A trade group hopes to show an aerospace plant in the U.K. the advantages of automating operations with the latest Wi-Fi gear. It’s the first of a handful of pilots that it hopes to launch this year in a race with advocates of 5G cellular.

Members of the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) will supply free gear and expertise to Mettis, a 70-year-old maker of parts for commercial and military planes in Worcestershire, England. They aim to demonstrate the benefits on a handful of use cases for automating operations using 802.11ax Wi-Fi, also known as Wi-Fi 6.

Mettis

(Image: Mettis)

A government-backed initiative in the U.K.’s Midlands region plans to sponsor a handful of trials using 5G cellular. For its part, the WBA aims to launch at least four trials around the world using Wi-Fi.

“We got involved with the U.K. government because the Midlands region started 5G trials,” said Tiago Rodrigues, general manager of the WBA, in an interview with EE Times. “We shared our vision of using heterogeneous networks, and they agreed, so we talked about a trial under its 5G umbrella to try Wi-Fi 6. Mettis was considering 5G, but they were keen to look into Wi-Fi, too.”

The efforts show the increasing competition between 5G and Wi-Fi in industrial IoT and other scenarios. Both networks see their enhanced throughput and latency enabling wireless connections to sensors that simplify maintenance and enhance robotics.

Long term, end users are expected to adopt a mix of wireless networks, but short term, the latest 5G and Wi-Fi nets will compete to show their potential, often in similar use cases.

For end users, the competition is a boom that could help drag traditional factories into the digital era. For example, a Bosch plant is already seeing productivity gains demonstrated as part of a 5G trial. In the U.S., AT&T recently announced a deal to provide free 5G service to Samsung’s wafer fab in Austin as part of a trial.

“We recently announced the U.K.’s first live 5G factory trials in Worcestershire, in a landmark step toward the creation of smart factories, and it’s fantastic to also see the world’s first Wi-Fi 6 industrial IoT trial go live in the county,” said Mark Stansfield, who chairs a technology initiative in the Midlands.

British Telecom, Boingo, Broadcom, BSG Wireless, CableLabs, Cisco, HPE Aruba, and Intel will provide gear or expertise to Mettis for the Wi-Fi trial. The group will work with Mettis to define and implement a handful of tests that it will conduct later this year, aiming to report results by January, said Rodrigues of the WBA.

Mettis robot

Mettis’s 27-acre campus includes operations from mold making to assembly and painting. (Image: Mettis)

“We want to do trials in four vertical markets including carrier environments, high-density locations like stadiums and airports, and public transportation systems like subways and train stations,” in addition to factories, said Rodrigues. “We are looking at a lot of opportunities all over the world, including a couple in the U.S. for stadiums and carriers.”

Two new capabilities of Wi-Fi 6 will be central to the tests. The standard added traffic prioritization capabilities to provide deterministic response for select functions. It also supports a basic IoT command language that can be used, for example, to wake up sensors.

The capabilities could let systems automatically report urgent maintenance needs. It could also enable workers to service systems on the factory floor using tablets with augmented-reality displays fed in real time by the sensors.

Mettis “decided a few years ago that all its new machinery will have multiple sensors,” said Rodrigues. “Now, it’s a question of how to collect their data and what interfaces they need.”

“They don’t have any type of wireless connectivity,” he said. “Some of the machinery has wired links, but it’s a very small portion, so it’s a big challenge for them. They tried to use an earlier version of Wi-Fi three or four years ago and they weren’t entirely satisfied, but we are confident that Wi-Fi 6 can help them.”

Trials will likely take place in three or four locations of the 27-acre campus. The company operates multiple buildings where it melts metals and molds aircraft parts, assembles and paints systems, and conducts tests. “They want to digitalize as much as possible,” Rodrigues said.