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How 5G is future-proofing smart factories

June 30, 2020

The digital transformation of a factory is only as strong as its underlying foundation.

Ericsson's Thomas Noren

A recent ABI Research report forecasts that the smart-manufacturing market will grow to $1 trillion by 2030. The report also notes that the move to private cellular has the potential to boost gross margin by as much as 13% for factory and warehouse operations that fully embrace the technology. Dedicated 5G networks will be a major part of this transformation story.

But the promise 5G brings to manufacturing goes beyond the technology that’s available today—consider streamlining functions or increasing efficiency. 5G networks can help industry “future-proof” their facilities to take advantage of the revolutionary use cases that are just around the corner.

It’s all about data

5G is more than an incremental improvement over previous generations of wireless technology. It will have, perhaps, the greatest impact on industry, as the blazing speed, low latency and security of 5G networks remake business models and power the 4th Industrial Revolution.

All the game-changing uses cases for industry require gathering large amounts of data that need to be processed quickly...think image recognition from cameras, remote steering of cranes or other equipment, sensor networks, and autonomous vehicles or robots. Additionally, 5G-equipped factories can enable much more predictive maintenance because of increased real-time data collection.

Individual machines and overall processes also need to communicate with each other more than before, and the demands on latency and reliability are so high that 5G becomes not only optimal, but necessary. Nascent smart manufacturing utilized 4G/LTE networks, but 5G is designed to offer 1 millisecond latency with 99.9999% deliverability; it’s this aspect of 5G networks that opens up amazing new possibilities. In addition, licensed spectrum is critical for smart manufacturing, as companies can’t have equipment coming in that interferes with the network.

To put it another way: the future is a camera or a sensor over every square meter in a manufacturing plant. That complicated network of devices simply can’t be connected with cables.

Optimizing now for what’s next

The digital transformation of a factory is only as strong as its underlying foundation, which is why choosing a secure, reliable cellular-connectivity standard is essential.

WiFi may have served as a “cord replacer” in offices, but the signal deterioration once you move away from the base station makes it inadequate for the factory floor. The requirements for advanced manufacturing and concepts like digital twins in the production line call for a fast, stable, secure and simple connectivity solution with the latest in mobile wireless.

Factory managers looking to “future-proof” their networks need to look beyond today’s use cases to see what’s coming in the near future—capabilities that will be powered by 5G.

Today, things like process monitoring, control of production lines, rudimentary AR and remote-controlled machines are possible with 4G. But taking those first steps to the next level—real-time monitoring and adjustments, remote control with haptic feedback, image recognition, cloud-rendered VR, digital twinning and more—will require more data points than older networks can handle.

By eliminating costly cabling, 5G networks will also enable easy reconfiguration of production lines for an agile factory. This flexible manufacturing can be scaled up and down and customized depending on the needs of the moment, enabling a smarter, more productive facility.

An opportunity that can’t be missed

The 4th Industrial Revolution is here. Manufacturing and industry have a unique opportunity to not only digitally transform their current operations, but to establish the infrastructure for the truly revolutionary improvements that are only a few years away. By future-proofing facilities with 5G networks delivering fast, secure and reliable wireless internet, these sectors can lead the way and write their own digital-transformation stories.

Thomas Noren is head of dedicated networks with Ericsson