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Evaluate industrial IoT connectivity options

Organizations adopting industrial IoT must decide whether wired or wireless connectivity serves their purpose best based on data rates and device location.

Sensors collect data crucial to Industrial IoT and running a business, but many organizations have only begun to adopt IIoT devices into workspaces and figure out how to connect their machines.

Industrial organizations use IIoT sensors across many verticals to measure a variety of factors, such as pressure detectors that regulate an oil pipe, temperature sensors that monitor frozen food or a camera that protects a warehouse entrance.

Many organizations have reprioritized IIoT after the pandemic struck. Supply chain disturbances affected 94% of Fortune 1000 companies at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. IIoT in the factory or supply chain will improve liquidity, lower maintenance costs by 10% to 15%, and reduce waste by up to 20%, according to management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Organizations new to IIoT must decide how to connect sensors and devices to the internet based on needs and device types. They can choose from wired and wireless mechanisms to connect to a network.

Understand when wired connectivity works best

Many organizations use a wired link to connect IIoT machines to a network. Ethernet based on the IEEE 802.3 standard is the most used wired internet connection for PCs and printers. By the early 1990s, Ethernet overtook IBM's Token Ring as the standard for network connections.

However, using standard Ethernet in industrial settings creates problems because the TCP/IP protocol for data routing does not provide the guaranteed real-time performance often needed in automation and processing applications.

Industrial applications require a real-time protocol designed to use the physical layers of Ethernet that also provide communication between machine controllers, actuators and devices.

Industrial applications require a real-time protocol designed to use the physical layers of Ethernet that also provide communication between machine controllers, actuators and devices. This led to the development of industrial Ethernet.

Industrial Ethernet implements an application layer protocol that ensures the correct data is transmitted and received when and where it's needed for a specific operation. Protocols for industrial Ethernet include EtherCAT, Ethernet/IP and Profinet.

The cabling for industrial Ethernet use must be tougher than standard office cabling. A solid conductor works better than stranded cable for delivering higher speeds over distance. Ethernet conductors are normally American Wire Gauge 26 and 24. The largest conductor sizes work best when use cases require fast data rates over long cable paths.

Cabling requirements account for much of the cost of industrial Ethernet. Many IIoT deployments use industrial Ethernet as a network connection method.

Ethernet, however, is not suitable for all industrial tasks, such as supply chain monitoring, where IIoT sensors cannot be tethered to a single point on the network. Organizations have numerous wireless options available for industrial use.

IIoT infrastructure
IoT connectivity must be compatible to link IIoT infrastructure components, including gateways, sensors, actuators and edge nodes.

Explore wireless industrial IoT connectivity options

Local Area Networks (LANs)

Bluetooth. Bluetooth is a short-range technology that was invented by Ericsson in 1989. The 2.4 GHz technology has a range of 10 meters or 30 feet. Bluetooth works for IIoT when sensors -- such as lights, chemical monitors and HVAC systems -- are distributed uniformly in an area. Many Bluetooth sensors today use Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE), which uses less power than conventional Bluetooth, but offers similar range. Bluetooth LE was integrated into Bluetooth 4.0 in 2009.

Wi-Fi. Wireless LAN is a popular LAN connection, based on the 802.11 protocol and introduced in 1998. Wi-Fi routers of 2.4 GHz can provide coverage at a range of 150 feet indoors and 300 feet outdoors, and 5 GHz access points offer a range of around 190 feet indoors. Field technicians can easily add devices to a Wi-Fi network if they are close to an access point. IT teams often won't allow IIoT devices to connect to their network because of security concerns.

Zigbee. Zigbee was first standardized in 2003. It transmits on the 2.4GHz band at a range of 10 to 100 meters. Zigbee is a mesh network technology, where nodes interconnect to multiple pathways. Zigbee is intended for battery-operated sensors that require low data throughput. The standard requires a central hub to work as the coordinator. Zigbee devices, however, are known to suffer from interoperability problems.

Wide Area Networks (WANs)

Cellular networks. LTE-M and NB-IoT are two cellular systems specifically designed for IoT devices. These technologies can transmit fairly large chunks of data, around 250 KBps in the case of NB-IoT, and 1 MBps for LTE-M. LTE-M supports mobility through cell site handovers, while NB-IoT supports mobility only through cell reselection while in an idle state. This makes LTE-M more suitable for tracking objects, such as supply chain monitoring, while NB-IoT is better suited to utility monitoring. The licensed spectrum LTE-based systems are operated by many cellular telecommunications companies around the world, such as AT&T and Vodafone. These IoT networks don't yet cover the entire globe, so may not be suitable for all IIoT operations.

IoT cellular networks
Cellular IoT connectivity options span a variety of data rates and use cases.

LPWAN. This technology, which includes LoRaWAN and Sigfox, is ideal for connecting devices over unlicensed spectrum that send and receive small data packets over long distances while using very little power. LoRaWAN and Sigfox are not as well-established as the IoT cellular technologies in China and other parts of the world and may not be suitable for all IIoT applications.

5G. Chips supporting 5G IoT will become commercially available in 2022. The main difference between 5G and current 4G technology is that 5G will be able to support up to a million devices per square kilometer, rather than the 1,000 devices supported by 4G today. Applications such as factory automation will be well-suited to 5G because of the low latency of 10 milliseconds required for operation.

Dig Deeper on Industrial Internet of Things (IoT)