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Defining a New Post-Pandemic Medical Paradigm

Date: 6/9/2020 12:00:00 AM

When future historians look back at the year 2020, there will surely be just one dominating subject to write about: COVID-19. Over the course of the last few months, the full force of this coronavirus crisis has been felt in every part of the world and not a single member of our global society has been able to avoid its impact. The virus has meant people’s day-to-day behavior must change. And looking ahead, it is now clear that technological advances are going to be essential if we are to prevent a possible resurgence of the virus from occurring.

Implementation of higher degrees of automation was already underway long before the first COVID-19 cases started to appear. Driven by the objectives of boosting productivity and reducing operational expenses, the pervasiveness of Internet of Things (IoT) networks was becoming increasingly apparent and the number of Industry 4.0 installations was rising. However, the present situation means that investments in this area are being accelerated considerably. There is now much greater impetus to eliminate human intervention from manufacturing and industrial processing activities wherever possible and rely more heavily on automated alternatives. Crucially, the hardware and software to support this transition is readily available.

In some cases, hardware is currently contributing to efforts to curb the effects of COVID-19 and help safeguard lives. Soon after the virus outbreak initially began in Asia, a large manufacturing firm situated in the region decided to join the fight. It set about transferring the whole of its whole production capacity over to making personal protective equipment (PPE), with an ambitious goal of hitting a daily output of 5 million masks per day. To help them achieve this, the company’s management team decided to contact with Advantech.

The equipment on the production lines would have to deliver 24 hours of uninterrupted operation 7 days a week if the target output figures were to be met. As a result, it was critical that functional continuity could be maintained. Any downtime caused by one of these items of equipment malfunctioning would have huge implications. Consequently, cutting-edge communication infrastructure was mandated. This would need to provide ongoing reliable performance, as well as an array of sophisticated functions. Also, if these masks were going to be of actual benefit to the local population during the virus’ peak, then the production operation would need to be up and running within a very short period of time.

Having consulted with the client in detail, Advantech engineers put forward a proposal for an effective and quick to implement intelligent networking system. It included the installation of Advantech’s EKI-2525 industrial-grade unmanaged switches. These compact units (featuring 5 Ethernet ports) constituted the first ring – interconnecting the numerous data processing subsystems throughout the facility, so that data from each mask-making machine could be rapidly acquired. Combining robustness and high performance, these switches can deal with 100Mbps data rates, as well as having provision for fiber connectivity.

The EKI-2525 units, which were distributed across the manufacturing site, passed their data up to the accompanying EKI-7000 series managed Ethernet switches that formed the network backbone. Thanks to the IXM fast deployment technology incorporated, it was possible for hundreds of switches to be set up within just a few mouse clicks, via the intuitive human-machine interface associated with this platform. IXM makes the configuration and IP assignment of a large number of nodes straightforward to do, as well as facilitating upgrades. Not only did that mean everything in this particular project could be brought online much quicker, it also offered scope for adding extra switches if production needed to be scaled up even further.

Through the redundant X-ring topology presented by the EKI-7000 switches, with an ultra-responsive self-healing mechanism, uninterrupted data transmission was assured. If any fault occurred, recovery could be actioned within a timeframe of less than 20ms. In addition, the state-of-the-art security attributes that these units feature would safeguard against the threat of cyber-attacks.

All the hardware encompassed within the network could be easily accessed using a web-based management software package. This could be done from within the facility or remotely if needed. By referencing the real-time data, it could be determined whether operations were running at optimal efficiency and uncover any potential issues that could be hindering productivity. As well as giving a comprehensive overview of the system for management purposes, it enabled the setting of alarm notifications in case circumstances arose that needed immediate action.

As many parts of the world start to move into the early phases of the pandemic’s aftermath, the focus is once again shifting. A key concern now is restarting the economy after months of hibernation, whilst remaining vigilant. This means reorganizing workplaces in such a way that the health of employees can be protected. More widespread use of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) in manufacturing facilities and logistical operations is already being seen, and this is a trend that will likely continue.

Another long-standing Advantech client, also situated in Asia, is taking the lead here. With such goals in mind, the company recently embarked on the development of an AGV. The intelligent multi-purpose robot that the company has envisaged will take on automatic disinfection duties, as well as performing temperature measurements (using its built-in thermal sensing capabilities). Having previously collaborated on other projects, Advantech’s engineering staff were brought into the AGV venture at a preliminary stage – their services being required to attend to the wireless transmission aspect.

The criteria outlined by the client were as follows. Firstly, dual-band Wi-Fi operation would be paramount (with both 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz being covered) – so that transmission types could be differentiated from one another and congestion issues avoided. Next was fast roaming, in order that robots moving around the assigned area would be able to automatically connect to the nearest Wi-Fi access point and maintain the best possible signal quality at that location. Full compatibility with any third-party access points was also mandated, since the robots would be traversing through a variety of different locations. It was therefore important to make certain that their wireless systems could adapt to different on-site access point architectures.

As the robots had to deal with a diverse range of different operating conditions (including harsh industrial and semi-outdoor environments), a high degree of robustness would also be expected from the communication system. Finally, to complement the wireless capabilities, serial connectivity would need to be accommodated.

Based on these criteria, Advantech’s EKI-136x was specified. Supporting 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi standards, this FCC/CE certified, web-configurable serial-to-WLAN server solution has a 2x2 MIMO antenna arrangement. It can provide elevated transmission rates (up to 300Mbps) and applies the latest encryption/authentication protocols (such as WPA2, WPA, WEP and 802.1x) to ensure that data streams are fully protected. With the development work completed, the client has now successfully deployed its new AGV model. These robots have already been active in factories, shopping malls and public spaces – conducting temperature measurements and carrying out vital disinfection work.

The repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for a long time to come, but there is certainly a lot to be positive about. In both of the examples described above, Advantech’s technology was used successfully to support the work of forward-looking companies. These efforts with making industrial processes and other important tasks safer, will impact human operatives in a positive manner long into the future.

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