The long awaited factory of the future is here. Enabled by 5G that is providing stimulus to the Industry 4.0 agenda, these connected factories are smarter and more efficient than ever before. Take Ericsson’s cellular IoT-based trial at their radio product manufacturing site in Nanjing. They transformed the manual procedure of calibration and lubrication of 1,000 high-precision screwdrivers by fitting them with real-time motion sensors attached to narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) modules. These connected screwdrivers have reduced manual effort by 50% at extremely low cost per device.
Connected factories have long been in the works and almost every manufacturer has adopted some form of connected systems. However, despite their many advantages, connected systems could not be scaled. The main issue was the inability of existing networks to support them in terms of speed and latency. Low connectivity speeds limited the ability of connected machines and robots to transfer data and mandated the need for some wired systems.
As 5G gathers steam, Cloud robotics has the potential to transform industrial automation. At theoretical potential download speeds of 10,000Mbps, 5G connections can eliminate network latency issues and power multiple devices with different operating requirements. Processing data close to the factory assembly line with multi-access networks can further reduce latency. 5G networks while being up to a 100 times faster than 4G, can also be installed in small areas and are ideally suited to a factory environment.
Reaping the innovation advantage that 5G has to offer is critical for manufacturers struggling with shorter product lifecycles and shrinking margins. No wonder then that Ericsson’s report “The 5G Business Potential”, pegs the addressable market at USD 113 billion by 2026.
What can 5G offer manufacturers?
5G will change the face of manufacturing, specifically impacting industrial control and automation systems, planning and design systems, and field devices. This technology has the potential to offer manufacturers flexibility in operations, cost savings, shorter lead times, employee safety, and higher productivity.
- Flexibility in operations – Connected robots with latency as low as 1 millisecond manage operations and are monitored by humans in real time. Imagine how streamlined and seamless operations could be! A robot on a shop floor talks to another in a warehouse and manages inventory and adjusts output. Another one highlights the need for equipment maintenance…the possibilities are immense. In addition, the 5G network can be sliced into multiple virtual networks tailored to specific machines and operations – the most economical approach to IoT service delivery that can give 1.5 times return on investment.
- Productivity boost – The more complex a manufacturing process, the higher the productivity gains from digitization. A 1% increase in productivity can lead to billions of dollars being added to the GDP. With improved data capture, higher automation, and real-time monitoring for higher accuracy, 5G can significantly boost manufacturing productivity. For instance, deployment of 5G helped MTU Aero Engines reduce its process design phase by 75 percent. In addition, it can also help improve employee capabilities by helping to train and support hundreds of employees virtually by making the use of augmented reality possible.
- Real-time predictive maintenance – Broken machines can halt production, leading to millions of dollars in losses for manufacturers. 5G can enable real-time predictive maintenance to proactively prevent failures. Videos in 4K resolution and IoT data streaming through 5G networks can help keep track of vital equipment parameters such as acceleration, temperature, humidity, etc. and raise timely alerts.
- Employee health and safety – Equipped with 5G sensor-embedded wearables such as smart helmets, employees can be guided through hazardous conditions and can be tracked in an emergency.
- Cost savings – Costs reduce with efficient operations, connected supply chains, predictive maintenance, as well as by cutting down overall effort to run the factory. In addition, low on-premise computing requirements also reduce costs of managing infrastructure.
While 5G has potential to improve standard metrics of manufacturing success, its true value lies in the innovation it can unlock for the sector. It can open up entirely new business models and revenue streams. For instance, once manufacturers know the exact time their machines are in use or under maintenance, they can choose to provide the idle time to others on a manufacturing-as-a-service basis. The possibilities, as I mentioned, are immense. How industry players leverage this opportunity remains to be seen.