The promise of 5G is tempting. Fast data speeds and low latency rates make wireless connectivity, and real-time monitoring and decision making a possibility. Cost, legacy systems, security and other issues might be a deterrent that keeps some from dipping their toes into 5G waters.
One company taking the plunge is Ericsson, the global telecommunications company and developer of 5G technology designed for manufacturing applications. In March, the company opened a 5G-connected, smart manufacturing facility near its U.S. headquarters in Plano, Texas.
“We’re the first factory in the U.S. to have a live 5G network within the factory,” Ericsson’s Erik Josefsson said. He spoke during a 5G webinar that Smart Manufacturing magazine Editor in Chief Brett Brune moderated in April. Also participating were Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence’s Sachin Mathur and Ericsson’s Sasidhar Yalavarthi.
Hexagon and Ericsson have partnered to develop new 5G technology geared for industry and automation.
Ericsson's $100-million, 300,000-square-foot facility in Texas produces 5G and antenna systems designed to boost network capacity and coverage. The automated and highly modular facility features automated warehouses, connected logistics and automated assembly, packing and product handling, using autonomous carts.
The 5G network supports agile operations and flexible production.
“I think 5G will be the industrial digital backbone that transforms the way we do smart manufacturing,” Josefsson said. He added that 5G features about “five times lower latency” and “about 1,000 times more data volume” compared with 4G. “[With this technology] industries can dare to cut their cables and move more into full flexible production.”
In addition to the new Texas plant, Ericsson upgraded its supply chain around the world, including a $51.6 million upgrade to its Nanjing, China, factory, which makes 5G and 4G radio products.
Hexagon, too, has upgraded its facilities, including integrating Ericsson’s 5G capabilities in a new facility in China designed around cableless manufacturing and an autonomous future.
The companies are developing what Hexagon calls "autonomous connected ecosystems." Since 2019, researchers have worked to connect Hexagon’s manufacturing, metrology, software and automation solutions with Ericsson’s 4G and 5G technology.
Mathur said Hexagon’s core business is providing solutions to capture “reality” through sensors and “moving data from where it is created to where it’s going to add value.”
The first application is Hexagon’s Absolute Measurement Arm that used 5G technology to transfer that data to the cloud for analysis.
The arm reportedly measures up to 1.4 million points per second.
Transmitting that data would traditionally require cables and a nearby programmable logic controller (PLC). Wireless transmission via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or other methods would be challenging because of band congestion and other factors. That is why data speeds and latency rates are critical.
“We are leveraging a lot of the data that is being created in our physical world and putting it in the cloud,” Mathur said. “There, we ubiquitously access it and make intelligent decisions on the go.”
Facilitating data exchange is Ericsson’s Industry Connect solution, a 4G turnkey system the company says makes for a good entry point into 5G.
The 4G-5G system include small antennas, called Dot, that are placed throughout a factory to create a secure private cellular network. Each device is encrypted and only authenticated devices can connect to the network.
The network serves as a bridge to full 5G capabilities like virtual and augmented reality, digital twins and remote equipment control. “Think of my watch,” Yalavarthi said, “At home, I can control devices like lights or appliances. Imagine walking around a factory and controlling machinery with a watch.”