5G & Manufacturing

The UK has been running 5G trials in factories for just over a year. Initial results suggest that manufacturing firms could see a 1% increase in productivity from this new technology thanks to increased understanding of machine health, predictive maintenance, decreased machinery downtime and improved service quality. Manufacturing & Utilities combined are expected to contribute over a third of the mind-blowingly large figure of $2.2 trillion that the GSMA predicts 5G will contribute to the global economy over the next fifteen years.

So what makes 5G better than what has come before? There are three core pillars that make 5G what it is:

  • Enhanced Mobile Broadband – the ability to stream a large amount of data, for example UHD video, quickly.
  • Massive Machine Type Connectivity – the ability to manage thousands of smart devices (such as internet-connected thermometers) on one network.
  • Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications – the ability to transmit data with neither fail nor lag / sluggishness.

While the first pillar will be the first to achieve mass market adoption and is the focus of recent high profile launches such as that of EE in London, it is the other pillars that proffer the next industrial revolution.

Massive machine type connection is exemplified by the idea of vast, low-power sensor networks throughout a factory, all gathering data on temperatures, vibrations, pressures and more. When accumulated, this sensor network provides invaluable insight into the operational performance of equipment and can alert engineers when a machine comes close to its limits. Darren Danks is the manufacturing project leader at Worcester Bosch, one of the companies leading the charge in the trials of 5G in manufacturing. His team believes that 5G has the potential to increase the efficiency of the plant by using this sensor network to reduce the amount of time that machinery is out of action. The Worcester Bosch factory has installed 100 5G-connected sensors along with two high resolution cameras. This equipment monitors about half of the plant, focussing on the more heavily automated upstream section of production where the components are made, rather than assembled.

“We wanted something that would allow us to see the health of a machine or a piece of equipment in a way we hadn’t been able to before.  Rather than waiting for something to break down, which would cause problems in terms of shutting down our assembly processes, we’re now able to spot a potential issue before it happens and deal with it in a planned and controlled way.”

Sensor networks in a factory are nothing new. What 5G brings to the table is the real-time nature of data analysis and the ability to have ten times the numbers of sensors in the same area contributing to the overall decision making process.

The manufacturer working alongside Bosch in the Worcestershire 5G Consortium, a testbed funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, is the Japanese machine tool builder Yamazaki Mazak.  This company is augmenting the capabilities of their machine tool servicing team in order to save customers time and money and provide a higher level of service quality. Using an augmented reality headset equipped with an HD camera and a microphone, an on-site Yamazaki Mazak service engineer can stream exactly what he is seeing to a remote expert and receive step-by-step instructions instantaneously on how to fix an issue, if he is unclear how to proceed himself.  This reduces the risk of service engineers needing to return for a second visit if the first respondent is not trained to handle the issue that he encounters.  Augmented reality use cases rely on both the low latency element of 5G for the instantaneous transmission of instructions and enhanced mobile broadband to stream the HD video quickly. 

Elsewhere, Nokia has been building a “factory of the future” in Oulu, Finland. In this building, sensor networks, computer vision and autonomous robots that traverse the factory floor alongside employees are the norm.  One experiment that Nokia has run compares the speed of automation of 4G and 5G-connected robots. In the same time period, the 4G-connected robot assembled 12 parts while the 5G-connected robot assembled 31 parts – a huge 260% productivity gain thanks to 5G’s significantly lower latency.

Across the telecommunications industry, there is a recognition of the need for increased collaboration with enterprise customers as 5G is rolled out to ensure that the new technology reaches its full potential.  O2 supports this collaborative viewpoint. On the launch of the Worcestershire 5G Consortium project, Derek McManus, COO of O2 (one of the project members), said that in order for 5G to achieve the estimated £173Bn incremental revenue that the Government predicts in its first ten years, rolling out the technology isn’t enough. He believes that “the only way the UK will benefit is if we can make technology and mobile collaborate with British industry and with local authorities. If the three can work together, then the infrastructure will be there, the capability will be understood, and the benefit will be driven out.”

Dr Derek Long, Head of Telecoms & Mobile at Cambridge Consultants is working to help service providers and industry to unlock the potential of 5G and goes further. He suggests that “5G provides an opportunity for telecom operators to change their value proposition to enterprise clients from simple network-capacity providers to innovative digital-service partners, to the great benefit of both. However, to accomplish this will require more than just a technology shift. Telecom operators will need to embrace a cultural shift. Telecom operators will need to respond to the unique needs of diverse enterprise customers.”

Some of the more technical elements of 5G, such as network slicing, should result in operators being able to offer differentiated services to enterprise clients. Factories may be able to customise security levels, latency requirements, geographic spread and support levels in real-time. This “5G as a Service”, subscription-based business model could revolutionise enterprise connectivity by minimizing the capital cost of deploying a network.

It has been over a year since the Worcestershire testbed started and participants are starting to feedback lessons learned. Unsurprisingly, skills emerge as a critical factor. More employees will be needed that not only understand manufacturing processes and the mechanical elements of a factory, but also the digital technology that will bring it together and deliver the insights upon which decisions are made. Ongoing collaboration and communication between the UK Government, the technology sector and manufacturers will be key to ensuring the UK fills this skills gap and maximises the productivity potential of 5G.

To connect with some of the businesses rolling out 5G in the UK, visit www.uk5g.org

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