Why upgrading the UK’s digital infrastructure is so vital for manufacturers

Posted on 7 Oct 2019 by The Manufacturer

Research from Barclays found that the introduction of a 5G mobile telecommunications network could increase UK business revenues by up to £15.7bn by 2025. Lee Collinson digs a little deeper into the UK’s 5G infrastructure and the impact it could have on UK manufacturing.

References to the increasing ‘digitalisation’ of industry – often in relation to Industry 4.0 or the Fourth Industrial Revolution – have soared in recent years, and for good reason.

By embracing and adopting Industrial Digital Technologies (IDT), the UK manufacturing sector could:

Made Smarter Statistics - Through digital technologies, the UK manufacturing sector could ...

*Image courtesy of Made Smarter

A critical component of achieving such impressive results is digital connectivity, and current internet speeds can only take businesses so far. Upgrading our connectivity offers unprecedented opportunities for both businesses and consumers, and will increasingly become a crucial driver of national productivity.

That’s why the UK government, in partnership with mobile infrastructure and telecoms providers, has set itself the target of rolling out 5G technology nationwide by 2027 and full fibre broadband by 2033.

But what exactly are 5G and full fibre broadband, and how will they change the way businesses operate? More importantly, what progress is being made, and what are the barriers that still need to be overcome?

The next generation of digital connectivity 

5G is the fifth generation of cellular network technology.

The first generation (1980s) allowed analogue voices to be heard, the second (1991) allowed these voices to go digital or be replaced by text messages.

Mobile data arrived in 1998 with 3G, but it took 4G networks (2008) to fully facilitate the high-speed mobile internet that so many of us now rely on.

5G’s imminent arrival offers even greater speeds and much lower latencies. 5G promises connectivity like never before, with potential speeds 100-times faster than 4G and the ability to connect to a much higher number of devices, according to the Digital Catapult.

Barclays’ report – 5G: A transformative technology – notes that 5G will play a vital role in spreading and supporting the use of other new technologies that are currently in their infancy to reach their full potential, including the internet of things (IoT), big data, connected and autonomous vehicles, smart cities and homes, and augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR).

CROP - digital infrastructure Network cables closeup internet broadband fibre optic - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Full fibre broadband is necessary to underpin a countrywide rollout of 5G coverage. In simple terms, it means replacing the out-dated copper wiring many homes and businesses still use to connect to the internet with fibre optic cabling, which is significantly faster, more reliable and cheaper to maintain and operate.

How 5G will change the way we manufacture goods? 

We all know that small, marginal efficiency gains which could come from increased connectivity are incredibly important to manufacturers – and rightly so.

But, at a national level the implication and implementation of 5G is the next step in a wider change in recent years, which will continue change the very nature of what we can conceive in terms of applications for this technology.

CROP - Data entry digital - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Each time the leap to the next generation of mobile networks has been made, the applications and devices followed have transformed industries and boosted revenues.

Alongside the internet itself, the now ubiquitous technology contained within smart mobile devices has proved to be game-changing for users, businesses and economies, and 5G will only create further gains.

On a national level, the latest research from Barclays found that the introduction of a 5G mobile telecommunications network could increase aggregate UK business revenues (in 2018 prices) by between £8.3bn and £15.7bn by 2025.

Our research also found that, by 2030, the size of the UK economy could be around 1% larger compared to a situation where no national 5G network is developed.

On a business level, 5G will offer the always-on connectivity that manufacturers now demand and is forecast by the World Economic Forum to become the industry standard for connectivity in the future.

Futuristic smart glasses augemented virtual reality ar vr mr - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The speed and latency improvements delivered through 5G will power technologies such as augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), 3D video calls and even holograms, changing the way we communicate with each other and interact with the world around us.

