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Plotting the path to a 5G future


Industrial 5G opens the door to the comprehensive, wireless networking of production, maintenance, and logistics. High data rates, reliable and robust broadband transmission and ultra-short latencies will significantly boost efficiency and flexibility in industrial value creation. 

According to ABI Research, organisations that embrace Industry 4.0 and private cellular have the potential to improve gross margins by 5-13 per cent in factory and warehouse operations. Manufacturers can expect a 10x return on their investment. And with 4.3 billion wireless connections in smart factories anticipated by 2030, it is clear where things are headed.

The importance of connectivity

“Whether on or off the factory floor, IIoT can be used to optimise asset efficiency,” Steve Dertien, CTO at PTC explains. “With real-time monitoring, diagnostics and analytics, downtime can be reduced or avoided. Asset utilisation can also be evaluated and maximised. Think applications such as equipment health monitoring, predictive maintenance, and the ability to provide augmented 3D instructions for complex repairs. And, you can also scale production more precisely via better control over processes and inventory. All of this accelerates time to market; another critical benefit of IIoT and long held business goal.

“As we look at the growing need to connect more devices, more sensors and install things like real-time cameras for doing analytics, there is growing stress and strain that is brought into industrial settings. We have seen the need to increase connectivity while having greater scalability, performance, accessibility, reliability, and broader reach with a lower cost of ownership become much more important.”

Making a difference

This is where 5G can make a real difference. “Many of our customers have seen what we are doing with augmented reality and the way that PTC can help operators service equipment,” Dertien continues. “But soon, the way that people interact with robotics, for example, will change. There will be real-time video to do spatial analytics on the way that people are working with man and machines, and we’ll be able to unlock a new level of intelligence with a new layer of connectivity that helps drive better business outcomes.

“It sounds nice, but the truth is, a lot of heavy lifting is required to do IIoT right. The last thing you want to do is venture into a pilot, run into problems, and leave the C-suite less than enthused with the outcome. And make no mistake, there are a lot of potential pitfalls to be aware of.”

For instance, lengthy proof of concept periods, cumbersome processes and integrations can slow time to market. “Multiple, local integrations can be required when connectivity and device management get siloed,” Dertien adds. “If not done right, you may only gain limited visibility into devices, and the experience will fall short. And, naturally, global initiatives can be hindered by high roaming costs and deployment obstacles.

“With wireless connectivity, we can deploy a lot of new technology – from augmented reality to artificial intelligence applications – without having to think about the time and cost of creating fixed infrastructures, running wires, adding network capacity and more.”

Wireless business connectivity

Wireless connectivity plays a central role in increasing businesses’ agility, and choosing between 4G, 5G, and Wi-Fi 6 is becoming trickier as mobile technologies evolve. Over the last decade, wireless-first technologies have gained widespread adoption. During this time, wireless business connectivity has been used for connecting with customers and for making operations more agile, and generally relied on two wireless technologies, 4G LTE and Wi-Fi 4/5, playing different roles in supporting professional users along with a universal connectivity model with all services treated equally and delivered over the top of a broadband connection.

According to Peter Linder, 5G customer engagement marketing at Ericsson, the introduction of 5G and Wi-Fi 6, and the evolution of 4G are moving us beyond wireless-first and into a wireless-only market. “New spectrum bands enable performance gaps to be eliminated in wired networks, making wireless-only a realistic aspiration,” he says. “We also need to rethink where we use cellular connectivity and Wi-Fi beyond the indoor/outdoor demarcation line. Finally, these developments also allow us to explore business model innovation beyond universal connectivity with traffic-based charges or free services.”

The evolution of Wi-Fi connectivity 

Wi-Fi is the workhorse for offloading high volumes of low-value data traffic from smartphones with no/low requirements tied to performance. “This use case today takes place in both offices and homes,” Linder continues. “Smartphone providers have supported this evolution by introducing Wi-Fi 6 support early on 5G smartphones.

“Before the pandemic outbreak, we had a clear separation of connectivity models for laptops and tablets at home and in offices – based on managed local Wi-Fi networks in offices and self-supported residential wireless LANs at home. This model worked well when working from the office was the norm.

