Industrial Network Series – Industrial Wi-Fi 101

Chris 00:35

Welcome to EECO Asks Why today we’re going to be talking about an idea around Industrial Wi-Fi and try to give a good understanding and explanation of what Industrial Wi-Fi is. And to do that we have Scott McNeil, who is a senior network and security engineer for a Global Process Automation in Wilmington to walk us through this. So welcome Scott.

Scott: 00:49

Hey guys, how are you doing today?

Chris: 00:50

Good man. How are you doing?

Scott: 00:52

Not too shabby, man. Not too shabby.

Chris: 00:55

This is a 101 class man, so you’re going to have to break it down for us. Okay. So Industrial Wi-Fi is a big topic. So if you were to explain this to a fifth grader, how would you do that?

Scott: 01:06

When you look at it, it’s the same Wi-Fi itself, but you’ve moved it into a different and much more hostile environment. And Industrial Wi-Fi doesn’t include just Wi-Fi access for an end user devices. It includes other wireless aspects as well, machine to machine wireless communication sensor to machine wireless communication. So there’s different types of wireless access that are really blanket covered by the phrase Industrial Wi-Fi.

Chris: 01:37

When everybody thinks a Wi-Fi man, we think about our houses. Everybody has routers in their houses. And I know when I go to my buddy’s house it’s, “Hey, what’s your password?” So, how was the Industrial Wi-Fi different than what we experience at home?

Scott: 01:54

First of all, you’re not using, an $85 Linksys from Best Buy. You’re not cruisin’ down the street getting that Netgear to hook up in your garage. You have to use a fair amount of specialized equipment and wireless access and connectivity is a whole lot more important than it is sitting there streaming Netflix late at night.


Chris: 02:17

I mean, it really comes down to the hardware requirements then?

Scott: 02:21

It’s a combination of hardware requirements and client requirements on what they’re wanting to accomplish because there’s a wide variety of things that you can do with Wi-Fi in an Industrial space. So you need to have that reason defined, whereas, at home you’re streaming, you’re surfing the web and really that covers most of it or gaming, whatever. But in the Industrial environment, it’s a little bit of a different ball game here because you’re not going to be sitting there surfing, Google to see what’s going to be playing tonight or whatever on TV and you’re not going to be gaming because you’re on your work network.

Chris: 02:59

Do we go to the same plant Scott? Cause I’ve seen that happen, man. Just saying.

Scott: 03:04

I will neither confirm nor deny the existence of various gaming servers in places that I’ve been.

But the important thing is, this is the connectivity for maintenance guys and technicians on the factory floor, in order to access everything they need while working on system.

Chris: 03:23

I got you, man. I got you. Now you’ve mentioned a couple of times the environment and when I think about an Industrial environment, there’s something that really paints a pretty clear picture in my mind when I’m talking pulp and paper or automotive tires, whatever it may be, what are some of those considerations that the end users need to consider? When they’re looking at the Wi-Fi in their plants?

Scott: 03:45

All right. You’re really hitting it on the head there because every place that you just mentioned there’s a ton of heavy machinery, there’s piping and conduit everywhere. So between, the various machine types and process types, there’s a strong possibility of kicking out non-Wi-Fi based interference and that can be a huge problem.

 When you are looking at outdoor facilities like wastewater treatment, or even paper mills for that matter, but with how much there that goes on outside with wood yards and different things like that, you have to take into consideration your distances, what are you trying to do, is it blanket coverage for end users? Is it point to point communications for devices? So the environment, Industrial wise, is a complete one 80 when you compare it to standard enterprise Wi-Fi or home Wi-Fi.

Chris: 04:36

Gotcha. Do you have any examples of some craziness that you’ve seen from an environment standpoint where  end users were able to overcome some hurdles that we typically would not see in our homes?

Scott: 04:51

You know, it’s interesting. One particular facility, I got called out to do a validation survey because they’ve just been having terrible issues with their Wi-Fi on the manufacturing floor. Come to find out that they had one at one of their machines for their process, this infrared  curing machine, and after some spectrum analysis that was done. It was showing that essentially this machine was kicking out enough interference, that it was destroying the entire 2.4 spectrum from channel one to channel 11. And so it was just eating up all of the airtime.

So all of the communications that they have been trying to implement and in the facility were all at 2.4. So connectivity was terrible. They were lucky if they got it to work at all, but they noticed when they were shut down, “Hey, look at that. Everything’s all working all of a sudden, but we’re not getting any data because everything’s shut down.”

What we did is we started shifting because they were broadcasting and dual bands, so they were broadcast in 2.4, as well as 5GHZ. We initiated a transition for their end user devices over to 5 GHZ. And because they’re completely different frequencies that don’t come anywhere near stepping on each other they were able to start moving forward on all the initiatives that they wanted to start using several years ago. So really getting to know that airspace is a huge piece of the puzzle.

