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5G and the promise of futureproof factories

With the situation in the world today stressing just how crucial our most essential items are, the resilience of the factories that produce them stands out as vital. But to ensure this resilience and meet rising demands, greater connectivity is needed. That’s where 5G comes in.

Head of Dedicated Networks

Head of Dedicated Networks

Head of Dedicated Networks

 

Today’s factories are in the midst of an ongoing shift in the technology they employ. While a variety of advanced machines are currently in use to aid efficiency and automation, they rely on the outmoded use of ethernet cables to send important data. But how much more value could these machines deliver if they were connected to and managed by reliable wireless networks? The answer is — a lot.  

Getting smarter, going wireless 

As the fastest and most reliable connectivity enabler the world has ever seen, 5G will deliver its array of innovative use cases to increase factory capabilities and boost agility, freeing operations from wire-dependency. For the average factory tethering its equipment with internet cables, a large part of 5G’s wireless value will come down to simple practicality, since attaching cables to every machine and sensor in a factory just isn’t viable. That’s where wireless technology — like 5G — will be a game changer. 

A wireless environment will also make processes smarter and less static, which is increasingly critical in today’s factories. As Afif Osseiran, one of our principle researchers and the vice-chair of the 5G Alliance for Connected Industries and Automation (5G-ACIA) board, explains: “There is an interest, of course, to have flexibility. Take, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic: If you manufacture cars, and suddenly the next day you would like to produce masks — if you do have a lot of cables, [rejigging the production] will take you much more time and will be more costly.” 5G’s wireless connectivity will head this problem off completely, changing how we operate manufacturing plants for the better.

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Read our last post from the series on the 5G future of work — on the road to a better new normal.

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Intelligent collaboration  

Tomorrow’s factory environments will see autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) operating on shop floors, fetching components, removing pieces of scrap, and freeing up workers for more important tasks by taking over less-critical work. Meanwhile, 5G-enabled facilities will benefit from sensors placed throughout, monitoring production processes and collecting data to feed back to machines and production managers. This will greatly enhance the speed of operations, improve maintenance capabilities (through accelerated awareness or even notification before failures occur), and increase safety.

Caption: 5G will enable factories to connect to the outside world, and allow facilities to stay automatically up to date with changing order patterns or logistical complications, for example, through the cloud.

In fact, the extremely low latency and reliability of 5G will mean that, someday soon, many of the machines critical to future factories will become something like non-human colleagues, working closely and seamlessly alongside their human coworkers to assist them throughout their day-to-day processes. Essentially, this means that the era of “collaborative robots” is just on the horizon. And from there, the possibilities will only increase.

Making critical connections

Another crucial component of what 5G connectivity will bring to factories extends beyond just the shop floor. Linking not only machines, sensors, and workers on industrial sites but also factories themselves to the outside world, 5G will enable facilities to stay automatically up to date with changing order patterns or logistical complications (for example) through the cloud.

Today, we’re already seeing a range of companies opting for cellular connectivity. One such example, Atlas Copco — the world-leading manufacturer of vacuum solutions, generators, power tools, and the like — made a similar step last year, collaborating with us and Orange to bring wireless connectivity and intelligent manufacturing to its Atlas Copco Airpower factory in Wilrijk, Belgium. Several big-name car brands have also joined in, like Mercedes-Benz, whose new, fully networked Factory 5G site near Stuttgart “sets new standards in terms of digitalization, automation and climate efficiency.” These companies and others like them recognize the value of seamless communication (both indoors and out, through local and global networks) for enhanced capabilities and greater flexibility.

A research study we carried out together with KPMG reveals that a factory utilizing wireless communication has the potential to reap a value equal to an extra USD 1 per square meter — every single day. Assuming a floor of 10,000 square meters (the smallest that can typically support a factory today), that means nearly USD 4 million a year in added value.

Caption: Monitoring production processes will be much smoother with 5G, improving maintenance capabilities and enabling any failures or problems to be rectified quicker

Between then and now

But despite the remarkable advances that 5G is set to bring industrial facilities, it won’t all be smooth sailing between then and now. Given that we’re still in the early phases of 5G, a few considerable challenges remain ahead of us. Chief among them, according to Juha Mirsch, Cellular Connectivity (IIoT/5G) Lead at ABB Motion, is how we’ll “introduce this new way of connecting our devices on the shop floors of ‘brownfield factories’.” (Referring to factories with preexisting infrastructure, as opposed to their new, more technologically advanced cousins — greenfield factories.)

That challenge is a very real one too, considering that brownfields — with diverse legacy machine parks and platforms that’ll need retrofitting — make up more than 90 percent of today’s manufacturing sites. “If we can find a model to integrate [5G] with these factories’ existing IT solutions, and we have an ecosystem of use cases to build up, it will justify the investment. Take ABB motors and robots — having them natively connected to the 5G network as ‘plug ’n play’ will accelerate adoption.”

5G for the future

Thankfully, though, the drive toward 5G-connected factories has already begun, and, here at Ericsson, we’re very much a part of making that happen. Last year, for example, we held a joint demonstration with ABB and Swisscom at the World Economic Forum in Davos to showcase some of what 5G remote-controlled robots will be able to achieve. We invited visitors there to draw on tablets, which translated to synchronized robotic movements writing messages in sand in real-time 1.5km away.

That was quite fun, but imagine what this kind of remote control could enable in an industrial setting? Companies would be able to leverage help from experts, for example, without requiring their presence on site — something that would not only reduce travel (and its associated financial and environmental costs) but also accelerate solutions and problem solving while fostering smarter operations overall.

These are only a few examples of 5G’s potential for making factories more flexible and more efficient than ever before. And both now and in the future, the boost in agility and enhancement of operations that advanced wireless connectivity will bring is going to be a critical component to success in our ever-changing world. And 5G is just the solution to make it happen.  

This article was originally published on wired.co.uk

Which use cases should you implement first in your smart factory?

Join us at 2:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday, August 9, 2022 to learn how Ericsson’s smart factory team approached this very question when building their own facility in Lewisville, Texas, powered by a private 5G network. Topics discussed will include the ‘build vs buy’ decision-making process, vendor selection and the agile work methods that enabled 15 successful initial implementations.

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Learn more

Read about our blog post about Ericsson’s smart factory of the future.

Discover 5G Gemba walks: The next big thing for factory insights.

Find out how Ericsson is manufacturing a more connected industry.

Read our last post in this series: The 5G future of work — on the road to a better new normal.

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