17 Feb 2022

Can Wi-Fi 6 connect smart factory solutions?

Wi-Fi 6, also known as IEEE 802.11ax, offers new features tailored to the needs of smart factory application

WiFi6 will connect smart factories

Factory floors are tough operating environments for wireless communication technologies. It isn’t just their physical make-up, with concrete walls, spinning motors, and metal structures. As the density of wireless sensors and other connected devices increases, RF interference is becoming a bottleneck at the same time as bandwidth in the required frequency bands is running out. 

Meanwhile, expectations on the technology are rising, well beyond maximum data transfer rates. Factory operators expect sensors to deliver 24/7 availability to avoid downtime and the associated costs. Latencies need to reliably be kept low to flawlessly orchestrate complex production line processes. Seamless roaming is vital, particularly for applications that move around the production facility. At the same time, connected solutions need to be simple to commission, maintain, and scale. 

Thanks to the close partnership between representatives from hardware manufacturers and smart factory pioneers, Wi-Fi succeeded in continuing to evolve to meet some of the increasingly demanding needs of the market it serves. Wi-Fi 6, or IEEE 802.11ax, the most advanced iteration of Wi-Fi to hit the market, offers a variety of new enhancements that benefit smart factory applications allowing it to reliably meet the industry’s high expectations. 

What’s new in Wi-Fi 6? 

Previous new releases of Wi-Fi were mainly about increasing maximum throughput:  Wi-Fi 4, and then Wi-Fi 5 included enhancements that ultimately enabled “very high throughput,” theoretically maxing out at 6.8 Gbps. With Wi-Fi 6, first released in 2018, the focus was primarily on “high efficiency.” The technology’s theoretical maximum data transfer rate of 9.6 Gbps is considerable. But the features it will likely be known for are its more efficient use of available bandwidth, and its ability to effectively serve more devices per access point. 

The secret sauce behind Wi-Fi 6’s increased efficiency is in its higher modulation and more advanced coding schemes, most of them borrowed from cellular communication protocols. 

  • MU-OFDMA (multi-user orthogonal frequency division multiple access) adds the ability to serve more individual clients with precisely the resources they need. 
  • MU-MIMO (multi-user multiple input multiple output) lets access create upload and download data streams to multiple clients simultaneously. 
  • 1024 QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) increases capacity by packing more data into each transferred symbol. 
  • And BSS coloring helps decrease interference between messages transferred on the same channel. 

A further addition to Wi-Fi 6 is the target wake time feature that essentially acts as an alarm clock, letting devices go to sleep for extended time periods to save power. 

And more recently, Wi-Fi 6 was enhanced even further with the introduction of Wi-Fi 6E, which adds up to another 1200 MHz of fresh spectrum in the 6 GHz band. 

Wi-Fi 6: Delivering value to smart factories

So, how will these features translate to benefits in smart factories? By addressing the most common pain points currently encountered in a variety of concrete applications. 

  • Battery-powered wireless sensors benefit from Wi-Fi 6’s increased power autonomy and reduced spectrum congestion achieved through faster communication and extended low-power modes. 
  • Motion control applications gain higher fidelity thanks to OFDMA’s reduced latency and improved quality of service. 
  • The same applies to tablet-based HMIs, which also benefit from the ability of Wi-Fi 6 access points to serve more devices concurrently. 
  • Augmented reality (AR) interfaces such as tablets or smart glasses also benefit from the increased achievable data rates enabled by Wi-Fi 6. 

Wi-Fi 6 + Bluetooth 5 + 5G-ready LPWA: Connecting smart factories 

Moving forward, it’s clear that smart factory adoption will continue to build on a variety of complementary wireless technologies, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, as well as 4G LTE and 5G-ready low power wide area (LPWA) cellular technologies. 

Discover our JODY-W3 Wi-Fi 6 module series and our portfolio of 5G-ready LTE-M and NB-IoT solutions as well as our Bluetooth 5 module portfolio on our website. Find out what Wi-Fi 7 has in store for us when it hits the market sometime after 2024. And to learn more about how u-blox can help you tap into the benefits of smart factory solutions, reach out to your nearest sales representative or leave us a message

Pelle Svensson

Senior Principal Product Strategy, Product Strategy Short Range Radio, u-blox

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