Chris: 06:14

Absolutely, man, that was a great example. And what about the equipment that is typically used in these settings? Can you walk us through some of that?

Scott: 06:23

As you well know every manufacturing or Industrial, facility that you go to is completely different. Even one paper mill is different from another paper mill. You’d have to take a look at those specific environments and that’s going to dictate what type of equipment you’re going to end up using. In a lot of manufacturing facilities they’re essentially just gigantic warehouses with a bunch of heavy machinery.

In some of these places where the heat is managed fairly well, you can use standard IP. In other places where they’re high heat, high dust environments, then you need to start looking at IP 66, IP 67 rated equipment, which a lot of manufacturers there have outdoor radios, which will meet those requirements.

Sometimes though you have to go with a full on Industrial encased access point, something like what Siemens or Fluidmesh would produce and, for the really harsh environments, just for the physical equipment to be able to withstand and do its job.

Chris: 07:23

So is that like the Tim the Tool Man Taylor type equipment for those jobs?

Scott: 07:28

Well yeah, of course, bigger, better, more power, let’s just see how much we can push out there.

Chris: 07:35

That’s right. Probably a bad joke, I try for our listeners.

Scott: 07:40

It’s all good.

Chris: 07:42

So what about rules of engagement, man? Any tips you’d give out there for working with Industrial Wi-Fi?

Scott: 07:50

Once wireless becomes ingrained in the process or in the manufacturing order of operations, it no longer follows the standard IT rules. Now they are officially, OT equipment and they have to follow the rules of engagement that OT follows, meaning that you can’t just on the fly decide that you want to go update the firmware on your APS and reboot them multiple times? Just because this is not a college, if you’re, you’re not inconveniencing a few students who are trying to study, you’re disrupting a process, you’re disrupting your technician’s ability to get their job done.

So as with anything else in the OT environment, you have to wait for outages. You have to plan all of these things for future operations as with HMI configurations and updates and server updates for your DCS. You just can’t do them on the fly. Does that make sense?

Chris: 08:48

Absolutely. Absolutely. Disrupting the process. You’re right. If Johnny can’t get on his email at the university, that’s a little different than a batch going down, right?

Scott: 08:59

Oh, that’s a huge difference and every single place you go to, they have no problem telling you what their downtime cash metrics are, “We lose X amount of dollars for every hour we’re not running.” They love letting you know, in no uncertain terms.

Chris: 09:14

That’s right. The pressure’s up. But when you designed it you know, what’s going to work. man. So, you we hear a lot of buzz words out there. I’m sure you’re hearing them smart manufacturing industry 4.0, the IOT, things like that. How is Industrial Wi-Fi changing with the advancement of some of these things?

Scott: 09:32

You know, it’s interesting because with industry 4.0, that’s in reference to the fourth Industrial revolution that we’re currently going through and a big portion of that is mobility and wireless integration into the manufacturing, systems.

Wireless. It becomes so much more important. The technique, the technicians not only want it, but they need it on that factory floor to help accomplish their jobs in a more efficient manner, because who wants to go out and work on something, then realize you’ve got to go look something up, go halfway across the plant, spend an hour, looking things up, print it out, and then carry it back with you.

You’ve wasted half your day. and just walking around the plant. And then you have other wireless technologies that are becoming ingrained in the manufacturing process, especially when it comes to sensors. And it’s interesting to watch, especially because there’s so many places that are very timid about integrating wireless because wireless still has this stigma of being unreliable in manufacturing environment. So anything that is important to the core process or integral to the core process, they tend to avoid, but sensors, man, they will put up wireless sensors, any and everywhere.

But the great thing about that is there’s different protocols that are used for all these sensors. And you can, you use Zigbee or Z-Wave and some of these actually use different frequencies other than 2.4. And they create these full redundant mesh connections, which is really nice. So one goes down, another one picks up the signal and everything keeps going through and the operators don’t lose their data.

So really, manufacturing is really starting to move forward with a lot of this. And it’s interesting to overseas, you’re seeing the push a little stronger than you are here. Especially, Siemens as a manufacturer, they do a lot for the Industrial Wi-Fi community and just Wi-Fi in general.

They’re pretty well involved and you’re starting to see a lot more integration of their wireless stuff, over in Europe than you are here in the States yet. But again, I think that’s just a matter of time.

Chris: 11:38

Yeah, I was going to ask you, is that just more because Siemens is when I think of that, I typically think of the IC, the European influences that just cause it hasn’t migrated here yet.

