Mainstream media understandably continues to focus on the launch of commercial 5G networks as a measure of 5G’s success because of the potential they offer to consumers for faster mobile connectivity. Industry meanwhile, is looking beyond the promise of faster speeds that drive consumer demand, to the business case for more ambitious 5G projects.
As manufacturers look to shift to the greater flexibility and efficiency offered by wireless networks, this latest stage in the evolution of Industry 4.0 - the fourth industrial revolution - is becoming clearer. 5G will be key.
In a survey earlier this year from Nokia and ABI Research, 74% of manufacturing decision-makers said they were looking to upgrade their communications networks by the end of 2022, with 84% considering 4G/5G, saying that they will deploy their own private network in their manufacturing operations. Spectrum for such private 5G licensing is already being set aside by regulators in Europe and North America to accommodate these private networks.
The aim of awarding 5G spectrum for private networks is, as German regulator the Bundesnetzagentur (BNetzA) put it, “To expand innovation in industry.” With this in mind, manufacturers are eagerly eyeing the potential for 5G to revolutionize their businesses. With increased capacity to support thousands of wireless devices simultaneously, low latency, real-time monitoring, and greater efficiency through new process innovations, 5G is seen as a major opportunity for industry to boost productivity and lower costs.
So why would a business want its own private 5G network? High on the list is the potential to build a network individually designed and dedicated solely to meet their own specific wireless needs.
In Germany and the Netherlands, where allocation of local 5G spectrum licences is already happening, a clearer view is emerging of some of the industries that see private 5G networks as part of their future strategy. Organisations in manufacturing, utilities, business and science campuses, carmakers, academic and research institutions, ports, hospitals and logistics hubs are all among the early license applicants, while businesses and regulators in other European countries are giving serious consideration to their own frequency assignment.
The business-case challenges for industries adopting 5G private networks are of course, many, not least the development and implementation costs, operational management and safety, security, and existing manufacturing environment.
The aim of awarding 5G spectrum for private networks is to expand innovation in industry.
In manufacturing, most factory environments will be existing brownfield sites, meaning that they will need to be either retrofitted as a 5G environment, or a new factory established to accommodate the benefits that 5G could deliver. It is very difficult to equate the cost/benefit of a retrofitting compared to a new build, without substantial trials, which in themselves can be extremely costly. Industry has high-cost reduction requirements when adopting new technology, and so when considering implementing new applications like 5G, it has to be proven that it will reduce costs compared to current solutions, while the future benefit must see an early return on investment.
The factory floor is also often a life-critical environment for humans, especially where machinery and robots are utilized, meaning a communications technology like 5G which aims to wirelessly control such machinery must meet extremely high levels of robustness and safety control. This could include real-time kill switches and other vital safety processes, as well as vigorous cybersecurity measures to protect the network itself.
Many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) will also simply not have the capacity to resource the learning requirements or the technical ability required to capitalise on the potential of 5G.
However, such complex challenges are showing little sign of suppressing enthusiasm for the concept of private 5G networks and our experts at Spirent are already working with a number of companies and institutions to help address these challenges. Our Digital Twin technology is an example of how we can offer a bespoke solution to help test and resolve many of the Radio Frequency (RF), latency, positioning and security challenges anticipated in such dynamic new industrial environments, by creating an emulated environment to test multiple scenarios.
Being able to test and validate that 5G can deliver the low latency required for various deterministic manufacturing use cases will be vital, while defining the “actual” latency sensitivity requirements for data transfers and machine control. Understanding RF propagation, interference with other communication types and the way radio waves are impacted by reflection, refraction, absorption and diffraction, will also be a major consideration for the industrial environment. Private networks will need to ensure that 5G new radio (NR) and different frequency ranges can work reliably within different engineering and environments, where dense, metallic machinery, reflective surfaces and multiple moving elements, such as robots and auto-guided vehicles (AGVs) can all have a role to play.
For safety and efficiency reasons outlined earlier, positioning and timing accuracy in such industrial environments will be paramount in ensuring that 5G, combined with augmented positioning methods, can provide reliable accuracy for both non-mission critical Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) use cases, and exact accuracy for mission critical time sensitive networking IIoT applications, such as robotic systems.
Add to this mix the ever-present need to ensure that any private 5G network and its data are secure from cyberattack, and it’s easy to see the scale of the challenge ahead.
Being able to test and validate that 5G can deliver the low latency required for various deterministic manufacturing use cases will be vital...
But in spite of these challenges, industry leaders are enthusiastic about the business advantages that 5G connectivity can bring to manufacturing and factories, and why continual test and validation will have such an important part to play in these environments.
Increased flexibility and scalability of production will help to ensure global competitiveness, while reducing the number of proprietary networks and enabling greater automation will undoubtedly increase efficiency. Enhanced worker safety, reduced maintenance costs through constant monitoring, and improved general business operations are all attractive propositions, which is why the allocation of private network spectrum is creating such interest.
COVID-19 has inevitably delayed some of the anticipated local 5G spectrum allocations, but the work on realizing the potential of private 5G networks has already begun. With more countries across Europe being urged to press on with the process of allocating their local 5G spectrum licenses, the era of Industry 4.0 is really beginning to gather steam.
To learn more about ways in which Industry 4.0 is preparing for 5G, read this report by STL Partners, and view our video about the 5G Network Digital Twin.