5G-enabled agility in gigafactories and green steel plants
The joint importance of renewable energy and decarbonization have triggered a wave of global investments in sustainable manufacturing.
Gigafactories are very large manufacturing sites that were pioneered to rapidly increase the scale of the production of electric vehicles, batteries and clean technologies in order to meet rising demand for these products. “Green steel” plants are preparing to decarbonize the production processes using hydrogen-based reduction. These factories are designed to gain efficiencies by operating at a massive scale with inbuilt agility. To enable this massive scale, 5G private networks are being deployed in green steel plants and gigafactories specializing in auto manufacturing and battery production.
Scale and agility are often competing requirements
Gigafactories require both scale and agility. Scale is often achieved by increasing the levels of automation. Traditionally, this is “hard-wired” automation, which typically limits reconfigurations on the factory floor, for example one factory claims to make around 300 layout changes per year. This could be setting up a new test station to align with production capacity, making improvements to the production line to optimize ergonomics, or changing material placement, having the flexibility to accommodate new product mixes. For gigafactories to achieve optimum efficiencies from their equipment, machinery, tools and workers, agility is needed across the shop floor. To find a solution that retains both dimensions, the manufacturing industry, and especially new gigafactories, have been exploring technology options that support the scale without compromising agility. In connectivity terms, this means a wireless solution is required.
Wireless connectivity is required to provide the agility to support rapid changes and redeployment of factory resources, to be able to begin production even while the site is under construction, to relocate production cells dynamically and to connect workers wherever they are. The production processes cannot tolerate intermittent network delays or coverage blind spots.
These high demands put the wireless network firmly in focus, as a key determinant of production line output. The selected wireless connectivity needs to be able to comfortably handle the sort of high mobility that automated guided vehicles (AGVs) require, such as smooth cell handover. At the same time, it also needs to provide the low latencies demanded by remote-controlled equipment and cycle-based industrial automation protocols, as required by PROFINET.1
5G meeting the demands of gigafactories
Factory networks must be capable of much more than serving smartphones. Connectivity for production lines must deliver high performance, with dedicated resources and full redundancy. Across a range of 5G private network deployments, the most commonly observed systems are wireless tablets and tools for workers, remote support on-demand, AGVs and robotic equipment, and sensors and cameras that gather data for AI systems to monitor quality. With this range of use cases in mind, the user may not be a human at all – it could be an autonomous machine or wireless tool, rather than a person with a smartphone.
This creates a different traffic profile, where devices may be latency-sensitive, such as industrial automation equipment or wireless tools, or the throughput may be uplink-intensive, such as HD cameras. Networks need to be designed to fit these traffic parameters. These requirements fit the capabilities of 5G – key factors that make 5G attractive to gigafactories are the coverage capabilities, linked with the reliability to support dedicated connectivity resources and full redundancy.
Typical manufacturing shop floors may reach up to 100,000 sq m, whereas gigafactory floorspaces rise well above these numbers and can be more than 5 times larger. 5G networks are better equipped to cover large areas, with the typical number of Wi-Fi access points required to cover areas this size being much higher than the number of 5G indoor radios. Furthermore, mobility in a 5G network is seamless, whereas in a Wi-Fi network, handover between access points can lead to short traffic interruptions, which are not acceptable for many use cases, for example, AGVs.
To provide the required reliability, given that the network serves as the heart of the production process, all equipment is duplicated to ensure outages don’t lead to downtimes. The indoor coverage can also be extended outdoors to logistics areas and process plants. This broader wide-area coverage means that the connectivity network requires geo-redundancy over distances stretching into the km range. 5G mid-band spectrum, being less sensitive to radio wave reflections, is better suited than Wi-Fi to factory environments where concrete, metal, equipment and inventory present potential signal interruptions. Radio planning must account for the site environment.
The wireless network has become a key determinant of production line output. Production processes cannot tolerate intermittent network delays or coverage blind spots.
Deployment scenarios in gigafactories
Gigafactories are major capital investments that demand early launches to generate returns, so they cannot afford lengthy periods of isolated use-case evaluation. “Single use case” testing is bypassed, while technology needs are determined holistically and applied in parallel from the start. The real value comes when multiple use cases are applied to many stages of the production line.
Auto and battery manufacturers incorporate 5G networks into the design of greenfield factories from the start, so they can utilize both public network coverage for staff and a private network for the production process. The objective is to improve assembly line productivity by providing the right connectivity for critical AGV operations, wireless tools and mobile screens.
Gigafactories have large indoor footprints, and 5G has proven to be more cost-efficient by requiring 8–10 times fewer access points compared to Wi-Fi.
The networks may use up to 100 MHz of mid-band spectrum, with 5G standalone (SA). If 4G is also required due to device availability, then a mixed-mode 5G SA plus 4G could be used. The allocation of spectrum to gigafactories is critical to support the range of use cases with demanding performance characteristics.
Given the significant costs of downtime in such a facility, to minimize interruptions to the production line, full redundancy principles can be applied to all components of the network across power, core, basebands and radio, with each of them duplicated.
The real value of 5G becomes clear when multiple use cases are applied to many stages of the production line.
Case study: Decarbonizing steel
A global leader in steel and mining, ArcelorMittal is active in programs for the decarbonization of steelmaking. The company targets a 35 percent reduction in its CO2 emissions by 2030 in Europe, and carbon neutrality by 2050.2
ArcelorMittal has already introduced 4G and 5G private networks to its plants in France, starting in Dunkerque. ArcelorMittal has announced the operational launch of 5G Steel, the largest 4G/5G network in the industrial environment, with Orange Business Services.
Key considerations in choosing 4G and 5G were:
- Extensive coverage: The mobile network covers all ArcelorMittal’s complex industrial sites, outdoors and indoors, including those underneath high-rise metal structures. This coverage provides greater freedom of movement for operators and connectivity across the site.
- Low latency: The reduced latency of 5G supports the deployment of autonomous vehicles and remote-control cockpits as well as security in high-risk areas.
- Data security: The private mobile network protects sensitive industrial data.
- The indoor radio coverage design takes into consideration the site specifics, including large metal and steel areas, and piles of materials which are transitory and move over time.
Wireless connectivity is necessary for gigafactories to be scalable and agile. Factory use cases need ubiquitous coverageand have a low tolerancefor intermittent network delays and handovers. This makes 5G the ideal wireless technology.
1. PROFINET is an open technical standard for data communication over Industrial Ethernet.
2. European Commission, “State aid: Commission approves €850 million French measure to support ArcelorMittal decarbonise its steel production” (July 2023).