Industrial private networks: 5G’s killer app?

April 21, 2021

From mining operations in China to the UK’s National Composites Centre (NCC), the 5G IPN race is beginning to gather pace.

Avnet Abacus' Martin Keenan

While wide-area 5G networks are being rolled out, the sheer scale of the challenge has made a relatively slow pace of adoption inevitable. However, the IIoT use case has developed substantial demand, so much so that 5G industrial private networks (IPN) are already established across the globe. From mining operations in China to the UK’s National Composites Centre (NCC), the 5G IPN race is beginning to gather pace. 

A rising tide lifts all ships

There is no doubt that both end-user demand and manufacturer enthusiasm are aligned in deploying next-generation 5G networks across the globe. However, unlike the early days of 4G, where business users in city centers were a key market, the game has changed—the IPN has now emerged as a critical early market and general testbed.

Interestingly, that sea-change has lifted older LTE technology too; a recent study from market-research firm Global Market Insights found that the private LTE network market may reach $13 billion by 2026, driven in particular by IIoT deployments in high-safety risk verticals such as mining. The sector could spend nearly $2.9 billion on private networking as a whole by 2022. 

Mining industry driving IPN uptake

Certainly mining operations are particularly well-placed to take up IPN technologies. Often situated in remote locations, and across varied, non-network friendly topography such as deep pits and shafts, public-network connectivity is likely to be minimal. However, by deploying an IPN, a mining company can reliably operate IIoT-safety devices as well as communications and push-to-talk systems. 

One Shandong mine recently fired up what it claims is the first privately built 5G network in China, also stating that data sent on the new network reaches its destination in less than 20 milliseconds, compared with the 3-4 seconds it would have taken on 4G. That difference can be critical when dealing with delicate and dangerous mining operations hundreds of meters underground. The mining company, state-owned Shandong Energy Group Co, will also use the 5G backbone for fast data as well as critical push-to-talk/push-to-video (MC-PTT/PTV) communications, and real-time video transmission. 

The LTE/5G tipping point

Indeed, the mining industry is arguably at an early-adopter tipping point between LTE and 5G IPN deployment, making a staggered rollout of IPN-based IIoT technology an attractive option in gaining the shorted time to market. The lower latency and higher bandwidth of 5G not only offering some degree of future-proofing, but also making real-time high-definition video a practical option for controlling robots and drones deep underground. 

It’s not just high-risk mining operations that are actively deploying IPNs at this tipping point. Just off the Bristol channel, opposite an unassuming Travelodge hotel stands the UK’s National Composites Centre (NCC), which recently unveiled the first phase of the UK’s 5G-ENCODE Project, a £9 million collaborative project to develop 5G use cases for 5G in the manufacturing industry. The phase one IPN is 4G/LTE only, with Phase Two building on this baseline to create an Industrial Private 5G Network, set to go live in 2021. 

Proof is in the pudding

Another 5G IPN that is particularly notable as it specifically targets IIoT is a deployment by Taiwanese industrial manufacturer Inventec, a fully-virtualized 5G standalone network designed to add automation and intelligence to the production line. “Our goal is to significantly improve our factory efficiency and reduce manpower by implementing AI-based AOI (Automatic Optical Inspection) in the assembly line. Previously, due to the network limitations, production machines were connected to a local computer to perform AI functions. After deploying a private 5G network, we were able to link the production machines to a central server with more data and AI training. As a result, the production line straight-through rate (FPY, First Pass Yield) rose from 70% to over 85%”, said Dr. Albert Chen, Inventec SVP and project lead in a press release

Challenges abound—for all verticals

However, there are challenges in being at the cutting edge of 5G deployment—two of the biggest being ruggedized 5G-capable devices to use in demanding environments, and spectrum availability. While several markets have started releasing vertical spectrum for 5G, many more countries have LTE/4.9G vertical spectrum available immediately, and public mobile-service providers are not necessarily keen to lease their limited 5G spectrum to IPNs at this early stage in the 5G game. 

In addition, the 5G standard itself is still a focus for standardization work; while 5G R16 was finalized in July 2020, it’ll be mid-2022 before R17 is ready for release. R16 added vital Industry 4.0 features such as ultra-low latency and time-sensitive networking, while the IIoT-intensive R17 adds a host of specific IIoT support, including IIoT and URLLC, non-terrestrial network support for NB-IoT and support for reduced capability New Radio devices, such as those used in industrial sensors and wearables.   

In summary, the reality of 5G network rollout challenges means that the industrial private network will continue to evolve as a dedicated and practical option for larger enterprises seeking to benefit from IIoT imminently. It is also clear that barriers to entry will begin to drop in the medium term, allowing a surge of smaller, more niche Industry 4.0 players to enter the market. These factors cement the importance of the IPN in 5G development for many years to come, as well as ensuring continued interest from enterprise, whether late entrant or early adopter. The IPN is here to stay!

Martin Keenan is the technical director at Avnet Abacus