Enabling smart manufacturing through wireless technology

11 Aug 2021

Dr Jobish John. Image: Confirm

Researcher Dr Jobish John is tasked with finding the appropriate next-generation wireless technologies for the industrial internet of things to operate on.

Dr Jobish John is a postdoctoral researcher at Confirm, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for smart manufacturing.

Based at University College Cork, his research in Ireland follows on from a PhD at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, which focused on wireless sensor networks for low-duty cycled sensing applications.

As well as his research work for industry 4.0, John is co-founder of an agritech start-up seeking to digitally transform agriculture with wireless solutions.

‘Sooner or later, most of today’s current wired solutions in the industrial sector will get replaced by wireless’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

From my childhood onwards, I was always curious about several things happening around me. When I used to study anything new during my undergraduate studies, I always enjoyed the habit of questioning it. Even though I could not find a satisfying answer, I always learned something new in this process, and I enjoyed it.

After my undergrad studies, I got a chance to work both in private and public sector industries in my domain. During those days, I used to follow certain design practices without completely understanding the nuts and bolts of them, which again triggered many ‘why’ questions in my mind.

During those days, I got a chance to interact with a few of the researchers. They were trying to address and solve some problems without knowing whether a solution existed. I believe this motivated me to get into research.

Being a researcher helps me work with similar-minded people and ideas that may or may not result in a positive or expected result. Research also allows me to keep updated with the latest trends in my domain. More than everything, I enjoy this journey.

What research are you currently working on?

The world around us employs a variety of wireless technologies like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, cellular connectivity etc, in different devices that we deal with in our daily life.

Similarly, the manufacturing industries are also becoming ‘smart’ by employing the apt wireless technologies for various automation use cases for improved productivity and flexibility. Manufacturing industries are going through a new revolutionary phase called industry 4.0. Various systems and machines involved in the production line today are connected in a rigid manner using wired (a form of Ethernet) connectivity.

Industrial automation systems consist of different devices like sensors, actuators, control equipment, machines, robots etc, implementing complex monitoring and control process tasks. They operate in a well-coordinated manner and need to be interconnected using highly reliable and low-latency communication techniques. Even though several wireless communication technologies are out there, industries are reluctant to adopt them into their manufacturing and production facilities.

My research focuses on evaluating the suitability of different wireless technologies especially low-power solutions for various industrial use cases through experimental evaluation and propose feasible enhancements to improve their performance limits to meet reliability and latency requirements.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Wireless technology is one of the key enablers for industrial automation, especially for smart manufacturing. My research will enhance researchers’ and industrial organisations’ understanding of the suitability of various wireless technologies for industrial automation. It will also improve industrial organisations’ confidence to adopt different wireless technologies for multiple applications, which helps them operate flexibly.

My research will also enhance the general public’s knowledge of how the next generation of industries will operate. This also helps the younger generation choose a career path according to smart manufacturing industries’ requirements.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

The industrial internet of things (IIoT) is one of the hot topics, and many industries have already started using them in their manufacturing lines. In IIoT, different types of devices like sensors, actuators, control instruments etc, get connected through various wireless technologies in an energy-efficient manner.

Many industries use automated management of their equipment and tools from a centralised station with the help of wireless technology. The choice of wireless technology depends on the particular use case. Hence, an understanding of various wireless solutions and their performance capabilities like data rate, latency, energy consumption, communication range etc, is essential.

By correctly choosing the wireless solutions, quality control of the produced goods and products in a manufacturing line can be carried out more efficiently. Predictive maintenance is another important application area that helps to minimise the downtime of various machines in a factory.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a smart manufacturing researcher?

Many critical industrial control applications need ultra-high-performance requirements both in terms of reliability and latency. Even though there are various wireless solutions available, they may not meet all use cases’ requirements. In some cases, the only feasible solution at this moment is wired connectivity.

There are several other requirements as well, like energy efficiency, where many of the sensors or devices operate on battery power, and the chosen wireless communication technology should provide a higher lifetime for the device operation. Also, most of the industrial environments are harsh in nature, and the operation of wireless devices in such environments to meet the requirements are highly challenging

Are there any common misconceptions about connectivity in smart manufacturing?

One of the misconceptions in using wireless technologies in smart manufacturing is that they can’t provide the performance requirements. It may not always be the case. Several use cases can be addressed in an efficient and flexible manner using many of the wireless technologies existing today.

Another misconception is that setting up a wireless network and maintaining it is really challenging, and that’s also not true.

I have also heard that since all the machines existing in a manufacturing industry are already wired in nature, migrating to wireless may be challenging. I do not think any of these are true, and there are always workarounds to address any challenges.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I would like to see an easy and smooth integration of wireless communication technologies in the manufacturing sector by various industries. This makes the production line highly flexible and adaptive to the market trends.

From the customer’s perspective, this helps them to get highly customised products even if the volumes are much less. I believe that sooner or later, most of today’s current wired solutions in the industrial sector will get replaced by wireless.

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