Manufacturing Unwired

It all started as a handy way to wirelessly access the Internet from hot-spot access points that rapidly appeared in universities, coffee shops, malls and other public places. Now the wireless local area networks (WLANs) also known as Wi-Fi have become an

"The automated factory floor of the future will have no wires. Wireless technologies will begin to dominate in five years time." Those are the predictions of Parker Hannifin Corp.'s Sandy Harper, senior R&D project engineer and wireless solutions manager. The Cleveland-based researcher says wireless technology will handle everything from data collection to the very critical control functions, including maintenance monitoring. Is this just an isolated dream of a researcher from just one company, albeit a motion and process control automation leader? Hardly -- she is confident that the predictions are also founded on the common direction of interests and intent of other solution providers in a variety of industries. She cites firms such as Eaton, Siemens and Japan-based SMC, a provider of pneumatic components. "Customer interest is a significant factor in helping to accelerate the future of wireless," she adds. Early adopters will enjoy more than the time and cost savings associated with not having to buy and install wires and cables. Expect them to become more competitive through providing greater customer value, says Harper. Lower cost of operation is an example. Making Wi-Fi enabled components production ready is her current challenge. For those considering Wi-Fi, Harper offers the following observations: "Don't let security considerations deter a well-thought-out wireless plan. The technology exists to make security and reliability non-issues for properly engineered Wi-Fi implementations. Also, stay with standards when developing a wireless strategy. Standards help ensure interoperability and facilitate future development of the system." Anyone considering revamping or developing a new industrial automation system should definitely consider wireless as a first option, says Harper. "Expect substantial savings in both installation time and cost for both new and existing manufacturing facilities. Consider one of the unique advantages of wireless in a manufacturing context -- the ability to connect with battery powered moving objects like a spinning table or a robotic type device." Security Advances Harper's prediction of the growing industrial presence of wireless seems to be encountering few barriers with the early adopters -- not even security issues. For example, devices that communicate wirelessly number in the tens of thousands at the factories of General Motors Corp., says Detroit-based Tony Scott, chief technology officer for the Systems and Service Group. Consider that as just one example of how the technology is beginning to permeate the fabric of the manufacturing world. "Back in the early days of very proprietary spread-spectrum technology, we began using wireless in the plant [to help manage] material movement," says Scott. "We had hand-held wireless devices, and we've been using two-way radios in the plant ever since they were available." Virtually every form of wireless can be found somewhere in GM's manufacturing operations, says Scott. For example even the wireless local area network popularly known as Wi-Fi has been implemented at over a hundred of GM's manufacturing plants. Does that mean that security issues haven't affected GM's strategy in moving to gain the benefits of wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi? No, and the delayed implementation of Wi-Fi at GM's Detroit headquarters illustrates the point. The corporate offices at the Renaissance Center complex pose substantial security challenges to Wi-Fi. Consider the layout -- offices housed in a series of towers surrounding a hotel tower. If you're sitting in the hotel, you're just 50 feet from a GM office, notes Scott. "That's well within the normal 300-foot range of Wi-Fi," he adds. "Wireless security has been the reason we delayed deployment of Wi-Fi in those offices until now." The development that changed GM's thinking on deploying Wi-Fi at headquarters is a significantly enhanced security standard -- Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). The improvement, based on the 802.11 standard of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), replaces Wi-Fi's original security mechanism, Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). Many cryptographers feel that WPA addresses all the known attacks on WEP while adding strong user authentication, a feature absent in WEP. WPA is the result of IEEE members working in concert with the Wi-Fi Alliance. (The Alliance is a nonprofit international association formed in 1999 to certify interoperability of wireless local area network products based on IEEE 802.11.) The Wi-Fi Alliance describes two aspects of WLAN security: data protection (encryption) and network access control (authentication). Breaches can occur at the network level via the wireless access point (AP) or at an individual PC -- either attached to a network or operating in ad hoc mode and communicating in a peer-to-peer fashion. A wireless breach produces the same result as breaking into a wired network -- corporate data is at risk for third-party recovery or modification. Surprisingly, much of the security threat can be unintentionally caused by an enterprise's own employees. The Wi-Fi Alliance warns IT managers that the vulnerability often comes when, for the sake of convenience, employees deploy a "rogue" access point (AP) which has not been authorized by a network administrator. Such unauthorized APs effectively leave a door open to the corporate network. In addition, rogue APs often are installed