By Michael Howard, manager of technical projects at MxD
Most American manufacturing facilities still utilize wired ethernet connections, as they are fast and reliable, and enable the facility to create a closed network that can easily be secured. Wireless technology such as Wi-Fi, which is ubiquitous in our daily lives, only accounts for 7% of the industrial network market share.
However, wired networks are not without drawbacks. While wired networks are secure, reliable, and fast, they are also expensive to install, maintain and expand as the number of connected industrial devices increase. This hinders widespread adoption of digital manufacturing technology. Today's manufacturers need to be agile with flexible factory floors. Hard installation of wires is not flexible.
Cellular 4G has been commercially available for many years, but typically cannot handle the requirements for communications in an industrial facility. 5G is the first wireless technology, with its exponential increases in speed, security, and reliability over 4G, that can be utilized to augment and eventually replace wired networks on a factory floor. In order to do this, however, the technology must be demonstrated to be secure and reliable. Data integrity is critical for the operation of factory control systems.
There are significant benefits to a private 5G network for an industrial facility over a wired system. New devices can easily be connected to the network and new areas of the facility can be connected without expensive infrastructure work and cables. The benefits of 5G over wireless options such as Wi-Fi are even larger, as a 5G network enables many more devices to be connected, provides better connectivity for mobile applications, and can be made much more secure than Wi-Fi connections.
A barrier that many small and medium manufacturers may face when looking at 5G wireless connectivity in their operations is that there is very little information or guidance as to how this transition can or should be done. Because it is still relatively new, the standards, configurations, and variables of a 5G network are not fully understood, except by the implementers of these networks. Variables such as standalone versus non-standalone architecture, mid band versus high band spectrum, and many others can significantly impact the cost and performance of a 5G network.
As part of the MxD program looking at 5G technologies for industrial operations, we seek to demystify the interdependencies and tradeoffs of various 5G configurations and present unbiased options that manufacturers can use to make decisions about how to adopt 5G in their operations. A fully functional 5G testbed will be created, which can be used to test various configurations and architectures, run “what if?” scenarios on connected devices, validate wireless data integrity, and test cybersecurity solutions for 5G connectivity.