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For manufacturers and 5G, it’s still ‘early days’

By Karen Haywood Queen Contributing Editor, SME Media

Although the first iteration of 5G technology has offered limited use cases in manufacturing, the next two generations, now expected to be available in the fall of this year and then the fall of next year because of COVID-19-related delays, will help factory owners achieve greater digital transformation of their factories.

photo for 5G story for June 2020 issue of SM 768x432.jpg
Sander Rotmensen, head of product management for industrial wireless communication at Siemens, taking part in a 5G panel discussion at Hannover Messe last year.

“It is still the early days for deploying 5G in manufacturing,” said Sander Rotmensen, head of product management industrial wireless and security components for Siemens. “The focus so far has been mostly on traditional models for smart phones.”

Overall, Release 15 “is not what we need in industry,” he said. “We still need to wait for the technology to become available.”

Release 16, originally planned for rollout this summer but delayed three months because of COVID-19, will offer more applications for industry, Rotmensen said. “With Release 16, we now are able to transmit protocols in a stable way,” he noted. Release 17, about 18 months after Release 16, will offer even more applications.

In the future, 5G will help factory owners achieve digital transformation in several ways, said Kosei Takiishi, senior research director at Gartner. For example:

  • A truck equipped with 5G arriving with material for a factory announces its arrival and communicates directly with an automated guided vehicle (AGV). The AGV unloads the truck and delivers the material to an assembly line.
  • Using 5G, assembly lines, machines and robots in the factory are connected wirelessly, to maintain a high degree of flexibility.
  • Workers use wireless devices equipped with 5G to monitor and control factory operations.
  • Finished products are placed in an automated warehouse before being loaded onto a truck.

With an eye on future releases and use cases in manufacturing, test factories have been ramping up to test 5G in manufacturing to be prepared to pilot projects with Release 16.

Siemens and Qualcomm Technologies set up a proof-of-concept project at the Siemens Automotive Test Center in Germany. The project, which went live in November, uses a private, standalone 5G network.

For the first seven months, the main focus at the test factory has been identifying challenges that will need to be overcome as 5G is more widely deployed in industrial settings, said Yongbin Wei, Qualcomm’s VP of 5G industrial engineering.

“One thing we’ve learned is that a factory environment, which typically has a lot of metal structures, poses a challenge making it more difficult for the signal to reach the receivers,” he said. “We’re learning how to handle this physical environment with a lot of metal structures and still ensure a reliable wireless network.”

AT&T and the public-private partnership MxD also have been working on 5G manufacturing pilots, focusing on safety and logistics at MxD’s innovation center in Chicago, MxD CEO Chandra Brown said.

“We want to be prepped and ready,” she said.

Others are planning to be prepped and ready for Release 16, as well.

Wilson Electronics plans to release its first 5G cellular amplifier, the Pro 710i, this summer. The commercial-grade amplifier will boost cellular signals on Band 71 and provide up to 100,000 square feet of indoor coverage, the company said.

The speed available with 5G will play a role in improving safety and in logistics, Brown said: “We think there are a lot of use cases. Seconds become really important if you have a machine operating unsafely. Besides just improving production, speed can save a life or a hand.”

As for logistics, “think about the revolution we’ve already seen in logistics and delivery,” she said. “As things become even faster, moving even huger amounts of data and packages on assembly lines: you’re going to need 5G to do it. You have so much data. There is so much you will need to know in real time: Where is the package? What is in the package?”

Combining 5G with industrial manufacturing protocols and integrating 5G with current industrial networks and tools will pose challenges, Wei and Rotmensen said.

“We need to make sure that this technology from an IT world will be designed to work correctly and reliably in an industrial environment,” Rotmensen said.

Before making a move to 5G, manufacturers should consider how 5G might help them solve business challenges, Takiishi said. Manufacturers also should decide whether they will operate the 5G network by themselves or with partners or stakeholders and the pros and cons of each approach.

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