How 5G will impact tomorrow’s manufacturing industry

Industry 4.0 is driving the digitization of manufacturing processes. Manufacturing companies are forced to optimize their operations, as well as to explore new business models to stay competitive in fast-changing markets. This will require the collection, transfer and analysis of huge amounts of data in factories. Data will be needed not just to optimize processes, increase asset availability and reduce production lead times, but also to support new data-driven products.

The Internet of Things (IoT) will be a decisive factor in managing manufacturing data, but there are limits to the amount of data that can be managed and processed. The reason lies in the insufficient bandwidth and capacity that current Wi-Fi-based shop floor networks can provide. Current network performance and reliability are largely dependent on the particular shop floor environment and the application landscape.

Wi-Fi also uses unlicensed frequency bands, and network performance can suffer from interference with other networks. Going forward, this network infrastructure will be unable to satisfy the increasing demand for new manufacturing applications supported by AI, machine learning, robotics or augmented reality. Hence, new network infrastructure is needed to meet the increased requirements for speed, bandwidth, latency and quality.

Industry 4.0 is pushing the digitization of manufacturing processes.

This will necessitate the collection, transfer, and analysis of huge amounts of data in the factories. 5G Networks will be a major leap forward in the collection and analysis of data.

So, what technologies can satisfy the increasing hunger of manufacturing enterprises for greater network capacity and quality?

5G — The powerful communication network of the future

5G is one of the most promising technologies for manufacturing networks of the future. Fifth-generation networks offer many advantages over 4G technology as well as fixed and Wi-Fi communication infrastructure, based on the fact that it is a carrier-based cellular technology.

Compared with Wi-Fi, it works in a licensed environment that can cover a specific block of spectrum or a specific area (like a factory). Hence, the network can be configured to meet a company’s specific requirements regarding coverage, capacity and business objectives. Wi-Fi 6 — which has been developed in parallel — will also deliver a boost in network capacity, but it will work in an unlicensed environment where access permission is not required. This implies the danger of interference, between wireless operators for example. 5G will provide easier authentication and easy connection to cellular, since no service selection is needed. The benefits that a 5G cellular network can deliver to manufacturing companies can be summarized as follows:

  • Enhanced mobile broadband and channel capacity
  • Low latency communications for faster data download
  • Reaction time down to 1 millisecond, allowing for real-time responses and data transmissions
  • Massive connectivity, making it possible to offer an endless number of connections
  • Increased transaction speeds to support AI, AR and IoT-related applications
  • Lower costs compared to 4G networks
  • Reliable and stable communication network

A combination of public and private 5G networks is evolving, involving public network providers like Vodafone and manufacturing companies. Automotive is in a leadership role here, fostering partnerships with telecom operators to create standards and conduct preliminary communication trials. 5G can cope with increasing demand for company data and generation. It also enables the implementation of several key use cases in manufacturing:

  • Industrial automation and the control of robots and smart factory solutions
  • End-to-end tracking of material and goods
  • Immersive remote operations such as in maintenance, service or assembly
  • Shop floor reconfiguration and layout changes
  • Simulation of factory processes
  • Monitoring production and asset data and status in real time
  • Real-time machine-to-machine communication
  • Augmented reality applications, such as product assembly or asset maintenance

Nevertheless, the implementation of a 5G network in manufacturing must start with a thorough assessment of how to integrate networking elements with the unique applications, protocols and hardware employed in the factory. Small and medium enterprises will face more challenges, given that they generally have less experience with wireless communication in manufacturing. This brings us to a discussion of a few significant challenges to implementing 5G networks for manufacturing.

The big needs: Common standards and spectrum regulation

For most manufacturing companies, the integration of 5G networks creates major challenges stemming from a lack of global standards or little experience with wireless networks. Other concerns include security and privacy, in terms of protecting manufacturing data against intrusions from outside. This fear is caused by the increasing amounts of data processed, which make it an attractive target for potential intruders looking to steal data. As 5G devices become compatible with mobile device management systems, this fear may vanish.

Nevertheless, it is advisable to start small with a proof-of-value or proof-of-concept before investing —following a “test before invest” approach. The magnitude of the required investments into network technology is also an important question that must be answered, especially for small and medium sized companies with limited budgets.

Standardization and spectrum regulation are critical to avoid the fragmentation of future 5G deployments, and to provide clear guidelines and boundaries for network implementation. Spectrum regulation must define the frequency bands on which future network equipment can be developed. Standardization can be best achieved by standardization bodies agreeing on global standards. Government policies also need to address the ubiquity of 5G and address its challenges regarding privacy, spectrum licensing and allocation, and infrastructure.

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About Stefan Zimmermann
Global Head of Incubator Portfolio Industry Manufacturing
Stefan Zimmermann is responsible for the innovation and portfolio development in Industry 4.0 at Global Atos B&PS. He aims at helping industrial companies to identify business opportunities enabled by Industry 4.0 during their digital transformation process, embracing the Industry 4.0 framework. He’s got a very strong industrial background, having worked for companies like Siemens (>10 years) and Rheinmetall Group and also comprehensive consulting skills gained when working for Roland Berger & Partner.

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