Will the smart factory benefit from 5G? Industry experts weigh in

4G’s ‘replacement’ is on the horizon and may be transformative for the manufacturing sector.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

 5G is on its way. The next-generation wireless technology, expected to offer speeds far beyond the capabilities of 4G, has captured the interest and investment of telecommunications companies and may become the catalyst for transformation in the manufacturing sector. 

At present, 5G is not necessarily defined as a standalone system; rather, transitional technologies including LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro are being implemented to merge bandwidth across multiple frequencies and improve device speeds before a full shunt to 5G infrastructure. 

Deployments across the 450 MHz - 6 GHz and 4 GHz - 52 GHz range are in play. We can expect gradual rollouts as telecoms providers build, test, and release the architecture required to facilitate 5G and reliance on existing 4G infrastructure is peeled away. 

Ericsson, Huawei, Qualcomm, Samsung, Intel, and other vendors are already researching the set of technologies and some are offering 5G-related hardware solutions, as well as working with telecoms firms in 5G deployment tests. Pilots are underway across countries including the United States, United Kingdom and South Korea, and Singapore recently asked its major carriers to submit proposals for 5G spectrum packages. 

According to Gartner, the worldwide 5G market will be worth $4.2 billion by the end of 2020 as companies invest in infrastructure upgrades necessary for rollouts. 

When 4G arrived, the major use-case was obvious: content streaming. As consumers began to demand more bandwidth and better speeds to facilitate using online services including YouTube, Netflix, and Spotify, telecoms firms answered. 

However, when it comes to 5G, the obvious, use cases are not so easily defined. 

Speaking to attendees at the Qualcomm 5G Summit in Barcelona last week, Brian Mecum, Verizon VP of Device Technology said that the company had already invested billions, but there are no "killer" use cases as of yet, beyond consumer products, remote working, and connected vehicles. 

5G requires an overhaul of existing architecture and may involve software-defined networking (SDN) setups, multi-access edge computing, and, of course, spectrum -- in which auctions have become a battleground between competing vendors and each country will have its own version of 5G, rather than sticking to a global, accepted standard. 

Despite a lack of one major case for 5G, the manufacturing sector has been pegged as a likely area to be transformed by the technology. 

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The smart factory, also known as Industry 4.0, defines the shift in industrial settings from legacy systems to connected technologies. This can include the use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, sensors, edge computing, self-healing networks, and automation. 

Industry 4.0 relies on connectivity. Without a stable, fast connection, industrial networks cannot capture or process data on the floor, generated by IoT sensors or at the edge, and this information cannot be used for equipment monitoring or maintenance. Operators are unable to see problems emerge in real-time, and both SDN and automation-based architecture may not function properly. 

Fiber as a standalone option for connectivity can provide the speed, latency, reliability, and capacity required, but 5G is eventually expected to offer more -- solving the "last mile" problem -- as well as enhance mobility. 

5G, however, should not be considered a replacement for fiber connections, as 5G infrastructure will need to be supported by and underpinned by fiber, especially when it comes to small cell deployments and for 5G radios. 

According to Jonathan Wilkins, director of EU Automation, there are three core ways in which 5G can improve the manufacturing sector when it comes to device traffic. 

Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) is of benefit -- given 5G's theoretical peak data rate of 10Gbps -- as well as Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC) radio latency of as little as 1 ms which can help keep industrial operations from disruption, and Massive Machine-type Communication (eMTC), in which 5G can theoretically support up to one million devices per square kilometer, perfect for machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and industrial IoT applications.

It is expected that the wireless technology will not only facilitate more IoT devices, but also improve data collection, latency, and the automation of information streams. 

"In industrial automation, 5G networks will eventually be able to replace wired connections in even the most demanding applications such as motion control and high throughput vision systems," Wilkins says. "Ethernet protocols are still being standardized by organizations such as 3GPP and IEEE to accommodate time-sensitive networks (TSNs) into 5G architecture, which will allow 5G to achieve the low latency and high availability of its Ethernet counterparts."

