Emerging Use Cases of 5G Technology in Industry and Manufacturing
By Marco Contento
January 13, 2021
By Marco Contento
January 13, 2021
At most factories and industrial sites worldwide, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has not yet become a reality. Smart manufacturing depends on reliable high-speed connectivity, and most factories are still using industrial Ethernet and legacy wireless technology based on Wi-Fi, which has limited capabilities. Today, Ethernet (Class C) is the only technology that allows ultra-reliable low-latency communication (URLLC).
For this reason, industrial Ethernet is the most used technology in the industry — Wi-Fi is “best effort,” so it plays a supporting role, carrying non-critical communications. The challenge for 5G Release (Rel) 16 is to achieve the same level of latency and reliability offered today by cabled Ethernet. Of course, the additional value of 5G is that it’s wireless.
Legacy high-speed wireless connectivity and the adoption of IIoT will continue to be slow and confined to non-critical applications on the factory floor and in the warehouse.
5G promises to deliver that needed connectivity. While the 5G available today is just the first wave, designed to accommodate broadband capability, the manufacturing industry is eager to try it out. There’s significant interest in private LTE networks, such as Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) OnGo in the U.S., and the German government is granting licenses to factories for particular spectrum ranges. High-profile German companies such as ALDI, Mercedes-Benz and Lufthansa have acquired pieces of the spectrum to implement 5G at their facilities.
While experimenting with the current Release (Rel) 15 5G technology, manufacturers are also anticipating how future 5G releases will impact their operations. While Rel 15 centers on broadband, Rel 16 (completed July 2020) prioritizes ultra-reliable, mission-critical communications, enabling use cases in which real-time communication is essential. This innovation could allow industries to replace technology such as Ethernet and realize the IIoT with wireless connectivity that’s reliable, ultra-fast and able to deliver data with minimal latency.
A 5G standalone (SA) deployment — with a pure 5G core network on one side and a radio access network (RAN) on the other — can implement network slicing. Using this method, industrial facilities can create multiple virtual networks on shared physical infrastructure to support different services. For example, they could have one slice that supports control automation (a low-latency communication), while another slice intermittently retrieves data from IoT sensors throughout the plant. Because network slicing keeps different types of data systems insulated from one another, it also adds a security layer.
Here’s a closer look at several IIoT technologies and how 5G will impact them.
Factories depend on repetitive tasks, historically carried out by humans. Industrial automation uses control systems to manage those tasks, often with emerging technologies like IoT sensors, AI vision cameras and autonomous mobile robots. The introduction of 5G will enable more and better adoption of industrial automation by powering its various elements’ networking capabilities. Low-latency wireless communications will simplify real-time machine monitoring and controls, giving industry leaders more insights and better management of their facilities. For example, a factory might adopt 5G to connect AI vision cameras along the assembly line. The high-speed, wireless connectivity would enable managers to track quality control and inspect products remotely — and more quickly, with the help of smart cameras — adding efficiency and increasing productivity.
Edge intelligence — the ability to aggregate and analyze data local device cluster level, rather than sending it all to a cloud-based system — is difficult to achieve at industrial sites where wireless communication is slow or limited. While field devices rarely require low-latency connections, managing their data yield onsite can be challenging without adequate bandwidth. 5G has the potential to change that, making it possible for manufacturing sites to manage thousands of field devices and run data analytics at the edge in real time. For example, a mining operation might build a private 5G network with separate network slices to handle its sensors, self-driving vehicles and computer vision cameras. With this infrastructure in place, site managers can monitor activities throughout the site while enjoying peace of mind that none of the collected data is staying inside the corporate firewall.
Supply chains stand to benefit from 5G in many ways, as the real-time flow of information on the whereabouts of goods is key to optimizing operations. Supply chains that need incoming parts to be highly synchronized will be made more efficient with 5G-powered track and trace technologies. For example, an automotive factory synchronizing parts delivery from outside can see shipment status and integrate that tracking data into its workflow, allowing production lines to be configured to manufacture parts, assemblies and subassemblies in a manner optimized with real-time component arrival information. Low-latency 5G connectivity also enables vehicle-to-vehicle communication, optimizing supply chains that rely on autonomous trucks and robots.
At factories and industrial sites, making sure equipment is correctly functioning is of paramount importance. IIoT sensors may be installed on various machines to monitor equipment status and send out alerts if a problem is detected or if the equipment is coming due for routine maintenance. With the addition of 5G, onsite sensors that monitor essential equipment will keep plant managers informed with up-to-the-minute information about their status and productive output. Constant equipment monitoring can also yield cost savings. For example, instead of replacing a machine part every six months, the factory can monitor that part’s status and replace it only when truly needed.
Initially, IIoT on the factory floor was challenging to implement because proprietary software and hardware from various vendors made machine-to-machine communication very complicated. To streamline those connections, industry leaders developed the Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture (OPC UA) protocol, typically implemented over a time-sensitive network (TSN). Together, 5G and OPC UA over TSN will enable fully integrated, low-latency networking for factories that yields better reliability and greater control to plant managers.
While 5G promises significant gains for every industry, there are some challenges to adoption. The biggest challenge for developers is that, for the first time, wireless technology will need to achieve virtually 100% reliability. Also, industry leaders are reluctant to invest in technology that’s different from what they are accustomed to and requires a new approach to networking infrastructure. Given the excitement and rapid pace of innovation around 5G, these challenges are likely to be overcome in the next few years.
While 5G has yet to be fully realized in industrial and manufacturing settings, it’s set to play a fundamental role in how industrial sites work in the future.