with virtually open access to the corporate network. This risk of rogue AP deployment is exacerbated by organizations that refuse to implement and manage wireless solutions thus prompting employees to take action themselves, the Alliance notes. IT management also is warned of what the Alliance calls fundamental design flaws in WEP that could render its protection ineffective. The problem: It is possible to decrypt the data without even cracking the encryption key due to key reuse; a repeated key can be recovered directly from the WEP packet. Even worse, it is possible to forge properly encrypted WEP packets without the encryption key, and the 802.11 equipment will accept these as genuine. Another problem is the number of Wi-Fi users who, for one reason or another, have not turned on the encryption system. In one survey of 14,000 business and personal users, only 30% of them had activated the encryption system. Managing Wi-Fi The rapid acceptance of WLANs dramatizes the value early adopters such as GM place on minimizing networking costs while connecting wirelessly with applications, data and people. Having recognized the opportunity, the problem then becomes the challenge of managing these wireless LANs for rapid payback and maximum ROI, says Eric Hermelee, vice president, marketing, Wavelink Corp., Kirkland, Wash. The challenge grows with system size. "Consider that an early adopter of Wi-Fi might have thousands of access points across their facilities and use thousands of hand-held devices. Also when Wi-Fi is implemented in a manufacturing or distribution operation, that WLAN becomes the 24/7 business critical network," Hermelee adds. In addition, what many companies do not fully appreciate as they plan larger, more complex wireless networks is that WLAN access points and end-user devices require frequent attention. Hermelee explains: "Initially, someone must configure each piece of equipment with identification information, radio settings and data encryption keys, a process that can easily take 15 to 20 minutes or more for each device. Thereafter, access points periodically must be updated with new firmware (basic instructions programmed onto a memory chip) -- sometimes just once a year, but often as frequently as once every two months. "Security keys or access control lists must be changed periodically, the more frequently the better. End-user devices also require new drivers and firmware periodically, as well as new applications, anti-virus updates, patches and other fixes." "The vital issue becomes 'how do I support, maintain and secure this large footprint of wireless gear?'" Hermelee says the answer is in wireless LAN management solutions that allow enterprises to centrally manage all phases of the wireless lifecycle. "Wavelink began supplying management solutions in 1992 even before wireless solution providers crossed the hurdles of standardization, interoperability and security." Hermelee observes that security enhancements such as WPA unleashed significant demand for WLANs. "Previously CIOs held back. They would not chance introducing vulnerabilities into a safe and secure [wired] system." (Managements are still appropriately cautious. Information system security ranked among the two major fears of CFOs in a study by Robert Half Management Resources, Menlo Park, Calif. Security concerns were shown to be second only to CFO's fears of disaster recovery.) Now with the added protection of WPA, CIOs are adding wireless. Hermelee's advice to those CIOs: Obtaining Wi-Fi's benefits is largely about developing policies to take advantage of WPA and getting the right vendors to implement with equipment that fits the business needs. He emphasizes holistic planning. "Too many implementations begin as piecemeal departmental projects and lose much of their potential value due to a lack of strategic thinking. Also necessary is a well-thought-out application layer. Remember that the real value in Wi-Fi is the application that runs on the system. Making sure that application is designed for mobile users is the only way to gain the true potential of wireless. Applications intended for mobile workers should be properly formatted to provide workflow support. Anything less jeopardizes wireless ROI, adds Hermelee. Among Wavelink's solutions is Mobile Manager, software for managing WLANs; and Avalanche, a WLAN software solution for mobile device management. He says Wavelink's core value proposition is to reduce the total cost of WLAN ownership by enabling the central management of large number of access points and end-user devices. Growing Toward Convergence One measure of Wi-Fi's progress is the growth of Wi-Fi-capable laptops, one of the popular access means for mobile employees. In 2002, fewer than 20% had the built-in capability (not cards) versus 40% in 2003, reports the Wi-Fi Alliance. That growth could reach 90% by 2005. Adding more drama is the growth of all devices used in the office, plant or warehouse that incorporate that 802.11 capability. By one report, the number of WLAN devices has doubled every year for the last four. In addition to laptop and notebook computers, that tally includes PDAs, printers and scanners. Wavelink's Hermelee expects Wi-Fi's potential for unwiring offices and plants to gain new impetus with the convergence of wireless local area networks with wireless wide area networks. "Device users will be able to seamlessly transition from one environment to the other without ever knowing the difference." He says convergence will be as applicable to consumer applications as it will be for industrial users. "At manufacturing plants, wireless device users will have connectivity both in the plant and out in the storage yard."

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