“Adopting Wi-Fi 5 has for industrial applications raised some issues with performance, security and reliability. This is partly a result of technical issues, and partly down to the network build and operational models. The evolution of Wi-Fi is different for large enterprises, with ethernet VPNs over fibre already connecting businesses and an IT partner managing the local Wi-Fi network on multi-year terms. Managed Wi-Fi agreements typically match the life cycles for a Wi-Fi generation.

“The scenario for local Wi-Fi networks in small and medium businesses differs as fibre to the business premises is not the norm. The size of each business location makes self-supported Wi-Fi networks the primary option, while VPN support for remote workers is less mature.”

The evolution of cellular connectivity 

The interest from businesses for cellular connectivity is multi-facetted. “Both 4G and 5G are attractive for business applications,” Linder continues. “The evolution path that 4G follows makes it worth considering it as being in the first year for novel applications, rather than year ten for mature applications. It also has a unique advantage in the form of universal wireless coverage that no other wireless technology can match. For these reasons, 4G is a great starting point for many business use cases. This journey can start today with off-the-shelf technology in networks and devices.

“To enhance 4G use cases or launch new ones that require higher network performance, 5G may be a better option. The 5G options operating in the low and mid-band spectrum provide incremental performance improvements compared to 4G. The more radical performance shifts come with 5G in the high band spectrum.

5G or Wi-Fi 6 for indoor applications 

A new paper from Ericsson addresses the market realities for 5G and Wi-Fi 6 in indoor applications. The paper puts the spotlight on where 5G and Wi-Fi 6 complement each other and compete when limiting deployments to one technology.

When it comes to business comparisons between the two technologies, a few differences stand out. “Both technologies provide a comparable total cost of ownership (TCO), but the cost structure varies,” Linder explains. “The cost breakdown for Wi-Fi is 43 per cent for CAPEX and 57 per cent for OPEX. CAPEX includes the equipment and installation, and OPEX covers support, helpdesk and onsite IT. The cellular cost breakdown is 65 per cent (CAPEX) and 35 per cent (OPEX). With the difference in the number of radios required, Wi-Fi needs four times as many radios than a cellular installation. This 4X multiplier is an important business and cost differentiator.

“When looking at the underlying technology, three factors stand out. 5G uses a licensed or unlicensed spectrum, and Wi-Fi 6 uses unlicensed only. The unlicensed spectrum does not allow you to control performance or reliability in the same way that a licensed spectrum does. The second major difference is the security implications: 5G uses an end-to-end approach across the whole system, while Wi-Fi relies on WPA-based security. The security level that comes with 5G is a big leap forward from 4G.”

Testing 5G-powered industrial IoT solutions 

A dedicated 5G network has been installed at Hitachi’s Silicon Valley Research Center in partnership with Ericsson. The network will leverage 5G and Hitachi’s platform technology to accelerate the development and demonstrate the value of digital transformation across industries.

Fifth-generation wireless network technology is expected to drastically change the way society operates by providing ubiquitous connectivity with ultra-reliable low-latency communication. 5G has the power to accelerate the digital transformation of not just the telecom sector, but businesses across industries. Industries that will benefit from the increased resiliency and efficiency that 5G technology affords include manufacturing, mobility, healthcare, energy, and IT. However, the platform is also expected to support new business models.

With this network, Hitachi America will be able to validate new 5G technologies and related solutions it is developing to generate an understanding of their potential value to customers. Hitachi America intends to start by testing manufacturing solutions using the 5G collaborative teleoperation technology co-developed with Georgia Institute of Technology and continuing to work closely with Ericsson on joint development initiatives for industry solutions as a result of this new dedicated 5G lab network.

Enabling robotic collaboration

Collaborative robotics between humans and robots will be a crucial technology to leverage as society works to achieve contactless, fully automated systems while maintaining human supervision. The remote control of industrial robots by human operators as well as intuitive operation of robots by analysis/control functions located on a multi-access edge computing (MEC) server will require high-speed detailed communication between humans and robots to enable accurate assessment of what is happening on site. Further, with the increasing trend towards personalisation, today’s manufacturing industry is fast evolving towards hyper-customisation done at scale, which will require flexible production lines.

