How UWB is Revolutionizing Industry 4.0 and Beyond

Introduction

Futurists, technology investors, and modern organizations are working together to define how the future will look. New technologies are continuously emerging, leading to rapid change for customers and use cases.

This phenomenon is particularly relevant with tracking of assets in industrial environments, where extremely precise localization is required in order to maximize efficiency. There are many technologies that aim to provide this level of accuracy, but one key technology stands out that will change how the world of real-time locating technologies will fundamentally develop.

Ultra-wideband (UWB) is a low-energy, short-range wireless communication protocol that operates through radio waves. This is accomplished with short nanosecond pulses over an ultra-wide range of frequencies. In contrast to Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and other counterparts, it operates at very high frequencies and can be used to capture highly accurate spatial and directional data.

UWB detects location through distance-based measurement via time-of-flight (ToF), where location is calculated based on how long it takes for pulses of radio to travel from one device to another at the speed of light. While this only works over shorter ranges, the location of UWB signals can be determined with an accuracy of less than 50 centimeters and extremely low latency. Other standards like BLE and Wi-Fi cannot reliably accomplish this, as they typically determine location via received signal strength indicators (RSSI) that provide location accuracy at the meter level.

Picture of a worker managing a manufacturing process.

 

The Rise of UWB in Industrial Applications

Managers of industrial facilities, such as warehouses, factories, and distribution centers are increasingly realizing the added-value that UWB installations would bring to their operations as they aim to transition to smart manufacturing. Having an extremely accurate overview of where assets are located in real-time is paramount to maximizing efficiencies, streamlining processes, reducing costs, and increasing revenues. For this reason, the subpar accuracy of other locating technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth is not a reliable option.

Industrial facilities are often fast-paced, crowded environments that are spatially complex. Once UWB hardware has been installed and setup in a facility, any and all assets (such as forklifts, palettes, tools, AGVs, or people) may be equipped and tracked with tags. To tackle the challenging, dynamic nature of industrial facilities, UWB signals can pass through a variety of obstacles (including walls and people) and are less susceptible to interference from metallic objects. UWB tags can also be configured to send location updates at an extremely frequent interval, thereby increasing accuracy and reliability.

UWB is still a relatively new player in industrial applications. Companies making the transition to the technology as early adopters will serve as pioneers, while the rest of the industry will lag behind and eventually catch up. “UWB is one of the biggest trends in indoor-locating technology. With UWB we are able to provide indoor-locating solutions with the highest accuracy and robustness especially in harsh industrial environments and under non line of sight conditions. Therefore UWB helps us to develop the best solutions for use cases for the industry.” Daniel Bossert, Head of Customer Projects, TRUMPF Werkzeugmaschinen GmbH + Co. KG.

Picture of robots welding in a car factory.

 

The Need for a Unified Standard

Historically, there have been fundamental challenges and barriers that have hindered organizations from pursuing UWB installations at their industrial facilities. While UWB is superior to other locating technologies in many ways, interoperability and compatibility became a growing concern for both UWB vendors and customers. The landscape of UWB vendors has been very fragmented and this has resulted in vendor lock-in, whereby proprietary UWB systems and hardware are inflexible and do not function or communicate with each other. This is a significant pitfall, as this leaves customers fully dependent and at the mercy of the UWB provider they have chosen. Expansion of infrastructure and a complete re-installation with a new provider would be very costly.

To illustrate this, consider how your Wi-Fi setup works at home. We take it for granted that our mobile phone and computers can connect to our Wi-Fi router at home in a matter of seconds. Adding a new device to any Wi-Fi network is easily done by typing in a password – and you’re done. In comparison, UWB technology vendors use a plethora of proprietary solutions for both the hardware and the air interface. As a result, UWB devices have different hardware capabilities and require different means of integration. Moreover, devices from different vendors usually cannot interoperate with another.

As a customer, you might want to choose UWB hardware from one vendor for a certain purpose and require it to interact perfectly with UWB hardware from another vendor that was chosen for a different purpose. For example, you might want to choose a self-locating (“GPS-like“) UWB tag for collision detection on AGVs, and a lower energy-consuming UWB tag for tracking pallets in your manufacturing hall.

To tackle these fundamental challenges, an industry consortium lead by TRUMPF was formed in close collaboration with a group of core partners to conceptualize and develop an open locating standard – called omlox™. omlox eliminates vendor lock-in and ensures interoperability, as all omlox compatible technologies and solutions adhere to the same specifications and can function with each other. This would lower the total cost of ownership for customers, as they could expand their infrastructure installations by easily adding new UWB hardware from different omlox-compatible vendors. In addition, omlox allows UWB to be seamlessly combined with other technologies, such as RFID, 5G, Wi-Fi, BLE, etc.

Graphic illustrating an assembly line with robotics.

 

Our Contribution to the Revolution

At Heidelberg Mobil International, we have a strong history in providing worldwide leading solutions for mapping and navigation, particularly in indoor scenarios. We have worked with many different locating technologies over the years, including GPS, Wi-Fi, iBeacon, RFID, magnetic positioning, UWB, AR and other less common technologies. Based on our many years of experience, we came to the following conclusions:

  1. The interoperability within each locating technology group varies heavily: RFID provides very good interoperability, and the hardware and air interface is standardized. Your mileage for locating technologies other than RFID or GPS may vary, depending on your requirements and actual environment.
  2. Many use cases can benefit heavily from combining different locating technologies.
  3. Combining systems using different coordinate systems and projections can be challenging and requires geospatial know-how.

 

“We saw omlox as an opportunity to contribute our in-depth geospatial expertise and experience in combining different locating technologies to help create a unified locating standard that really matters. The goal was to define common denominators and align with other standardization organizations. Ultimately, to create one open locating standard that combines the best of different worlds and offers well-defined and easy-to-integrate solutions for even the most challenging use cases.” Benjamin Stadin, Chief Technology Officer, Heidelberg Mobil International GmbH.

We have provided location-based solutions for geospatial challenges since we were founded in 1998, and have worked extensively with many locating systems over the years. We believe that our geospatial expertise contributes an important piece of the puzzle – creating a standard that can make a real difference in how positioning challenges are addressed on a global scale.

 

Conclusion

Having worked extensively with all standard locating technologies, it became evident that UWB is superior in regard to precision when applied in challenging industrial environments. It delivers on its claims of high precision and low latency, whereas other positioning technologies have often made claims that were not realistic in actual facilities or industrial settings. Therefore, we believe UWB will be a fundamental component of location-based solutions in the future.

The adoption of UWB within Industry 4.0 is increasing exponentially and the inception of omlox – the world’s first open locating standard – has propelled it to new heights. While UWB is a groundbreaking technology on its own, it truly shines in combination with other locating technologies. This is where Heidelberg Mobil’s DeepHub® comes into play, as it is the premier omlox-compliant middleware. The DeepHub centrally aggregates and provides location data across technologies, hardware and systems.

The impact of the omlox standard and its positive disruption on the market hasn’t gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, the omlox community signed an official agreement to join forces with the UWB Alliance in partnership areas of mutual interest. Within this liaison, the UWB Alliance focuses on promoting UWB technology, advancing updates of the UWB rulesets in the United States and Europe, and progressing the global ruleset and spectrum management harmonization. omlox focuses on the definition and promotion of the UWB technology to provide cost-efficient, real-time locating services within different industries, in an open and interoperable manner.

If you are interested in learning more about what’s under the hood of our DeepHub and how it can propel your solution to the next level, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us – we’d love to hear from you!

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