Unlocking the power of Industry 4.0 with 5G

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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Article by Andy Rowland, Head of digital manufacturing at BT

As coronavirus introduces new factors into the business equation and accelerates others, manufacturing needs to look to 5G to support its journey to Industry 4.0.

While 4G was all about enhanced mobile broadband and spawned a host of new applications like Uber and Spotify, 5G is all about mission critical applications like remote surgery, driverless cars and massive machine type communications.

Most Australian businesses recognise the potential benefits of 5G, with more than three quarters (78%) of Australian business leaders recognising that faster, more reliable mobile telecommunications would benefit their business. The uptake of 5G will contribute to significant growth in the digital economy in Australia, expected to be worth $140 billion by 2020.

However, manufacturers have been wary to introduce 5G due to concerns about global coverage, device compatibility, and potential high costs.  Hence till this day, we see sites typically still use fixed local area networks (LAN) or Wi-Fi to connect things. But fixed networks pose a few problems given these fixed cables can’t be moved easily. Production runs often need to be reconfigured at short notice in case of supply issues or a surge in demand, and LANs can’t be used for retrofitting sensors given they are a trip hazard in a busy factory. Equally although Wi-Fi offers much greater flexibility, environments with a lot of metal can seriously impact latency and network performance. Wi-Fi can also become unmanageable in large factories due to the sheer volume of access points.  So, a good, reliable, low-latency cellular technology using indoor cells is very attractive; and this is where 5G comes in.

How to use 5G to enhance manufacturing operations

Industry 4.0 is all about driving efficiency, something called the OEE score (Overall Equipment Effectiveness). To improve this OEE score, 5G can be used to reliably and securely connect new sensors to measure things like vibration, pressure and temperature to help predict equipment failures.

5G can also be used to monitor Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines that often create intricate designs in metal and are controlled by a computer. If there is any suggestion that there is a problem, they need to be shut down very quickly (within a tenth of a second) otherwise the damage can be more than $90k. Traditionally, PCs have been strapped to each machine tool to manage these shutdowns, but with the low latency and high availability of 5G, we now have a viable more cost-effective alternative.

New developments in worker safety

5G with its low latency and excellent availability is a great enabler for what we call Mixed Reality (MR). As experts retire, or become less able to travel, it’s often necessary for less experienced staff to resolve problems themselves. Increasingly Augmented Reality (AR) headsets are being used to allow experts to remotely instruct staff on site. Whilst this can be done over 4G, the number of dropouts and high latency can make the experience frustrating and potentially unsafe for the person being supervised. Also, increasingly, workers and robots are co-existing in close proximity; for instance, a robot might lift a heavy part over a worker’s head while they fit it into place. As the robot assistant moves around, having a reliable low latency technology like 5G is key to avoiding accidents.

5G can also be used to support Virtual Reality (VR) training, which has been found to be far more effective in terms of health and safety than less immersive technologies. As VR is so realistic, worse cases scenarios can be played out before the trainee’s eyes, leaving far more of a lasting impression than classroom-based warnings.

How coronavirus has changed things

Coronavirus has accelerated the digitisation of manufacturing, and interest in using 5G. Traditionally, people have been flown in to fix equipment, or to even carry out routine activities. For example, a food producer would fly in people from another country to clean all the pipes in its ice cream production lines following a shut down. This is currently not possible, and, in future, the way things have been done in the past is likely to change. Consequently, we are seeing an increased focus on factories being more self-sufficient and relying on collaboration tools designed for ‘blue collar’ workers. 5G will be a key enabler, driving efficiencies and supporting employees as they collaborate.

Looking to the future

In the next few years, we expect to see 5G being widely deployed in manufacturing, eclipsing private LTE due to its low latency, high availability and higher bandwidth attributes. Several new developments will further facilitate this. The use of mm wave spectrum will support up to 10Gbps connectivity over short distances, while network slicing will enable different quality of service levels to be offered over public networks to complement the existing private networks. OpenRAN (Radio Access Networks) will encourage a wide range of innovative companies to join the big three in offering more choice, more virtualisation and greater flexibility for customers.

Finally, we will start to see greater convergence between 5G, WIFI 6 and, eventually, fixed networks to provide a seamless experience for users.

As the manufacturing sector explores all the options for site transformation, manufacturers should look at adopting 5G to enhance existing Industry 4.0 deployments and effectively compete in the revolution.

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