How 5G can revolutionize connectivity strategy in the manufacturing sector

Make no mistake, there has been a significant buzz around 5G in manufacturing lately. I am sure most people are thinking cellular and 5G are just for consumers, however that simply isn’t the case.

In principle, previous generations of cellular technologies were built solely with the consumer in mind. But people need to be aware that 5G today is a completely different animal and that it has the potential to truly revolutionize manufacturing.

5G was originally built from the ground up to support industrial applications and deal with the main challenges faced by Wi-Fi with mobility and reliability. To explain it in simple terms, 5G mobile private networks or MPNs are the way 5G is being deployed inside factories. Private means all critical systems are deployed locally with minimal or no data being moved outside the premises to the cloud.

A lot has happened in the last five years, and we are entering a period of sustained network deployment growth based on spectrum liberalization, ecosystem maturity and proven economics/ROI. There are many more reasons for this increase which we will now discuss.

I think a major enabler for the rise of MPNs has been innovation in spectrum policy. The US, probably to catch up with China leading the Industrial 5G race, decided to liberalize spectrum access via CBRS. CBRS allows any enterprise to get its own spectrum for a specific area, without having to rely on an operator, and enabling DIY independent networks. The trend of private spectrum rapidly expanded around the world and today countries like Germany, UK, Japan, Sweden and many others have implemented some kind of private spectrum allocation policy. China is still far ahead in this race; it’s reported that 10,000 MPNs are already connected.

The second factor was the creation of a solid ecosystem around Industrial 5G. Many of them are partially funded by governments in the US, the EU and the UK. A good example here is 5GACIA, which was led by industry heavyweights Bosch and Siemens among others. This organization was born to deal with the technological evolution of 5G to be able to serve the real requirements of industrial players. Initially, 5G had many gaps in the industrial world and these have been tackled, one-by-one, with help from institutions like 5GACIA. Some examples here are the use of TSN in 5G, and the implementation of proto-cols like Profinet over 5G. During this time, existing and new vendors have adapted their products to deal with these very specific challenges and stringent requirements of the top industrial players. A more competitive ecosystem has also started to push down prices of devices.

Lastly, I believe what will continue to drive MPN forward is the consensus that there is a strong business case in implementing 5G for end consumers. The value comes from combining or stacking different applications such as reliable coverage, video streaming, autonomous mobile robots and more.

When it comes to reliable coverage, there have been deployments where just one 5G/4G radio has been able to replace up to ten Wi-Fi access points. Not just the CapEx but also the OpEx and deployment complexity are reduced in such cases. Reliability is also superior, thanks to enforceable QoS, as is better performance, particularly in environments with metal reflections. Reliable coverage can enable significant productivity gains on basic routines performed by field operators.

In terms of video streaming, one of the main reasons for deploying dedicated 5G radios is video uplink. Public networks from the carriers are optimized for downlink, and streaming of UHD video is not well supported. Video streaming can come from employee devices like smartphones and/or more fancy AR headsets which are gaining traction over time.

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) have also contributed to the growth of 5G, particularly in manufacturing. Robots deployed at scale automatically generate higher demand on the wireless network. Wi-Fi is not great with handovers and AMRs can really suffer from this. Lost robots either stay idle waiting for a human to intervene and/or go back home to restart their journey. Significant productive gains can be achieved with more reliable connectivity. And in most cases even 4G will suffice in this application.

Finally, I think indoor positioning location analytics using 5G radios to help pinpoint devices have helped growth. Both have the potential to eliminate the need for other technologies such as BLE or UWB. It’s still early for this application but I am a strong believer that the impact on the manufacturing industry could prove significant.

With 5G becoming better at low-power IoT and positioning, it is easy to see the potential that it offers to eliminate silos generated by multiple wireless technologies working simul-taneously. This has been the vision of the industry since the beginning and it’s already happening.

Make no mistake, the future for 5G in manufacturing looks very bright. We are still a couple of years behind a significant portion of PLCs being connected via 5G, but it will eventually happen, adding more flexibility to industrial players. In the last few months not only are large conglomerates such as Mercedes or Bosch implementing 5G, but also medium-sized players. A noteworthy deployment has been seen through ACOME in France. The company, which designs and manufactures fiber optic cables for the deployment of superfast broadband to subscribers has deployed a 5G standalone network and successfully implemented most of the use cases mentioned above.

To summarize, my key message to the manufacturing industry is that now is the right time to start testing 5G. There is no need to start replacing ethernet-connected PLCs with 5G, but from my experience, deploying 5G promises to simplify the deployment of use cases that can improve productivity without the hassle of poor connectivity. I think there’s no better time for factories to start testing non-critical elements with 5G and to be prepared for a future where most of the connected elements in a factory will run on its premises.

For a list of the sources used in this article, please contact the editor.

Christopher Gehlen
Christopher Gehlen is CEO and Co-founder of Neutroon, an innovative Network-as-a-Service company that provides all-in-one advanced connectivity for private 5G networks and edge computing. Its custom-built platform simplifies the complexity of deploying and handling such networks, making them as easy to use as Wi-Fi. It achieves this by removing 5G’s more complex configurations to focus instead on what enterprise customers need: reliable connectivity for specific apps and devices. The cloud platform helps coordinate edge apps and manage numerous multi-vendor 5G systems with ease, flexibility, and effectiveness.