Capitalizing on low-latency / high-performance applications

March 22, 2021
Manufacturers can use private 5G and MEC solutions to quickly deploy low latency and high-performance applications.

Imagine factories wirelessly connected on a private network with minimal interference and millisecond response time: assembly lines running automatically, computer vision auto-detecting product defects quickly and autonomous forklifts moving material from one end of the line to the other, weaving between factory workers and objects. With the help of 5G and mobile edge computing (MEC), the future of manufacturing is closer than ever.

As industries adapt and progress during and after the pandemic, technological advancements are at the forefront of recuperation. In fact, seven in 10 business leaders agree that access to 5G will accelerate recovery, and more than half agree that 5G is a top company priority to create innovative solutions that solve immediate problems. 

Manufacturers can use private 5G and MEC solutions to quickly deploy low latency and high-performance applications that lower costs and improve safety, precision and efficiency. 

Here is how 5G and MEC can help:

Safety first

Manufacturing decision-makers are already looking at artificial intelligence (AI) with machine learning to support worker safety, with 74% likely to implement these approaches within their companies in the next two years. Assembly line safety requires quick decision making, and 5G’s low latency, high bandwidth and massive capacity are necessary for AI and machine learning to accelerate response time and process high volumes of data. Detecting potential dangers has historically been the responsibility of teams on the ground. Now, cameras equipped with computer vision, a subset of AI combined with video data, can be part of the manufacturing process and flag, detect and even potentially shut down certain processes that pose risks for workers on the floor, while the safety team addresses an issue.

For example, a glass manufacturing plant could use cameras equipped with computer vision to detect when molten hot glass is piling up, anticipating and reducing the risk of a fire. Or consider autonomous mobile robots (AMRs); 5G and MEC can reduce the need for computing hardware and battery capacity on the AMRs and enable real-time interaction and a closed-loop control of the vehicles delivering high-reliability and safety of production services within the factory.

Quality control made easier

5G and MEC can also streamline the time-consuming, manual quality-control process. Similarly with worker safety, computer vision running on 5G and MEC can help identify and predict quality defects on the assembly line. This system, in concert with assembly-line product sensors, can help support quality control and make it not the sole responsibility of assembly line workers. High resolution cameras can take photos of products on an assembly line, then send the photos to applications running on the MEC, where a stock image of the correct design can be layered over the photos. The production-line controller can then be automatically notified if there are any deviations, allowing them to make changes and ensure product quality.

Improving operational efficiency

With both worker safety and quality control, another differentiator of 5G and edge computing is that plants can do away with the extensive wiring that is needed to support a plant’s network. MEC running on private networks creates a secure, dedicated computing platform within factories, providing unified connectivity, compute and storage, without extensive networking and IT infrastructure. While sensors and computer-vision implementation is a reality at some factories today, the improvements in operational efficiency without the physical hardware and wires for manufacturers will usher in new flexibility and productivity.

Manufacturing plants traditionally operate with a complex wiring infrastructure—connecting increasingly sophisticated technologies like industry robots and manufacturing monitoring systems. Running a factory on a private MEC platform on premises means a significant reduction in the cables and hardware installations and the overhead costs to replace them. One of the key benefits of removing complex wiring is the ability for plants to design and adjust assembly lines that can complete multiple tasks at the same time.

For example, traditionally, without the wireless benefit of 5G and MEC, a manufacturing plant that wants to have two product lines would need individual controllers for each line. However, with MEC and a 5G network, manufacturers can instead have one virtualized location that controls all lines—improving productivity and lowering costs. It would also make it easier to quickly change the product being assembled on the line from one to another.

From start to finish, 5G and private MEC have the potential to radically change the factory experience. 5G and MEC will help factories of the future better manage quality control and AMRs, and enable predictive maintenance, near real-time monitoring and hazard alerts. They will help manufacturers skip the manual and time-consuming processes of today, while helping to keep workers safe. And, ultimately, with a wireless and untethered factory, manufacturers will see increased flexibility and efficiency as virtualized processes run over MEC and 5G, resulting in a more streamlined and cost-effective manufacturing system. 

By Nick DelRegno, fellow at Verizon