Lorraine During, Lead for Market Research, Digital Catapult, addresses the concerns UK manufacturers may have around 5G
Telecommunications have been around for nearly 200 years. The first telegraph was invented back in the 1830s, making communication over long distances possible and changing the way we exchange information forever.
Although whispers of 6G have already started carrying over the breeze, entering 2022, we’re still sitting firmly in the era of 5G: the 5th generation of mobile network telecommunications, representing a step change in network performance capability.
Through working with businesses across the length and breadth of the country, at Digital Catapult we see how 5G can provide business grade service levels, reliability and availability incomparable with earlier generations.
That said, we also recognise that 5G has been disproportionately evangelised – and too prematurely – in recent years, causing many people to lose interest in it altogether. A lack of understanding of what it can provide, and fear it can’t possibly live up to expectations, have also played their part.
Designed for industry
5G is actually the first mobile technology system that has been designed with the deliberate intention to meet the advanced digital communication and connectivity requirements of industrial environments such as manufacturing. Unfortunately, despite its power to take digitisation in factories up a level, the UK has been slower than some European nations to invest in industrial digitisation and modernise manufacturing industries and supply chains.
As an example, 75% of the German companies in most industries have implemented digital solutions, and 15 million employees are directly and indirectly involved in advanced manufacturing industries in the country.
With waning productivity at the forefront of everyone’s minds, more than ever this year we hope to see a surge in use cases demonstrating 5G’s value to industry, setting off a spiral in meaningful adoption. At this stage, what are the biggest blockers to 5G taking full flight in the manufacturing industry? How many of manufacturers’ concerns are hearsay? How can we ensure 5G is able to gain real traction in 2022? Here we address some common reservations.
“I’m still not sure it’s that safe or secure”
Entering 2022, reliable studies showing that 5G is not harmful to public health – from leading organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Public Health England – are taking the place of exaggerated or untrue theories about 5G. 5G operates at a wavelength that does not produce enough energy to cause cell damage at the very moderate levels it is used at. Its security is also still sometimes called into question.
Organisations often wonder whether 5G creates new vulnerabilities that compromise safety and operational integrity, or whether a 5G solution makes it easier or harder to secure a system. By design, 5G is currently the most secure publicly available network.
When paired with edge computing, 5G actually offers higher levels of privacy, security and compliance when compared with other networks, as the volume of data that needs to be transmitted through an external network is reduced. It also offers the ability for a 5G network owner/ operator to manage their own security programme, including configuration, processes and procedures.
And, as well as dedicated spectrum slices, organisations can create a private 5G network within the factory environment which is highly secure – such as 5GEM, a project including Vodafone that implemented a mobile private network at Ford Motor Company’s Dunton facility, to improve real-time machine monitoring, process analysis and planned maintenance.
“It won’t integrate with my existing estate”
Embarking on any digital transformation project comes tainted with risk, with none more daunting than the prospect that 5G isn’t compatible with an organisation’s existing estate. In fact, promising improved bandwidth and greater speeds, 5G can boost the implementation of other technologies.
As experimentation with emerging tech increases, 5G has taken centre stage, demonstrating capabilities such as wirelessly connecting automation equipment, remote operations, predictive maintenance, improved asset tracking and virtual training.
For example, as part of the 5G Encode project, a consortium, including Zeetta Networks and the National Composites Centre, developed a private 5G network to improve asset tracking across multiple sites and deploy augmented reality (AR) for training and monitoring.
Another example is digital twins – systems that gather or present data from the physical, ‘real’ world and use this to build a model in the digital world – which are gaining momentum in manufacturing industries (new research conducted by Digital Catapult reveals that nearly half of manufacturers are intending to invest in digital twins in the next 12 months).
Industrial 5G is reaching the stage of maturity to make running digital twins cheaper, more reliable and more secure, with commercial offerings from mobile operators starting in 2022. Meanwhile, 5G unlocks powerful performance in technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), which can be used for retrofitting legacy equipment for predictive maintenance and data analysis in addition to developing new, bespoke equipment.
“It’s going to cost too much”
Cost is a significant concern for industrial organisations; in fact, according to our research, return on investment and cost came out as the top two concerns for manufacturers. That said, our analysis showed a payback time of between 12-24 months and a five to ten times return on investment over five years across all companies and use cases.
During this study, other financial benefits were also discovered; this initial investment lay the foundations to unlock various business models such as servitisation, realising higher revenue models for the industrial companies being assessed.
Innovative 5G use cases are expected to help industry users cut costs, reduce downtime, reduce carbon emissions and improve productivity. In the medium term, we expect more and more financial use cases from businesses to emerge that prove the value 5G has for businesses’ bottom line – as an enabler for productivity, efficiency and resilience.
“I don’t know where I can try it out”
When it comes to new technologies, being an early adopter can be highly advantageous. However, it’s also quite risky, and therefore, giving organisations the opportunity to get their hands dirty and experiment is critical.
While the infrastructure to enable 5G becomes more sophisticated, the UK has a strong network of 5G testbeds emerging, which offer businesses the opportunity to trial 5G use cases and decipher the route for its adoption at scale. The Industrial 5G Testbed and Trials programme, funded by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), is helping businesses explore 26 different use cases for 5G, accelerating adoption in targeted sectors. As part of this, projects like the 5G Factory of the Future – led by the AMRC – will result in an open-access 5G testbed in the north of England to help manufacturers unlock the potential of 5G technology.
“I’m worried to do it alone”
The key to speedy digital adoption is making sure technology is democratised and knowledge is disseminated accordingly. This is where open innovation programmes will become important; 5G is not something that can be explored in siloes, whether sectoral, or technological. Bringing large corporations and start-ups together to share learnings and help push each other forward will help address gaping knowledge gaps.
Programmes such as the government backed Made Smarter Technology Accelerator have proven the tangible value of this kind of collaboration with start-ups, leading to real-world solutions and minimum viable products for corporates. Research from this programme also shows that 92% of manufacturers who worked with a start-up would do so again.
Thankfully, access to free best practice advice – from webinars to whitepapers – is increasing. For example, there are a number of helpful toolkits available to help businesses navigate the complex 5G landscape and learn more about real world case studies and confusing 5G terminology.
2022: time for mass exploitation
So, where does that leave us for 2022? Well, we characterise the adoption of industrial 5G solutions in digital transformation as a journey through four stages: curious, engaged, explorer and exploiter. The UK manufacturing ecosystem has moved, thanks to significant public and private innovation funding, firmly into an ‘engaged’ and ‘exploration’ stage.
With wider availability of private 5G networks and emergence of industrial use cases, as well as increased device availability and diversity, we hope that 2022 will finally be the year when companies dismiss major concerns around 5G and begin to fully exploit 5G-enabled digital infrastructure as part of their digital transformation plans. Digital Catapult is running a free webinar on 10th March, exploring the future of industrial 5G adoption within the UK’s manufacturing and logistics sectors.
More information visit www.digicatapult.org.uk/events
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