The key technologies that are making flexible automation at scale possible are robotics and AI, with 5G and time-sensitive networking (TSN) serving as a digital backbone. Hitachi America, in collaboration with Georgia Tech, is developing novel applications to realise flexible automation powered by 5G edge AI technology. One such application is real-time and interactive remote collaboration between skilled workers and machines. The 5G edge can realise optimised control of the robot AI technology allocated to the MEC server and by utilising the wide variety of large-capacity sensor data (comprised of 4K video and TOF sensor information) collected from the site via 5G to support appropriate judgment by the remote human operator.

To validate this technology, a scenario case was assumed where a fully automated robotic arm picking task is affected by a malfunction. Such a situation may occur, for example, if the object to be picked up by the robotic arm is not positioned correctly or is of a different size or shape. Hitachi’s 5G edge AI technology provides seamless, intuitive remote control of the robotic arm through the real-time analysis of comprehensive sensing data. This technology is expected to reduce work time by 50-70 per cent compared to the conventional method, in which a remote operator directly controls a robotic arm. The technology incorporates flexible automation at scale, which will help usher the manufacturing industry into a new age of hyper-customisation.

“Hitachi’s Silicon Valley Research Center will serve as critical proving grounds for currently emerging technologies relating to collaborative robotic systems,” Sonia Chernova, associate professor in the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines at Georgia Tech, says. “Adaptive automation requires access to high quality, multi-modal data from a wide range of sensors. Hitachi’s 5G capabilities are poised to revolutionise how such data is collected, aggregated, and analysed at scale in real-time, helping to make the next generation of advanced robotic systems possible.”

Industrial 5G in action

5G-ENCODE is a pioneering project making the benefits of 5G a reality for UK manufacturers. It has been set up to establish clear business cases and value propositions for the application of 5G technology in manufacturing.

Led by Zeetta Networks and one of the UK government’s most significant investments to date, activity started in early 2020 and will run until March 2022. The key objective is to design and deliver a private 5G network within the National Composites Centre (NCC). This will be used to explore new business models and 5G technologies, including network slicing and splicing, within an industrial environment.

Specifically, the activity will focus on three areas: AR/VR to support design, manufacturing and training; monitoring and tracking of time-sensitive assets; and wireless real-time in-process monitoring and analytics.

“Put simply, 5G technology will revolutionise the manufacturing sector,” Vassilis Seferidis, co-founder and CEO at Zeetta Networks, says. “Machine to machine connectivity, ultra-low latency and unique network slicing capabilities will transform traditional manufacturing processes, making them more efficient and productive.

“What is critical now is developing the specific use cases and demonstrating how 5G can be applied to solve specific, real problems in an industrial setting. For example, the use of Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR / VR) to support design, manufacturing and training; 5G powered sensors to monitor and track time-sensitive assets and wireless, real-time in-process monitoring and analytics.”

There are several projects underway to make these use cases a reality, including 5G-ENCODE. “Projects such as these will be key to paving the way for the integration of new technology and ensuring that all the potential benefits of 5G are made into reality for UK manufacturers,” Seferidis adds. “Not just this, but the application of 5G will revitalise the UK’s manufacturing industry, safeguarding it against the next global recession.”

Facing 5G challenges

However, the development and deployment of 5G in industrial settings do not come without challenges. There are still several areas where work is needed to facilitate its successful application.

“One such area is a general lack of awareness and specific proof points about the benefits that the technology can bring to a business,” Seferidis explains. “That is why, at 5G-ENCODE, we are establishing our testbed to ensure multiple industry verticals and SMEs will have the opportunity to explore new ways to improve productivity and optimise factory-floor operations. This is critical, not only to accelerate Industry 4.0 but also to deliver a long-term opportunity for telcos to monetise private 5G networks in an industrial setting.”

Another challenge when it comes to deploying 5G across the manufacturing sector is the workforce. “As an industry, and more broadly as a country, we must invest in building a workforce that will be able to flourish in a digitised environment,” Seferidis concludes. “This does not just mean upskilling the existing workforce; it also requires engaging with young people, implementing digital programmes and furthering higher education to foster the skills needed.

“To make the industry the most fertile for 5G adoption in years to come, this needs to happen now – and it is. Initiatives like the Digital Engineering Technology & Innovation (DETI), which invest in comprehensive skills and development programmes to nurture future generations of engineers, are critical to achieving this, and will play a key role in creating and nurturing future generations of engineers.”

Read more on 5G – 5G set to add $8 trillion to global GDP by 2030

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