Is 5G Ready For Manufacturing?
The technology sector seems to be vulnerable to high-profile media scandals, whether they concern fossil fuel emissions, large security and data breaches, or the attempts of hackers to derail mission-critical infrastructure. This kind of exposure can disable a new technology even before it gets into the public arena, and 5G in particular has been subject to a lot of potentially crippling media criticism.
In spite of this widespread fear-mongering, however, 5G could turn out to be a positive force in the manufacturing sector, ushering in another major wave of technological innovation. While 3G and 4G provided incremental improvements in bandwidth and speed for all users, 5G will be especially beneficial to industry.
How is it different?
One of 5G's main differences lies in its strong focus on the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine-to-machine communication. 5G's capabilities extend far beyond current mobile broadband capacity, with very low latencies and unprecedented reliability. This produces massively increased data transmission rates, as well as greatly expanded IoT connectivity, paving the way for the IIoT, or “Industry 4.0”.
The aim of the IIoT is to improve the versatility, flexibility, efficiency and usability of smart factories significantly, by integrating the IoT with industrial manufacturing processes. For the first time, reliable machine-to-machine connectivity and interaction with IIoT systems will be provided by a cellular, wireless platform. This will be carried out in three ways:
1. Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB)
5G can handle 10,000 times as much traffic as 3G or 4G, with peak data rates of up to 10 Gbps (billion bits per second).
2. Ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC)
Ultra-reliable means that 5G has more than 99.9% availability, making it ideal for industrial applications. Productivity uptime is always a critical economic factor in industry, and a virtually continuous data flow is a key improvement on current communication systems. Low latency means that this data flow will be subject to minimum transmission delay. Latency is the term used to describe the gap between an instruction being given and the start of the wireless data transfer. In these circumstances, 5G promises a radio latency of < millisecond.
3. Enhanced machine-type communication (eMTC)
5G is able to handle a massive device density compared to previous generations of wireless coverage. One million devices per square kilometre (247 acres) can deliver ultra-low-cost communications between machines, which will last for up to 10 years using battery power alone. eMTC technology provides extended coverage and supports the IoT and IIoT, using low power over a wide area, with a lower device complexity. This enhanced connectivity is one of Industry 4.0's key components, supporting ongoing technological developments by offering pervasive and powerful communication between people, machines and objects.
For industry, this means that 5G will clear the path to real-time networks of wireless sensors, as well as offering reliable asset and location tracking. Furthermore, plant managers of smart factories will be able to rely on extensive and seamless communication – reducing concerns about network dropouts when overseeing, for example, a fleet of cobots or autonomous guided vehicles. In addition, manufacturers will be able to take greater advantage of virtual and augmented reality technologies for carrying out real-time simulations and predictive maintenance.
The future for 5G
Ethernet protocols are still being determined and standardised by organisations such as the IEEE and 3GPP, in order to accommodate the necessary time-sensitive networks into 5G architectures. These standards are required for 5G fully to achieve the high availability and low latency already existing in its ethernet counterparts. When this standardisation is achieved, wired connections for industrial automation will eventually be replaced by 5G networks. This applies to even the most demanding of industrial applications, such as high throughput robotic vision systems and motion control.
5G can potentially provide wireless connectivity to all types of industrial application and use cases, and may eventually bring together all the different communication technologies that are currently in use. If this convergence were to happen, the current number of industrial connectivity solutions would be significantly reduced. Just as today's wired Industrial Ethernet solutions are trending towards Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN), 5G is likely to emerge as the standard for industrial wireless technology. Direct and seamless communication could soon be possible from field level applications to the cloud, with significant increases in speed and reliability.
Is it worth it?
One frequently repeated question is whether 5G will be worth the significant investment involved in its adoption. Changing to 5G is not going to be cheap, with a substantial outlay necessary to upgrade existing infrastructure and equipment to accommodate it. 5G can easily be absorbed by rain – even by humidity – and blocked by obstacles including walls, so a different infrastructure is required for it to function. Small-cell networks will need to be installed, with smaller antennas which are situated closer together. It operates on a higher frequency - around 6 GHz – which is currently less crowded, but it can also function with millimetre waves, using new radio frequencies which can range anywhere between 30 to 300 GHz. With these different operational parameters, the overall coverage will be more extensive.
Positive test results
A technological research partnership between Sweden and Germany is producing promising results for automation using 5G. The Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology IPT have teamed up with Ericsson, Sweden's biggest mobile network supplier, in order to develop Europe's first comprehensive 5G research network. They are testing the potential areas of industrial application of the new technology, and have already conducted a successful experiment in milling components for complex turbo machinery. Adding 5G sensors to the machinery resulted in a 10% reduction in defects, which in turn led to significant savings in time spent fixing faults and in the overall unit production costs.
Upgrading for manufacturers
Manufacturers will have to manage equipment obsolescence and figure out how to achieve continued gains in productivity without a complete system overhaul, but if they are prepared to invest in the necessary upgrades, and retrofit 5G into existing networks and legacy equipment, then this technology will revolutionise the current state of manufacturing. It’s not a magic cure-all for productivity shortfalls, but 5G's advanced data transmission and enhanced communication reliability is a positive step forward for Industry 4.0.
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