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One Simple Component That Can Make or Break a Million-dollar Unmanned Factory

May 12, 2020
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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, factories around the world are unlikely to resume normal operations anytime soon, and labor shortage issues are becoming more prominent. But business owners that have already deployed unmanned systems in their factories have been able to both reduce the impact of COVID-19 and also seize market demands that other competitors cannot satisfy at the moment. Some businesses are even increasing their investments in factory automation. According to our observations of the industrial automation industry in recent years, unmanned systems not only effectively reduce labor demand, but more importantly, can significantly increase production capacity by cutting down on idle time in factories.

Throughout the journey from raw materials to finished products, at least 70% of the total time is spent on internal logistics, with products either being transported from station to station or sitting in storage for further processing. This 70% is idle time where no production is taking place. For example, the Liquid Crystal Module (LCM) process involves dozens of assembly stations. Assembly operators must complete a certain number of semi-finished products before transferring them to the next station, leading to time gaps between each batch of products supplied to each station. To overcome this issue, many companies leverage industrial automation equipment such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs), shuttle racks, and robotic arms to optimize internal logistics. But can high-end equipment alone solve the idle time issue? Actually, in order to enable automation equipment to handle tasks successfully and efficiently, there is a crucial factor that must not be neglected.

Invisible but Crucial: Reliable Networking Is the Foundation for Automation

Considering the large number of stations and AGVs in plants, many AGV suppliers help their clients set up path maps through the cloud. Users just need to modify the maps in the cloud and can then dispatch the up-to-date map codes to the designated vehicles. This increases scheduling flexibility and allows for unlimited possibilities for pathing between stations.

More stations and AGVs tend to require a more complex path map, increasing the need for AGV route precision and control point precision. Though they are often overlooked, low-profile wireless network devices are key to helping AGVs move accurately in a factory. In most plants, there are multiple intersections and T junctions, and the two-meter radius at each intersection/junction is a critical zone for AGV management. While this type of layout may seem simple to navigate for humans, these zones can be potentially perilous to AGVs, which rely on wireless communication. Any interference between the wireless client on the AGVs and nearby wireless APs may result in the location of the vehicle not being sent to the central control room. Or, if there are obstacles in the AGV's path, such as a metal bucket or cart, it could also affect wireless communication. Even a few seconds of disconnection, lag, or error could lead to collisions between the AGV and other vehicles or objects, halting the entire production line.

Designing a wireless communication network is not as simple as one might think. Common issues such as Wi-Fi channel overlapping and interference can complicate deployment, and ensuring the entire plant floor has strong and sufficient signal coverage is also challenging. A similar example in daily life is with mobile phone reception: certain areas may have weak signal due to the terrain and/or building structure. Therefore, it´s worth noting that when setting up unmanned logistics systems, the often-overlooked wireless network can actually make or break a million-dollar (or more) project.

In order to create an unmanned factory and fully realize all of its advantages, it is important to incorporate cutting-edge automation equipment, optimize redundant procedures, and enhance logistics efficiency. Yet at the same time, it is critical to select wireless network devices from experienced manufacturers and work with quality system integrators to ensure your automated factory has a solid foundation.

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