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Key ideas and investments in wireless center on manufacturing, but some companies struggle to find workers trained to use these innovations

Advanced manufacturing is a sector that now draws more than $3bn in funding annually. Its technologies create more efficient, customizable, automated, or digitized processes for factories and the supply chains that serve them. They include industrial IoT, edge computing, robotics, predictive analytics and wearables. And tech execs are putting money into innovation to power their future. A recent survey on disruptive technologies commissioned by Panasonic found that technology leaders and other executives say hesitating is far riskier than adopting disruptive technologies now. Companies surveyed have already adopted, on average, four of the 12 key disruptive technologies. And almost all companies intend to increase their investment in disruptive technologies.

At the root of the future factory are sensors and wireless technology. With the advent of Bluetooth 5.0 and mesh networks, the potential for linking these sensors across one singular network is happening on factory floors across North America.

From the Home to the Workplace

Sensors, and our ability to connect them wirelessly using technologies such as Bluetooth, are reshaping the way we collect data and – ultimately – go about even the most routine aspects of our lives. On the factory floor, some machines are already equipped with sensors that can connect to wireless networks, collect data and alert crews to maintenance needs. By connecting these machines to wireless networks, they can potentially be monitored – and in some cases operated – using tablets or smartphones connected to the same network. With wearable technologies such as smart clothes, workers across the entire business can have access to necessary information while other sensors can monitor their health and wellness so they can make educated decisions while performing their jobs.

Driving Innovation

Often the Ford Motor Company is credited with the invention of the assembly line, but the concept was initially patented by Ransom Olds – who put the practice into place building the Oldsmobile. Ford’s contribution includes the addition of a conveyor that created a “moving” line, which reduced the time of production to just 93 minutes for a single vehicle. It was these early innovations that drove industrial manufacturing and created lasting impressions about innovation in the sector that can still be seen today.

Harley-Davidson provides an example. Instead of doing a complete factory over-haul, Harley-Davidson retrofit its current machinery with IoT sensors. The project and the prospects provided by machine-connectivity, according to Harley-Davidson General Manager Mike Fisher, were worth the challenge. “[Sensors] make the equipment more complicated, and they are themselves complicated. But with the complexity comes opportunity,” he told the Wall Street Journal. One such potential is to wirelessly connect these sensors to a factory’s IoT.

Providing a Framework

Harley-Davidson’s work is digitally pioneering. Other manufacturing plants are looking for ways to catch up. According to CBinsights, “manufacturers predict overall efficiency to grow annually over the next five years at 7x the rate of growth seen since 1990.” From predictive machine analytics to employee-wearable technology, future factories will have these various components connected to a single wireless network so they can potentially be monitored from a single device.

In providing this kind of factory-wide access to a single network, Bluetooth mesh networking represents a major step towards a more accessible and wide-ranging wireless future. It allows for multiple devices to connect to the same network and all communicate seamlessly and in real time. A standard Bluetooth network is similar to a speaker presenting to an audience. The speaker may address the entire audience or individual members and audience members may address a question to the speaker, but audience members don’t communicate among themselves.

In a Bluetooth mesh network, audience members may address one another. This topology has two advantages for manufacturing. First, since a single message may travel along many routes to its destination, this dramatically increases the probability that the message arrives. The second advantage is the increased distance a message may travel – like one audience member speaking to another. Panasonic is at the forefront in these spaces, developing wireless technologies and solutions that help to make work and life simpler and more efficient.