Scott: 11:48

Well actually, like Rockwell, and their huge partnership with Cisco. That’s another big thing is Rockwell is now trying to and  has been for the past, several years, but, it’s starting to become more prevalent since they’ve been able to start consolidating their offerings.

But, they have their whole plant wide Ethernet and they’re also including Cisco wireless into it, but I’m not sure if it’s actual Cisco wireless or if they’re slapping their own name on it and putting it in there. But regardless, so these big companies are starting to see the value in it, and they’re starting to get their partnerships together to start moving that into the factory floor.

Chris: 12:27

No doubt, man. It’s interesting. You mentioned, talking sensors, you do see a lot more manufacturers that is more, they’re more opt to, to accept that right now.

Scott: 12:41

They’re not critical to the actual process being done. So if a sensor goes out, it doesn’t stop the process. They have time to go replace that before anything can go crazy. You really see a lot of the wireless sensors for like tank levels and vibration sensors and different things like that. More preventative maintenance roles. Does that make sense?

Chris: 13:00

Man, we’re seeing so much of that, man. It’s just everywhere. I turned around. I feel like there’s a new sensor coming out from a different manufacturer. That’s got, vibration temperature, tank level monitoring, things like that, all cool stuff, but it’s definitely a boom going on out there right now with that type of technology coming, which is kind of cool.

Scott: 13:19

It is. It’s fascinating.

Chris: 13:22

You know we’ve had a couple of episodes where we’ve talked with people about cyber security and that’s come up time and time again and just security in general. So how does that impact Industrial Wi-Fi? What are you hearing there?

Scott: 13:38

This is yet another reason that so many people are hesitant to integrate wireless into the critical aspects of whatever process or environment they’ve got is because they’re not sure if anybody can break into Wi-Fi and so on and so forth.

Well, it’s a lot more difficult than you think, especially when most of your manufacturing environments are not in a downtown environment. Most of the sites I have been to they’re all out on their own. And they, for the lack of a better phrase, pretty much own their airspace. There’s nobody else broadcasting around.

If someone’s walking around with a wireless device to try and tap into things, they’re going to be pretty obvious, by plant security and whatnot, that somebody is not supposed to be there. And they’re walking around and doing something hinky. With all the security protocols that are in use today it’s fairly difficult to really break Wi-Fi, especially with WPA three. I’m not saying it’s impossible. You have to be in the right place at the right time to get the right data. And to be honest with you, it’s probably more effort than it’s worth for what, an individual could get out of it unless they’re looking to disrupt a process, but then it is it’s like anything else? You have to work on your defense in depth strategy for your overall security posture and make things as difficult as possible.

Most of these devices, these days for Industrial manufacturing, have all your standard encryption suites built into them. You mentioned IOT earlier and that’s what all these sensors are. These sensors are IIOT and it’s a little different than it is for the home with everybody, you know, “Hey, I want my light bulb online. I want my oven online, I want my fridge online,” and all these companies are just rushing to get product out there and not thinking about security. Fortunately, with the majority of these devices, the security is baked into them as far as for industry.

Chris: 15:38

Absolutely. That’s so important to keep things secure, particularly in the, in a manufacturing process type environment. So thank you for walking us through that one, man. That was very helpful. we call this EECO Asks Why, Scott and love to get to the why. You’ve done a great job of walking through the one-on-one of Industrial Wi-Fi, but if you were had to answer the why should Industrial end users understand and embrace Industrial Wi-Fi? What would be your answer, man?

Scott: 16:08

I thought a lot about that and really if you sit down and you plan it properly and you implement it properly Industrial Wi-Fi can save both time and money in installation costs because you’re eliminating a lot of structured data cabling, be it copper, be it fiber.

The other aspect is the speed of which you can get it out and up and running. So instead of having to go through a month long outage and dealing with cabling, you’re not really having deal with an outage at all because wireless equipment can be installed while you’re up and running. And then you may have a day for a cut over. So your implementation process overall is a lot faster as well.

And then the convenience for all of your guys working out there on the factory floor is a measurable, you have a strong Wi-Fi connection, for all these guys. And that goes a long way for their morale in general knowing that no matter where they go, they’ve got that solid connection. It just works. They don’t even think about it and they can just get out there and do their jobs.

Chris: 17:13

I love it, man. You’ve done a great job of really walking us through this, Scott, thank you so much. This is, a good topic, a relevant topic. It’s one that’s been and embrace more and more by the plants that we serve. So I really appreciate everything that you brought today for Industrial Wi-Fi 101 man.

Scott: 17:31

Hey, no problem, man. I really enjoyed it. And hopefully I can come back.

Chris: 17:35

No doubt. No doubt, buddy. We look forward to working with you again, man.