5G – a game changer for factory floors

Posted on 22 Feb 2024 by Joe Bush

Manufacturing value added (MVA) per capita rose from $100 to $532 worldwide over the last three decades, driven by the Internet of Things, and net zero agenda (e.g. gigafactories and EVs). Simultaneously, with more than half of the world’s energy being consumed by the industrial sector, there is an urgent need to double the efficiency of factories around the globe. Fiona Tracey, ADI Managing Director, Industrial Automation at Analog Devices explains.

To do this, factories need to be able to react quickly to shifting needs, customisation and short product lifecycles. They require interchangeable processes and equipment that can be reconfigured, modified and replaced easily with maintenance-free connectors that reduce costs and downtime.

Reaching this level of efficiency requires the ability to communicate faster, more reliably and more securely on the factory floor. This means having timely access to data.

5G can enable this level of efficiency within factories thanks to its high capacity and low latency. While it is not readily available to consumers yet, some of the world’s largest manufacturers are already using 5G to transform the way they make things. They’re doing this through private networks, which give firms control over their own data, ensuring complete privacy from competitors.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of 5G, in terms of productivity, is that it enables manufacturers to add cutting-edge technologies, such as automated robots and IoT devices, into their operations.

In order for digital factories to be successful, machines need to be able to securely sense, measure, and interpret the real world. This requires converting analogue data, including pressure measurements or vibrations, to digital data, to allow for more signal processing.

The highest quality data can be found at what we call the Intelligent Edge. 5G gives us the ability to harness these insights at the Edge and make better decisions, thereby enhancing efficiencies overall.

Take a gigafactory, for example. When it comes to battery manufacturing a robot must apply uniform coating requiring a  high degree of precision. This precision can be ensured through data from the Intelligent Edge. The level of finesse enabled by ADI’s technology accounts for as much as a five percent yield improvement, which can be significant for a customer.

5G is also making it safer for humans and machines to work together. Manufacturing processes are faster, more efficient and more cost-effective when humans and robots operate in tandem. 5Gs reliability and speed mean machine-to-machine communication and, increasingly, human-to-machine interaction is vastly improved, reducing the risk of accidents.

Eliminating the need for wired connectivity through 5G also provides the manufacturing environment with a lot more flexibility, in turn, augmenting process automation, remote monitoring, and maintenance and device life cycle management.

Consider a factory, for example, where the physical connectors have disappeared and command instructions are sent wirelessly between robot subsystems, increasing production speed while reducing costs. All of this is possible through a 5G wireless network because it maximises communication, reduces the margin for error (or accidents), and importantly, keeps the technology secure from hackers or malicious entities.

The merits of 5G on the factory floor are obvious, but as with any technology that promises to disrupt the status quo, it will take time, resources, and a concerted effort to ensure all factories can benefit.

The transition from wired to wireless networking is a complex upgrade. Each industrial customer has a unique set of circumstances, from cultural dynamics to financial position to appetite for innovation that sways the organisation ability to make the significant upgrade to wireless.

That said, the number of digital factories will increase rapidly over the next few years as traditional manufacturing facilities come to the end of their life cycles. The COVID-19 pandemic taught many difficult lessons to firms about the risks of too much offshoring. As a result, many are now looking to bring their facilities closer to the customer. This is opening the door to newer, more powerful facilities, underpinned by 5G technology. Once 5G is fully realised, we will be living in a world that holds the potential to dramatically improve life for all.

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