The first industrial revolution in the 1700s brought about the mechanization of manufacturing processes.
Water and steam power were harnessed to dawn in the era of mechanized manufacturing. Then, the second industrial revolution introduced assembly lines and increased manufacturing output with the help of electricity. The third revolution was brought on by the adoption of computers in manufacturing processes. Each of these three revolutions was significant and improved manufacturing by leaps and bounds. However, they still relied on human labor. However, things are about to change drastically with the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0. Let us introduce you to smart factories that are going to be the defining element of Industry 4.0. Factories will have IoT-based connected machines with machine learning capabilities that will communicate with each other. This will help us automate manufacturing tasks and achieve true automation in manufacturing, termed as ‘lights-out’ manufacturing, with LiFi playing a pivotal role in industrial automation.
Lights-out manufacturing is a manufacturing methodology that requires no human presence on factory floors to carry out the manufacturing processes. The factories operate fully automated and the term, ‘lights-out’ is adopted from the concept that factories don’t need the lights on for a robotic operation. Historically, lights-out manufacturing factories have been difficult to implement and have produced limited results. Why? Because manufacturing processes are complex and require a high degree of flexibility. It is usually believed that manufacturing is a straightforward process and is dull and repetitive. On the contrary, it requires enormous amounts of skills, planning, and management. For example, manufacturing processes involve precision, decision-making, and sensitivity that are currently difficult for machine learning algorithms to replicate. Then, there is a major hurdle in the form of data delivery. A delay in communication can lead to the failure of an entire batch of manufactured products and set you back on your schedule and finances. Hence, achieving fully automated manufacturing is still a distant reality. However, with advancements in technology, we are slowly inching closer to achieving lights out manufacturing. Take the example of Philips lights-out factory in the Netherlands. The factory uses 128 robots to manufacture electric razors in a fully automated process. The factory has just nine human quality assurance employees who oversee the final step of the manufacturing process. In this blog, we have discussed the data transmission hurdles currently faced in manufacturing and how the use of LiFi for industrial automation can help us achieve our goal of truly automated manufacturing plants.
The current data transmission technologies rely on radio-frequency waves. Theoretically, we can achieve speeds up to 600 Mb/s and 1300 Mb/s using RF technology. However, the actual data speeds are much lower than theoretical speeds. This leads to high latency issues, which can cause communication delays. Machines can’t be reliably operated with such networks, hence becoming a bottleneck for achieving lights-out manufacturing. For instance, if there is a delay in communication between machines, the assembly lines may malfunction, resulting in errors in the assembled product, leading to losses.
Then, there are security challenges to mitigate. Radio-based networks can be hacked remotely, which can cause data leakages or catastrophic machine failures. Additionally, radio-based frequencies cannot be used in hostile environments such as in petrochemical industries or areas having too much interference. To mitigate most of these challenges, 5G is being explored as a replacement for current network connectivity. Agreed that 5G provides higher speeds than 4G, but since 5G, too, is RF-based, shares most of the challenges faced, and proves to be a non-viable option. Additionally, 5G requires a lot of infrastructural setups as the waves travel short distances, and deploying a 5G solution may cost exorbitant amounts of money, which is not feasible for most factories. So, is there a solution to the challenges? Yes. LiFi. LiFi appears to be a viable option for meeting the data transmission speed and security requirements in lights-out manufacturing as it ticks almost every box required for achieving lights-out manufacturing.
LiFi is a wireless data transmission technology that makes use of visible light to transmit and receive data. A transmitting source, such as a LED light bulb, emits light pulses containing the data that needs to be transmitted. The receivers collect the transmitted information and interpret the data. The light pulses are, however, undetectable to the human eye. The concept is similar to Morse code, but the data transmission is at a much faster rate.
Using LiFi for industrial automation provides a plethora of benefits and helps us take a step closer to achieving true manufacturing automation.