Another major benefit of 5G to the industrial sector is flexibility. Through IoT networks of sensors on the factory floor and through the supply chain, operators can be made aware of problems not in a linear fashion, but through the real-time collection and analysis of data ranging from machine performance, staff activity, and logistics -- as well as through predictive analytics.   
"In order to deliver a variety of operations -- from the design to the distribution of products -- manufacturers are currently using Ethernet and WIFI, and 4G LTE, to connect factory devices," Stefan Spendrup, VP of Enterprise Mobility at SOTI told ZDNet. "The implementation of 5G however, could allow operators to power their entire facility, on and off-premises and seamlessly under one network, enabling quicker adoption of new Industry 4.0 innovations."
With 5G, industrial operators and staff will not have to rely on fixed, wired communications infrastructure. This, in turn, could push the smart factory beyond IoT, Big Data, and our current M2M/ML experiments and towards the adoption of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications.

TechRepublic: Mass machine communication expected to be most impacted by 5G
The shift of Google Glass from a failed attempt to break into the consumer space to becoming a device on the factory floor for AR-augmented data lookups and training shows how industrial companies are willing to invest in new technologies that will likely provide an ROI -- but similar mobile devices, by their nature, will always require reliable Internet connections. 
Wearables are one possible category that next-generation wireless will benefit, as could VR headsets and robotics. Production lines may be sped up, warehouses could use headsets for "pick-by-vision" applications, and human error rates could be reduced. 
"The very features of 5G are required for effective use of automatic robots, wearables and VR headsets, which are the technologies shaping the future of smart factories, with 5G being a key enabler for IoT," Spendrup added. 
The supply chain, too, may benefit from 5G. Research from Capgemini estimates that 75 percent of industrial players plan to implement 5G within the first two years of the technology becoming available, and according to Capgemini's Nigel Thomas, part of the digital manufacturing team, 5G can "enable seamless mobility across the entire supply chain."
"In regards to self-triggered order placement based on inventory level, 5G's ability to connect 10 - 100 times more devices with better security protocols and 99.999 percent availability will make these transactions more reliable," Thomas says. "5G will also allow for virtual testing of parts and packing from suppliers, [such] as 3D X-ray imaging to create extremely accurate digital replicas of manufactured components to verify their specifications remotely."

Another interesting aspect of how 5G will change industrial operations is the "Internet of Skills," a lesser-known aspect of the smart factory.  

Described by Ericsson as the means to "enable any human being to teach, be taught and execute actions remotely," the Internet of Skills requires the efficient capture, transmission and rendering of visual, audio and perception-based information -- and this, in turn, can only be managed through high-speed mobile networks. 

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In the Industrial realm, the Internet of Skills may benefit training and supervising staff on the factory floor.

"The ability to share knowledge and skills is an overlooked aspect of Industry 4.0, yet it's one that's just as important as automation or connected devices," said Rafi Billurcu, Partner of Manufacturing at Infosys Consulting. "Then workers can access the sum total of all information within the business, from real-time insight into machinery performance to educational and training resources."

Despite Industry 4.0 becoming a use case for 5G, that does not mean it will not present a challenge to companies. 

It is unlikely that for many years to come that the industrial sector will be able to achieve the full speeds and connectivity promised by 5G, as many firms will rely on legacy systems and older networks until upgrades become necessary. 

The initial investment required to shift from wired connections and 3G/4G will also make the switch difficult. Until 5G-enabled smart factories definitively provide an ROI, companies may choose to bide their time before spending their funds on overhauling existing infrastructure. 

"To a large degree, the challenges that manufacturers face relate to the efficacy of the business case," Thomas added. "For example, if a factory is making the same aerospace parts that they have been manufacturing for the past 50 years, they might not choose to invest in putting sensors on their machinery. However, if they can build a business case that demonstrates how the ability to capture manufacturing data will improve quality, output and productivity, then they will invest.
The difficulty occurs when the entire supply chain is taken into account. Manufacturers will not be able to mandate down their supply chain that everyone in the network should invest in the technology. It might be down to manufacturers to invest and then drive a program of adoption and use down the supply chain. This is likely to be reflected by a hockey stick start, as many investment cases will take time to prove."

Pictures: London's 5G trial takes to the rooftops

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