Time to get yourself connected with 5G

Posted on 1 Feb 2022 by Jonny Williamson

5G provides the means to tackle the manufacturing sector’s greatest challenges, from achieving net zero and attracting future talent to maximising uptime and accelerating product development. Jonny Williamson reports.

Increased capacity, greater reliability, ultra-low latency, enhanced security. With so much for manufacturers to get excited about, it’s easy to see why 5G technology could be a game-changer for industry.

Offering almost limitless capability, the next generation of mobile connectivity has the potential to revolutionise every phase of a manufacturing operation, and with so many prospective applications, it comes as no surprise to discover that manufacturing is one of the sectors expected to benefit most from 5G’s arrival.

Research from Vodafone says that the adoption of 5G could add as much as £6.3bn to the value of UK manufacturing by 2030, and that it could play “a significant role” in realising the government’s ‘levelling up’ ambitions.

As Digital Catapult’s Made in 5G report makes clear: “Steps taken now by manufacturers could offer the UK considerable advantages and the edge required in an increasingly competitive global landscape.” That same report, however, also highlights a lack of understanding of 5G, particularly regarding return on investment and in how it differs from other connectivity solutions.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth and latest generation of mobile networking technology. Ever since the first generation (1G) was introduced in the 1980s, each new generation has delivered greater data speeds, reliability and capacity. On the surface, 5G is no exception.

Vodafone says 5G is around ten times faster than 4G, with peak speeds capable of reaching above 1gbps (gigabit per second). In practical terms, that would allow you to download a high-definition film in about a minute.

Yet, speed alone isn’t what makes 5G so transformational. Unlike previous generations, 5G isn’t simply an upgraded communication network. It has been built from the ground up to deliver better user experiences, empower new deployment models and deliver new services.

According to mobile tech expert, Simon Rockman, if you think of 1G as vinyl records, 2G as CDs, 3G as DVDs and 4G as Blu-Ray, then 5G is like the internet – an entirely new value proposition which “opens up Netflix, Spotify and iPlayer.” This has been made possible by pushing mobile technology to exponential new heights, specifically through three use cases:

  • Enhanced mobile broadband (EMBB), which provides much higher, more uniform data rates across wide coverage areas.
  • Ultra-reliable, low-latency communication (URLLC), which increases processing speeds and quality of service for critical infrastructure and operations, such as autonomous driving, with minimal delay (or, latency).
  • Massive machine-type communication (MMTC), which supports the deployment of a very high density of low-powered devices, such as a fleet of warehouse robots, with little to no human intervention.

Through these unique capabilities, 5G provides a unified platform that will accelerate the wider digital transformation that is taking place across every industry and geography. 5G will power the next industrial revolution Factories equipped with sophisticated sensors, embedded software and intelligent automation are fast becoming the norm.

5G Capabilities - Digital Catapult
Already, the average factory generates 1TB of data each day, according to an IBM study, and that figure is growing at a phenomenal rate. A major contributor to that growth is the Internet of Things (IoT), an ever expanding ecosystem of connected objects embedded with sensors and other technologies that collect and share data via the internet.

Almost any ‘thing’ can be transformed into an IoT device, from doorbells to fridges, medical implants to aircraft jet engines. For manufacturers, IoT represents an unparalleled opportunity to better understand how supply chains are performing, how efficiently assembly machines are running and how products and services are being used once sold.

Currently, however, just one percent of data generated inside the manufacturing sector is being analysed and acted upon in real-time. Additionally, it’s estimated that there will be more than 27 billion IoT-connected devices globally by 2025, many of them in use in industrial applications. For manufacturers to harness the full business value (and competitive advantages) from these connected assets, systems and people, a paradigm shift is needed.

5G’s capacity, speed, reliability and flexibility provides that step-change. In such a way, 5G will be the catalyst that unlocks the true capability of not only IoT, but numerous other technologies, including cloud and edge computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data analytics – many of which are already in mainstream use.

5G as a competitive advantage Despite being in its relative infancy, a growing number of UK manufacturers are involved in projects helping to progress 5G adoption from theoretical use cases to real-world deployments.  These deployments typically demonstrate one or more of the following benefits:

  • Control of operations in real-time
  • 5G-enabled digital twins
  • Network security and resilience
  • Training, upskilling and reskilling
  • Next-level automation
  • Ubiquitous, flexible networks across multiple sites

An example of how 5G benefits industry

One of these projects involves Ford Motor Company and the use of 5G to connect production machines, allowing real-time feedback, control, analysis and remote expert support.

5G is completely transforming production at Ford’s new E:PriME (Electrified Powertrain in Manufacturing Engineering) campus in Dunton, Essex, helping the auto-giant to realise its vision of the factory of the future.

The motor and battery of a Ford electric vehicle require around 1,000 welds, generating up to 500,000 pieces of data per minute. Capturing and analysing this data is crucial to help improve precision, quality, productivity and safety. There are present technologies capable of capturing, analysing and storing data, however, only 5G is able to reliably handle such large quantities and analyse it in real time.

Ford’s laser welding machines have been retrofitted with 5G sensors and interfaces and connected via a Vodafone 5G mobile private network (MPN) installed in the factory. Another 5G MPN has been installed at Cambridge-based project partner TWI, providing Ford with secure connectivity to these remote welding experts.

Image courtesy of Ford & 5GEM UK

5G’s very low latency is key, says Paul Hadley, Programme Leader & Safety Supervisor at Ford: “Speed is essential. If parameters change, we need to be able to make rapid adjustments to the machines to continuously optimise production quality.”

Real-time process analysis and control is just one of the business needs the project is addressing. Others include replacing the various computers used for data connections, analysis and decision making on the shop floor with more robust and manageable centralised remote computing; and enabling equipment to be easily reconfigured or moved without having to cease production.

With Ford having never deployed 5G before, being able to draw on the expertise and capabilities of partner members has been invaluable, notes Hadley.

Eight partner organisations are involved in the 5G Enabled Manufacture UK (5GEM) project: ATS Global, Ford, HSSMI, Lancaster University, TM Forum, TWI, Vacuum Furnace Engineering and Vodafone. By working together, the consortium intends to overcome the associated challenges, such as cyber security, scale-up, standards and ruggedising the hardware, and developing the 5G technology for use in industrial environments.

Key takeaways:

  • New product development will become more collaborative, iterative and rapid.
  • Supply chains will become more resilient and responsive thanks to greater transparency and flexibility.
  • Production will become more automated and efficient, with greater quality control and worker safety.
  • Operations will become monitored in real-time and optimised to better manage peaks or dips in demand.
  • Maintenance will become condition based, predictive and increasingly remotely conducted, helping to maximise uptime and unlock service-based revenue streams.

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