LiFi technology provides a broad bandwidth for data transmission with high transmission speeds. The theoretical transmission speeds can go over 100Gbps, which is fourteen times faster than the fastest WiFi we know today. Thus, LiFi can help us achieve real-time communication between machines employed at manufacturing plants, significantly improving the manufacturing process’s efficacy. The machines can work in tandem with each other as a single cohesive unit with zero communication delay, resulting in higher productivity and significantly improving the production quality.
Additionally, with LiFi networks, there is no network interference or saturation experienced, unlike radio-frequency signals, where several data sources can disrupt the network’s functioning. This ensures seamless communication between the machinery with very low latency and zero data loss, which is crucial for complex manufacturing processes. With uninterrupted, real-time communication and zero interference, machines can autonomously work with higher reliability, automation, and speed. Using LiFi for industrial automation also helps with machinery maintenance procedures. With real-time monitoring made possible by LiFi, engineers can quickly identify errors that may occur during production and take corrective actions. This contributes to improving the lifespan and the reliability of the machines and helps reduce machine maintenance and operating costs. There are additional cost savings with LiFi as the LiFi hardware acts as a light source and a data transmission source.
Another benefit of using LiFi for industrial automation is that it provides enhanced security. While RF signals can penetrate through walls and most objects, LiFi signals are blocked by walls, and hence a hacker will need to be physically present inside the manufacturing plant to carry out a hacking attack. Additionally, you can incorporate the existing encryption and authentication security protocols into LiFi systems to further secure your wireless network. You can thus keep factories running without any worries of your network being compromised as long as your LiFi network is physically contained.
Another advantage of using LiFi for industrial automation is that, unlike WiFi, LiFi can be used in environments that are hazardous for radio frequencies. For example, the petrochemical and power generation industries can’t use RF for communication. Petrochemical products are highly sensitive to RF waves. Similarly, the power generation sector can’t use RF due to interference issues. However, LiFi faces no such challenges and can easily be deployed to provide wireless connectivity without any safety threat.
1. Increased automation: Using LiFi for industrial automation provides fast, secure and reliable network connectivity with low latency that can help various components of the manufacturing floor communicate with each other seamlessly. Takeaway: Eliminates the need for factory floor workers.
2. Improved maintenance: LiFi, combined with machine learning in the manufacturing sector, can help transition from reactive to predictive maintenance, significantly reducing machine downtime and maintenance costs. Takeaway: Machines can be repaired well ahead of time, helping save costs. In the future, automated robots can be deployed to replace parts.
3. Enhanced security: Since LiFi connections are limited to the physical space that the light touches, it leads to enhanced security levels as outside attacks aren’t possible with LiFi. Takeaway: Manufacturing units can be set to operate autonomously without the fear of the network getting compromised. Technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence can be used to enhance security further.
4. Improved decision making: As accurate data is available in real-time with LiFi connections, businesses can make better decisions by analyzing it. Takeaway: A machinery chain with machine learning capabilities can analyze various data metrics and make adjustments automatically to maximize the manufacturing process’s efficiency. Therefore, with these benefits, we can bet that LiFi can usher in an era of true automation in the manufacturing sector.
LiFi technology is still in its nascent stages. However, with further research and development in LiFi and other essential technologies for smart factories, LiFi will play a pivotal role in data communication that will help these smart factories to function. We believe that using LiFi for industrial automation will be the future. For that, we can start working now for developing smart factories with LiFi in mind instead of 4G or 5G as the preferred communications technology. Lights-out manufacturing will surely need a ‘lights-on communication approach, and we need to start taking steps in that direction now.
Naveen is the Founder and CEO of Allerin, a software solutions provider that delivers innovative and agile solutions that enable to automate, inspire and impress. He is a seasoned professional with more than 20 years of experience, with extensive experience in customizing open source products for cost optimizations of large scale IT deployment. He is currently working on Internet of Things solutions with Big Data Analytics. Naveen completed his programming qualifications in various Indian institutes.