From AI to drones: How 4G and 5G are switching on the factories of the future

Posted on 24 Mar 2022 by The Manufacturer

When it comes to digital transformation, British manufacturing has a lot to gain. As we strive towards Industry 4.0, digital manufacturing techniques will help make production more efficient, safer, more accurate and more secure across a whole host of sectors. But this is only possible with the right connectivity – opening the door to the connected factories of the future.

Working with British Sugar, we recently switched on a first-of-its-kind private mobile network, spanning multiple factory sites across a large geographical area. And while this was – of course – a huge milestone for us at Virgin Media O2 Business – it’s also a significant step forward for British manufacturing as a whole. Private networks like these are a big part of building the smart, connected factories of the future, with all the benefits this offers.

Digitising production: The potential of connectivity

Connecting our factories is the first step in digitising British manufacturing, and is an essential part of the UK’s journey towards Industry 4.0. Research estimates that the productivity gains of 5G-enabled manufacturing could equal £2.6bn – with faster, low-latency networks to connect up multiple Internet of Things (IoT) devices, helping to make production more efficient, accurate and secure.

As the leading producer of sugar for the British and Irish food and beverage markets, British Sugar currently processes around eight million tonnes of sugar beet and up to 1.2 million tonnes of sugar each year across four factory sites. Using a purpose-built private mobile network from Virgin Media O2, British Sugar will be able to connect multiple IoT devices – including smart sensors and cameras – that will enable it to revolutionise its production processes.

The key here is that connecting up separate elements of factory production enables manufacturers to introduce a new level of innovation. For example, by embracing IoT, factory operators like British Sugar can gather large amounts of data from their existing machinery. They can then apply AI (Artificial Intelligence) technology and algorithms to monitor the production process and ‘learn’ how it works. As well as AI, connectivity also opens the door to other innovations like automated production lines, robotics and drones. These will help increase productivity, boost efficiency and also improve health and safety on site.

Innovation in practice: Next-generation manufacturing

In a factory setting – where equipment is expensive, downtime is costly, and production is high-value – innovations like these offer the chance to be more precise. For example, manufacturers can use IoT to monitor operations in real time to understand exactly how their machinery is running, and to make improvements where necessary. It can also allow them to get ahead of potential faults, predicting where maintenance is needed in advance and avoiding unnecessary production breaks.

This predictive maintenance is one of the major benefits offered by connected factories. Innovation like this – alongside robotics, automation and even drones – can cut down on wastage and can deliver cost and energy savings – helping avoid unnecessary emissions.

Using IoT in industrial applications can also help remove some of the risk for the people involved. This is because it opens the door to smart tech that can take on difficult tasks, which has a clear health and safety benefit. It also means manufacturers can enable processes to run and self-optimise without human intervention – using technology to create new ways of working. Another example of this is using IoT cameras to monitor compliance for anyone working with machinery, reducing risk, injury and accidents for workers on the factory floor.

Shifting reliance to automation and AI in this way can also free up manual workers, and with the right training and upskilling to encourage a higher proportion of knowledge workers, can help businesses stay as efficient and profitable as possible.

Private networks as the first step

Demand for private mobile networks has risen sharply in recent years, and looks set to carry on as businesses across all industries continue their digital transformation. For manufacturing in particular, a dedicated 4G or 5G network enables seamless, high-bandwidth connectivity in a complex factory setting – where introducing WiFi can be challenging, as the environment is often highly metallic, and there is a requirement for both indoor and outdoor coverage.

Private networks also offer increased security and control. For example, at Virgin Media O2, our private networks are configured so that only those with company devices within a specific range can access company data, files and information – helping protect against potential cyber attacks and other security breaches.

British Sugar’s custom-built Virgin Media O2 4G network is the first multi-site private network of its kind. Part of the manufacturer’s major ‘Factories of the Future’ upgrade programme, it will provide reliable, fast and secure connectivity across all four of its production facilities spanning three different counties: Cantley in Norfolk, Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, Wissington in Norfolk and Newark in Nottinghamshire (a total area of 2.17km2).

Embracing future potential

British Sugar’s private mobile network has also been designed to be future-ready and easily upgradable to 5G where necessary – as the manufacturer looks to introduce more complex processes that will benefit from the higher speeds and lower latency of 5G. This includes connected drones that can cover a large area and monitor tall structures such as silos and lime kilns remotely and safely. Because of the way the network is designed, benefiting from applications like these when the time is right will simply call for an upgrade to British Sugar’s software setup (rather than changing the network infrastructure). This means moving towards 5G (and even 6G) in the future will be a more cost efficient and effective option.

Ultimately, all of this innovation takes British Sugar closer to the Industry 4.0 ecosystem, with more than 15 different digital manufacturing use cases in plan. By continuing to invest in smart tech, connectivity and innovation – and with a 5G upgrade in the plans – British Sugar is blazing a trail for the industry.

Industry 4.0 is set to be the new ‘digital’ industrial revolution, and we are seeing manufacturers that invest in private networks (and all the next-generation factory techniques that they enable) not only ‘future proofing’ their operations, but also setting themselves up for a real competitive advantage in the coming months and years. After all, with digital transformation like this comes more automation, improved efficiency and better operational resilience.

When it comes to the Internet of Things (IoT), ‘Smart Cities’ and ‘Smart Homes’ tend to dominate much of the discussion. But it’s within the manufacturing industry that we’re seeing some of the biggest on-the-ground benefits. Investing in private mobile networks will be an important part of the manufacturing sector’s digital transformation. It will take us one step closer to Industry 4.0 and will also help British manufacturing keep pace with the rest of the world.

Whether it’s robotic production lines, autonomous machinery or AI learning – now’s the time for the UK to switch on the factories of the future.

About the author

Sandeep Raithatha, Head of Strategy, Innovation & 5G IoT at Virgin Media O2 Business

Sandeep is Head of Strategy, Innovation & 5G IoT in the newly formed Market Development unit in Virgin Media O2 Business. The team responsible for driving growth to the organisation by establishing new and digital-first revenue streams from high-growth markets like 5G, IoT, Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence.  5G IoT has been a key focus of innovation and team has been responsible for identifying, trialling, and launching new 5G products and Private Network solutions to market in record time.