5G will transform manufacturing – despite coronavirus delays

Covid-19 may have led to a hiatus in the 5G roll-out, but smart factories are still driving the sector’s race to adopt next-generation connectivity.

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5G is the much-feted low-latency mobile network that is billed to revolutionise industries and expedite the automation age. Although it’s already managed to inflame the anxieties of some conspiracy theorists who say it’s responsible for the coronavirus pandemic, the technology is still in its infancy. One of the sectors racing at the forefront to adopt it, however, is manufacturing. 

ABI Research predicts that by 2028, manufacturing will make up nearly a quarter of the total revenue in the 5G “ultra low-latency use cases” market – where applications must be close to real-time. Barclays estimates that widespread adoption in UK manufacturing could add £2bn in revenue to the sector within five years.

Smart factories that incorporate Internet of Things (IoT) devices, sensors and automation are driving the sector’s need for next-generation connectivity. The technology will allow factories to dispense with floor-clogging ethernet cables, and increase the adoption of wireless machines connected directly to the cloud. The stability and speed of 5G is becoming essential for processing ever-multiplying data streams. In turn, the increased volume of data produced in smart factories can feed into AI systems that more effectively streamline all of the site’s activities.

Research firm IHS Markit predicts that by 2025, more than 75 billion IoT devices will be installed in the manufacturing sector. According to a report from McKinsey, this will create up to $3.7trn of annual economic impact for smart factories.

“Everything relies on connectivity from the robots to sensors – connectivity is such an important part,” says Detlef Zühlke, a German engineer described as the “spiritual father” of the smart factory. “So the network is an important part of enabling the digital transformation of the factory. What we call industry 4.0.” Industry 4.0 is the term used to capture this emergent stage of industrial production. 

But in terms of adoption rate, Covid-19 has thrown a spanner in the works. As with practically every other area of industry, the progression of 5G has been impacted by the global pandemic. The EU had previously told member states they must take “concrete and measurable steps” to implement 5G by 30 June. This has now been postponed. 

5G spectrum auctions were due to take place across much of Europe in spring 2020, but many have instead been suspended indefinitely, including in France and Spain. China, which suffered a setback due to coronavirus, has redoubled its efforts to get its 5G roll-out back on track, something President Xi Jinping considers a way to mitigate the economic fallout from Covid-19.

The UK’s own progress could be further hindered by the ongoing ruckus over what role Huawei – the global leader in 5G – should play in Britain’s network. Ministers initially said that its role would be restricted to 35 per cent, after the US claimed the Chinese company posed a national security risk. However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reportedly instructed officials to draw up plans to reduce China’s involvement in the UK’s infrastructure to zero by 2023. This is despite the fact that the UK’s security agencies have said they don’t believe there is a risk.  

That’s not the only reason for the slow roll-out. “There’s an issue with mobile networks deploying 5G,” says Vassilis Seferidis, CEO of Zeetta Networks, a UK-based intelligent network automation company. 5G requires an even denser network of base stations compared to other mobile networks such as 4G and 3G. “They need to invest more money and that becomes impractical for them because they're still deploying 4G,” Seferidis says. This means mobile networks are dragging their feet.

In the UK, Germany and elsewhere, one solution for the manufacturing industry is private networks. “All major industrial players like car manufacturers and chemical plant operators received licences for setting up self-administered 5G networks in their plants, for example BASF, Siemens, BOSCH, BMW, VW in Germany,” says Zühlke. “The next step will be getting experiences with this new technology. First, the 'low hanging fruits' will be collected, then the more complex and security critical applications will follow.”

Zeetta is leading a £9m UK government initiative – its biggest investment in 5G for manufacturing so far – that will set up a private 5G network at the National Composites Centre in Bristol. Other participants in the project include Siemens, Toshiba, and Telefonica. The project will test out new business cases for private 5G networks in industrial settings, including augmented and virtual reality to deliver training and improve design in manufacturing, the improvement and monitoring of industrial systems, and the tracking of assets across different sites – for example chemicals that must be kept at very precise temperatures for precise lengths of time. 

Seferidis is bullish on the potential of this initiative and 5G private networks. “Now you can support what you weren't able to support with wi-fi, and allow connectivity to devices or user groups that were not possible before,” he says. “You can deliver connectivity at a bespoke or customised level.” It’s still early days, but 5G evangelists see it as pivotal to ushering in the fourth industrial revolution.

Laurie Clarke is a reporter at New Statesman Tech.

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