How 5G will transform manufacturing in 2020 and beyond

Posted on 19 Dec 2019 by The Manufacturer

Fiona Piercy, CEO of the Worcestershire 5G Consortium, explores how 5G will impact the British manufacturing sector over the coming 12 months and into the future.

British manufacturers have faced a multitude of challenges over the past year, including a lack of skilled employees and prolonged uncertainty over Brexit. These challenges have manifested in a prolonged period of low productivity for the sector.

As we look ahead to 2020 and consider how best to overcome these challenges, it’s clear that new technologies, especially 5G, present an opportunity to enable enhanced digital connectivity and drive performance improvements right across the manufacturing value chain.

CROP - cloud adoption Smart factory and industry 4.0 and connected production robots exchanging data with internet of things (IoT) with cloud computing technology - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Image courtesy of Depositphotos

Offering more than just faster speeds, 5G has the connectivity capabilities, low latency and ultra-reliability that is required to revolutionise industry in the near future through the adoption of massive machine type communication and the application of AI using large volumes of data.

Increase manufacturing performance

A huge opportunity exists to use 5G to improve productivity. The technology provides unparalleled digital infrastructure to help streamline operations, which will lead to an improvement in business output.

Results from the Worcestershire 5G Testbed, the only government funded UK Testbed trialling 5G for industrial application, show that manufacturing firms using 5G can achieve impressive increases in productivity of up to 2% across a range of individual use-cases including remote expert and predictive maintenance.

Scaled up across the value chain this presents significant opportunities for increased profitability and growth.

Indeed, research suggests that 5G has the potential to contribute up to £15.7bn a year to the UK economy by 2025 and can enable large scale business transformation.

This would have a significant impact on the economy, as well as supporting industry growth and helping the UK to establish itself as a global leader in manufacturing.

Smart Factory Intelligent Enterprise Industry 4.0 and monitoring app - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Image courtesy of Depositphotos

Facilitate the development of smart factories

Manufacturing is in the early stages of a period of dramatic digital transformation, widely referred to as Industry 4.0, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Smart manufacturing, a subset of Industry 4.0 is defined by The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as being “fully-integrated, collaborative manufacturing systems that respond in real time to meet changing demands and conditions in the factory, in the supply network, and in customer needs.”

This strategic application of new technology means the manufacturing process is becoming increasingly intelligent and dynamic; the concept of smart factories is now a reality with connected machinery and equipment being able to improve production processes through automation and self-optimisation.

Alongside the physical production of goods, 5G technologies can support improvements in functions such as planning, supply chain logistics, inventory management and product development, including lifecycle management.

The level of automation permitted by smart factories offers possibilities for real-time linkages to customer demand forecasts, reliable quality, predictable production capacity and lower cost of production.

The heightened visibility, pace of production and efficiency of smart factories are key drivers that will contribute to driving higher productivity levels in manufacturing.

Close-up of the Engineer Holding Laptop with CAD Component digital model - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Revolutionise the workforce

As technological capabilities across the sector continue to evolve, a different set of human skills will be needed to operate, manage and maintain the manufacturing process.

In order to fully embrace the opportunities offered by Industry 4.0, the skills of the manufacturing workforce will need to adapt to incorporate and reflect advances in technology.

Harnessing the full potential of Industry 4.0 demands that manufacturing professionals of the future prioritise adapting their skill set to meet the advances in technology.

The job role of the future will demand extensive knowledge of not just the intricacies of mechanical machinery, but also a full understanding of the complex technological networks of the Smart Factory.

Only when the nuances of both disciplines have been mastered and the Smart Factory floor is filled with this hybrid engineer can the intelligent, dynamic production process of the future be truly optimised.

Image courtesy of Depositphotos

Allay fears around job security

As the influx of new technologies promises to revolutionise the industry, it’s understandable to see palpable insecurity about the future of jobs.

Just like with previous industrial revolutions, the digitisation  is changing the manufacturing landscape, and a skills gap is already emerging as a result.

If this skills gap is effectively managed, there is no reason why a chasm into which jobs will fall should develop. It’s the collective duty of the UK government, businesses and academic institutions to equip manufacturing workers with the digital skills they will need to flourish in the industry of the future.

With this in mind, business leaders will need to be prepared to make the necessary strategic investments into workforce planning to future proof their organisations and ensure they maintain a competitive edge.

Although the adoption of 5G in manufacturing presents a clear move towards more automated processes, it cannot be overlooked just how fundamental people still are to operations.

As technology infiltrates every level of business, management teams will have to review and realign talent to support new processes and capabilities.

Irrefutably, roles that can be replaced by robotics or AI machinery may no longer be required, but there will be an emergence of new roles to re-imagine manufacturing and products for the benefit of the customer, environment and society as a whole.

CROP - 5G cloud adoption Smart factory and industry 4.0 and connected production robots exchanging data with internet of things (IoT) with cloud computing technology - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Image courtesy of Depositphotos

Hail a brighter future

5G represents a massive step change in mobile technology and a gamechanger for industry. From business output to a more dynamic workforce, 5G has the power to completely transform the sector.

Although for manufacturing, the national roll-out of 5G networks might be a few years away, preparation needs to begin now if we are to have the most fertile environment in place.

We need to test the technology, explore new opportunities for experimentation and product development, develop responsive regulatory frameworks and incentivise businesses to build the future workforce and infrastructure.

5G promises a brighter, more productive future for British manufacturing on the world stage and it will be exciting to see this take another step closer in 2020.