Digital Transformation AI Artificial Intelligence Microchip Machine Learning - Stock ImageIt will support enhanced machine-to-machine communication, which will accelerate developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML). It will enable industrial automation systems and robots to operate at unseen speeds and increase the rate that real-time data analysis can be done, meaning quicker reactions to potential issues.

autonomous vehicles self-driving vehicle connected cars - image courtesy of Depositphotos.It will drive the widescale adoption of connected and autonomous vehicles for both individual and commercial use, helping to reduce congestion, deliver intelligent fleet management, and increase the efficiency of road transportation.

Health Workforce Wellbeing Medicine Pharma - image courtesy of Depositphotos.Applications in healthcare could reduce the costs of R&D; and a more targeted application of fertilisers, nutrition and other inputs could revolutionise our agriculture industry.

These examples only scratch the surface. It’s an almost impossible task to compile a definitive list of what 5G can do, not just because of how long it would be, but because there will be unexpected consequences, disruptive technologies and killer apps that simply can’t be imagined until the network has been fully introduced.

How far have we come? 

The UK government has repeatedly recognised the importance of connectivity, making full fibre coverage and 5G rollout part of its Industrial Strategy and investing more than £1bn in digital infrastructure.

Among the proposals made by the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR), part of the Industrial Strategy, is £200m to support the 5G Testbeds & Trials (5GTT) programme.

In March 2018, the world’s first end-to-end 5G network, 5GUK, was completed. The network is currently being used to trial further 5G applications and technologies.

digital infrastructure 5G digitalisation communications telecoms - depositphotosThat same month, the government selected six bids for case trials from across the UK to each receive £25m in the initial phase of the 5GTT programme, two of which focus on delivering 5G to rural areas, communities and industries.

One such case trial is the Worcestershire 5G Consortium which focuses on ways to increase industrial productivity through preventative and assisted maintenance using robotics, big data analytics and AR over 5G. It also has a cyber security aspect to provide assurances on the ‘security by design’ of 5G and IoT technology.

In February 2019, Worcester Bosch began a trail in its factory covering a range of processes, including factory floor production, real-time analysis and the ability to remotely control the movements of machinery.

It is hoped that the trail, and a wider roll-out of 5G, will herald the beginning of so-called ‘smart factories’ in the UK and ensure the country is at the forefront of the digital manufacturing era.

Barriers to future progress

Like any new technological shift, there are challenges to overhauling the UK’s digital infrastructure. I want to highlight three in particular.

Challenge #1

The UK is in a global race, yet the country currently ranks far below its comparable international peers in terms of fibre broadband rollout – the UK is currently 5th in Europe and 10th for overall connectivity, according to the European Commission.

The countries listed in the annual 2019 Worldwide Broadband Speeds report, is dominated by Europe, accounting for 37 of the top 50. The UK, however, is ranked 34th, behind countries such as Madagascar and two-thirds of other EU countries.

The report’s authors note that, “With the UK only just beginning to roll out FTTP (fibre to the premises), and with a number of other European countries already a long way ahead of the UK in this regard, it is likely [the UK] will just about hold its ground, but more likely slip when we take these measurements next year.”

Challenge #2

Another challenge is the lack of understanding of what 5G can do. Barclays’ research found that less than a third of businesses (28%) know what 5G is and what it could do on a practical level. And only 15% are actively thinking about how to best harness the technology.

That’s a concern, because the competitive advantages 5G can bring will only be realised if businesses can and do act quickly.

Challenge #3

Alongside raising awareness, another issue is that the majority of manufacturing activity takes place outside of major population centres. Many large factories are located in rural communities and in remote industrial estates where connectivity has historically been a struggle (and many businesses tell me it still is).

Businesses need assurance that 5G is going to be rolled out effectively across all regions, which is why it’s encouraging to see a strong rural focus in the government’s 5G Testbeds & Trials programme. I look forward to seeing how these and future trials progress.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about the UK’s digital infrastructure – past, present and future, and the impact it has on your business, so please connect with me on LinkedIn.

Lee Collinson is National Head of Manufacturing, Transport & Logistics at Barclays

*All unattributed images courtesy of Depositphotos.