A Window Inside A 5G Factory

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The U.S. has a rich history of innovation in the manufacturing industry, with a notable turning point in 1913 when Henry Ford introduced automation to his first assembly line. The manufacturing industry is still crucial to the economy today: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry supports nearly 13 million jobs.

Factory worker using digital tablet to operate Robotic Arm
GETTY

But with a growing skills gap and vacancies becoming hard to fill, taking factory automation to the next level is critical for companies looking to increase profits, productivity and their competitive edge. ABI Research suggests that organizations without a digital transformation strategy are already falling behind their competitors. 

Today, we’re witnessing how a global health crisis can place unforeseen demands on an entire industry. As the COVID-19 pandemic introduces unexpected market changes and challenges for businesses, it’s clear that the manufacturing sector must be efficient and agile enough to rapidly ramp up production and pivot to support different products. With inevitable personnel absences, highly automated production lines are a key part of the solution as the industry aims to navigate the crisis without unnecessary loss of output.  

Connected automation is already part of the factory landscape, using both wired Ethernet and legacy wireless systems. Until now, wireless hasn’t been fast enough for operations needing instantaneous and precise machine movements. The potential of 5G, however, can conceivably replace expensive cable installations and free up machines from restrictive cabling, making factory layouts more flexible.

Eventually, 5G-connected factory automation could enable manufacturers to boost throughput, lower operating costs and potentially increase return on investment. In addition to enhanced productivity, both factory safety and product quality could also benefit, thanks to possibilities of improved traceability of parts data as well as tighter process control, ultimately reducing failures while boosting reliability and repeatability.

How Do 5G-Enabled Operations Deliver These Advantages?

Three types of communication supported by emerging 5G networks will be used to enable the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT):

  • Enhanced mobile broadband, a faster version of the mobile communications we’re familiar with from 4G 
  • Massive machine-type communication (mMTC), suitable for connecting very large numbers of sensors, each requiring relatively low bandwidth
  • Ultra-reliable, low-latency communications (URLLC), the real game changer—allowing remote and automated control of high-precision, time-critical operations

Each of these communication types could one day help transform one or more of the main functions in the manufacturing chain.

Logistics And Warehouse Management

Someday over a 5G network, imagine delivery trucks approaching the factory relaying precise cargo details and time of arrival to ensure just-in-time transfer of parts to the production line or check-in to stock control via 5G-controlled drones. Inside a factory or warehouse, components and works in progress could potentially be transported using automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) capable of coordinating with each other and with the production line or dispatch department. 

Factory Automation

A variety of devices could connect to the factory 5G network—all with different demands in latency, capacity, throughput and mobility. 

This is where we could really grasp the upcoming advantage of 5G latency described above. Envision a future freed from cumbersome cables, where assembly robots could move freely and precisely, following instructions from software in the cloud and the network edge, while test instrumentation feeds important metrics back for quality control and analysis. A network of sensors could monitor both the processes on production lines and the tags on products moving throughout the factory, and the system could correlate these with the test data. Locally, some processes could possibly self-regulate as well as coordinate workflow with other processes further along the line.

One huge transformation we hope to see more of is human-machine interaction. Collaborative robots (“cobots”) are designed to work with humans in a shared space, both safely and in close proximity. While earlier cobots were limited in their speed and movement to protect human workers, 5G-enabled cobots will leverage low latency to monitor sensor outputs in real time and optimize collaborative behavior. 

In hazardous environments, or where a skilled person is in a remote location, delicate operations could be performed by a robot to mirror and adjust the movements of a human operator over long distances with very little delay.

The digital twin, a software-generated model of a physical object or system, is another futuristic concept with implications for the factory floor. With a future in artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G, the digital simulation combines information from real and simulated sensors, allowing walkthroughs of complex scenarios to predict problems. In 2018, Gartner hailed the tech as a top strategic trend, suggesting it could save billions by avoiding downtime and optimizing the usage of IoT assets.

Remote Operation

As employees work from home to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, unprecedented challenges emerge for the manufacturing and utility companies that provide essential products and services.

Some companies are beginning to rely more heavily on remote automation software, enabling their workers to operate industrial systems remotely from a laptop or mobile device in their homes over a secure connection such as a VPN link. While remote software has been used for over a decade by key personnel working outside of a main control room, using it at home is a new extension.

GE Digital reports that at water utilities, for example, plants are now operating with around two dozen distributed personnel, with just a few employees on-site as a safety precaution. To help its customers keep plants running while workers remain at home, GE is providing a free 90-day license to its remote monitoring and control systems software for 20,000 utilities and factories.

Augmented Reality

In the future, 5G and AI could also collaborate to provide personnel with immersive experiences to ease their work. Superimposing simulated objects in a real environment, for instance, could improve training, enhance product design and guide operators through factory procedures that still require manual intervention.

Augmented reality (AR) is also a factory problem solver: It can help detect operational inefficiencies like poor maintenance planning, reduce production downtime and potentially decrease costs related to machinery breakdowns.

As a recent example, International Airlines Group (IAG) partnered with an AR platform vendor to transform the maintenance and repair operations for its fleet of 573 aircraft, using a new initiative called Hangar 51 that introduces digitally augmented structural inspection for aircraft engines. Replacing existing—mostly paper-based—compliance and training processes that mandate the capture of detailed photographic and video evidence, the project has demonstrated significant time savings.

Minimizing Energy Consumption

With tomorrow’s 5G-enabled factory, there may be opportunities to better regulate the industry’s carbon footprint. Closer control over factory processes could help keep energy consumption to a minimum by monitoring energy usage at every stage of production and pinpointing the most energy-efficient solutions.

The 5G Factory Is On The Horizon

The industry is already making headway on these 5G innovations. In fact, one of the first examples of a 5G-controlled factory is one that manufactures 5G infrastructure. Ericsson’s newly-opened smart factory in Lewisville, Texas, produced its first 5G millimeter-wave base station in March 2020 and is expected to be fully operational this year.

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