US eCommerce grew a shocking 44% year-over-year in 2020 and manufacturers are feeling pressure from the demand. Fortunately, the rollout of 5G is coming at the right time to enable high-speed manufacturing required to keep pace with increasingly strained supply chains.
Specifically, private 5G networks promise lower latency and high-speed connectivity to enable important innovations, ranging from scalable mixed reality (i.e. monitoring the production process) and massive IoT, to managing supply/demand with mobile edge computing (MEC). MEC brings more functionality to the edge, increasing machine precision to improve reliability and safety.
However, mmWave radio frequency (RF) bands that power these 5G applications travel very short distances and are easily disrupted by manmade and natural obstacles when compared with 4G/LTE. Manufacturers must first solve the challenges of bringing 5G indoors before realizing its benefits.
Manufacturing facilities pose challenges for 5G connectivity
Many manufacturers have deployed 4G/LTE in-building wireless networks to bring connectivity indoors with distributed antenna systems (DAS) and bi-directional amplifiers, but most aren’t aware of what’s involved with doing the same for 5G. These facilities are built like fortresses of concrete and metal, two of the most RF-obstructive building materials. Consider that an average cellular phone receives signal levels ranging from >-70 decibels relative to a milliwatt (dBm) to -120dBm, which is like having no bars and full bars. Metal and concrete can attenuate signals anywhere between -32 to -50dB and -10 to -20db, respectively. On top of that, the preponderance of heavy electronic machinery creates further signal interference.
These issues aren’t new, but there are more sensitivities to these disruptions with 5G mmWave.
Since manufacturers expect to support mission-critical business applications beyond standard cellular connectivity, there’s also higher importance placed on signal quality and low bit-rate error. In the past, achieving 256 quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM), which represents excellent signal quality, was a “nice to have” in 4G/LTE deployments, but far from a necessity. It is now a requirement for 5G and calls for more robust RF designs to ensure all connections meet this criteria.
Fortunately, wireless carriers and original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are constantly working to develop solutions that meet this need.
Wireless carriers and OEMs are rising to the challenge
One of the straightforward ways mobile carriers and wireless OEMs are improving 5G indoor connectivity is with new iterations of in-building wireless products, such as passive DAS and bi-directional amplifiers. These devices bring the cellular signal indoors from the macro network through a donor antenna and extend coverage throughout the premises via a system of indoor antennas. Small cells are also being deployed to add 5G capacity both indoor and outdoor, accounting for the frequency band’s short range.
In addition to technologies that boost coverage and capacity, others improve the quality of the RF connections. Beamforming helps focus wireless signals between two endpoints, such as an autonomous robot and an active antenna on the ceiling of the facility, rather than broadcasting omnidirectionally. This can also reduce long-term costs for manufacturers by limiting power consumption and preserving the battery life of equipment.
A third approach is aimed at reducing the cost of backhaul in both private 5G deployments and outdoor 5G coverage. 5G mmWave’s shorter distances means more densification of wireless network equipment (i.e. small cells), and by extension, more backhaul connecting each small cell to the base station (i.e. a cell tower).
To combat this challenge, carriers plan to use mmWave relay, siphoning a portion of their spectrum to create wireless backhaul instead of running fiber or other cable. Another way to reduce backhaul in a private 5G network is by using small cells as a signal source and connecting to a DAS, which can distribute the signal throughout the building. In this case, a small cell provides the capacity and DAS provides the coverage.
Private 5G networks with high-quality signals will be critical to realizing the promise of advanced manufacturing technologies. As such, manufacturers must become adept at understanding their in-building wireless networking needs to cost-effectively scale for the future.
Arnold Kim is chief operating officer at Advanced RF Technologies, Inc. (ADRF)