developed as a global wireless communication standard to replace cables in both remote sensor/actuator control and monitoring for factory automation, IO-Link Wireless is a system extension to the already established IO-Link wired communication technology. It offers high reliability, low latency, scalability, deterministic communication, high client density capacity, and robustness, all in a wireless format.

Marcel Pfieffer, head of design and brand at the Zimmer group highlighted the importance of reliability, saying: “There were concerns about reliability in wireless in the past, but nowadays, these concerns have been overcome. We’ve tested the IOLink Wireless solutions, and they are just as reliable as a standard cable solution. Our vision is to transfer everything to IO-Link wireless.”

Standardization supports existing factories

One of the barriers to Industry 4.0 transformation that I have encountered frequently is that many manufacturers don’t have the capacity to replace their existing machinery. But with standardized wireless communication, existing machines can be updated to gain more data and insight.

Rainer Buschulte, CEO of Protion, shared his experience, saying: “For us, standardization was key. We have a variety of machines and actuators, and they have to be able to work together.” Ashwani Singh, Design Engineering Manager at Schneider Electric agreed, saying, “Common standards have enabled us to move away from proprietary legacy systems to more plug and deploy. Combining wireless technology with this type of open source will allow new applications to be created more easily and enable much more flexibility.”

IO-Link Wireless is the future

There are many great examples of wireless bringing factory automation to the next level of performance, reliability, security and safety. And since IO-Link Wireless is based on the existing IO-Link standard, it makes the transition to wireless much easier.

Manu Peelman, of Cloostermans summed it up like this: “Customers from all over the world come to us to make their products. We are based on a co-creation platform; customers tell us what they need. As an OEM, we can leverage technology like IO-Link Wireless to make it happen.”

Each of these industry leaders has valuable insights to share. Listen to our roundtable discussion here.

Mr. Ralf-Michael Franke is a board member of CoreTigo. He has been working with Siemens since 1985, holding a variety of leadership roles including Head of Quality Assurance, coordinator of the inter-divisional development of the SINAMICS drives platform, CEO of the Siemens Industrial Automation Systems Business Unit and the CEO of the Factory Automation Business Unit.