How 5G will boost 'smart factories'

The news that Worcester Bosch embarked on the UK's first live trial of 5G connectivity into an industrial environment last year was heralded as "a landmark step" towards the creation of smart factories in Britain. It is an initiative that will be repeated hundreds of times around the world this year as wireless carriers flip the switch on 5G.

Bosch_5G-factory-UK-1200x675The manufacturer of heating and hot water products was reported to be working with BT, O2, and Huawei to test how 5G connectivity can help enhance the productivity of its manufacturing operations, including support for Predictive Maintenance technology.

While connectivity is not usually the first consideration that comes to mind when thinking about smart factories, the advent of Industry 4.0 has made it mission-critical. Data gathered by sensors on industrial machinery is useless unless it can be accessed and analyzed. It is pretty much redundant if it merely sits on its originating machine.

For manufacturers, however, the connectivity options are somewhat limited. While many industrial organizations would like to use wireless connectivity in their operational environments due to its lower cost of installation and the degree of flexibility for re-configuring factory layouts, adoption of technologies such as Wi-Fi and 4G has been slow due to the nature of industrial settings in which they must operate.

From an electronic perspective, factories and production plants are noisy environments. Industrial machines produce a tremendous amount of electronic interference that is highly disruptive to wireless networks.

Approximately half of Senseye’s Global Fortune 500 clients have trialed wireless technologies in their operational environments as part of Industry 4.0 initiatives. Yet the majority continues to rely on fixed-line networks to ensure data can flow around the factory unimpeded.

Ericsson, the telecommunications technology provider, says that the network characteristics of 5G - high bandwidth, low latency, excellent reliability, and improved connection density - will enable its use as a flexible, lower-cost alternative to the fixed-line networks that most manufacturers continue to rely on today.

Overcoming electronic noise

The main benefit of 5G in an industrial setting is the robustness and resilience of the technology and its suitability for supporting large-scale Industry 4.0 deployments.

While the amount of data produced by each machine is not going to be huge in the grand scheme of things, there could be thousands of devices relaying data in a single factory environment. The improved connection density of 5G will make it possible for a far greater number of machines to be monitored and analyzed automatically.

5G will also enable the use of new low‑power, wide-area radio technologies explicitly designed for the needs of Industry 4.0 applications. These offer better coverage for remote, rural locations, as well as deeper penetration into factory environments.

The ability to manage data from significantly more machines is likely to result in the integration of considerably more assets and capabilities into the smart factory environment, as well as a higher number of specialized cloud-based applications for managing them.

It will be possible to connect assets and get a unique reading for each of them, providing a real-time forecast about when the asset will fail. This will help them to prevent downtime and over-maintenance activities, providing greater control and insight to factories and their operations teams.

Reducing the cost of data projects

The new generation of industrial machinery produced today is fitted with sensors as standard and with some form of built-in connectivity. Manufacturers around the world are retrofitting existing assets to provide vital connectivity, and while many in the industry are doing so for wired networks, the most forward-thinking are making it possible to add SIM cards to their machinery.

While the cost of instrumenting older machinery is reducing all the time as the price of sensors falls, the most expensive part of the data journey is often associated with putting networks into the factory environment. Plants are notoriously difficult places in which to lay network cables, especially when you consider that much of this work must take place while the machinery is in use.

By overcoming the issue of electronic noise and offering a route to removing the need for fixed-line connectivity, 5G has the potential to dramatically reduce the cost associated with upgrading manufacturing environments to meet smart factory requirements.

Two-way remote connectivity

A further anticipated benefit of 5G connectivity is its ability to enable remote monitoring and even remote configuration of assets in the field. Sectors such as renewable energy increasingly rely on expensive, autonomous assets in remote locations. 5G should improve the ability of energy companies to communicate with wind turbines, for instance, monitoring their performance and condition from head office, interrogate them for more information if required, and even reconfigure them on the fly.

It is early days for 5G, but it is clear that anticipation for this new technology is far broader than merely the consumer audiences that will be eager to download more content to their devices while on the move. Industrial organizations worldwide have recognized that this technology could be transformative for their operations and will be watching these trials with great interest.