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Factories of the Future

Will the smart factory benefit from 5G? Industry experts weigh in
Charlie Osborne 24/10/2019 00:00:00

5G is on its way. The next-generation wireless technology, expected to offer speeds far beyond the capabilities of 4G, has captured the interest and investment of telecommunications companies and may become the catalyst for transformation in the manufacturing sector. 

At present, 5G is not necessarily defined as a standalone system; rather, transitional technologies including LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro are being implemented to merge bandwidth across multiple frequencies and improve device speeds before a full shunt to 5G infrastructure. 

Deployments across the 450 MHz - 6 GHz and 4 GHz - 52 GHz range are in play. We can expect gradual rollouts as telecoms providers build, test, and release the architecture required to facilitate 5G and reliance on existing 4G infrastructure is peeled away. 

Ericsson, Huawei, Qualcomm, Samsung, Intel, and other vendors are already researching the set of technologies and some are offering 5G-related hardware solutions, as well as working with telecoms firms in 5G deployment tests. Pilots are underway across countries including the United States, United Kingdom and South Korea, and Singapore recently asked its major carriers to submit proposals for 5G spectrum packages. 

According to Gartner, the worldwide 5G market will be worth $4.2 billion by the end of 2020 as companies invest in infrastructure upgrades necessary for rollouts. 

When 4G arrived, the major use-case was obvious: content streaming. As consumers began to demand more bandwidth and better speeds to facilitate using online services including YouTube, Netflix, and Spotify, telecoms firms answered. 

However, when it comes to 5G, the obvious, use cases are not so easily defined. 

Speaking to attendees at the Qualcomm 5G Summit in Barcelona last week, Brian Mecum, Verizon VP of Device Technology said that the company had already invested billions, but there are no "killer" use cases as of yet, beyond consumer products, remote working, and connected vehicles. 

5G requires an overhaul of existing architecture and may involve software-defined networking (SDN) setups, multi-access edge computing, and, of course, spectrum -- in which auctions have become a battleground between competing vendors and each country will have its own version of 5G, rather than sticking to a global, accepted standard. 

Despite a lack of one major case for 5G, the manufacturing sector has been pegged as a likely area to be transformed by the technology. 

CNET: Verizon 5G Home's expansion boosts broadband with mobile tie-in

The smart factory, also known as Industry 4.0, defines the shift in industrial settings from legacy systems to connected technologies. This can include the use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, sensors, edge computing, self-healing networks, and automation. 

Industry 4.0 relies on connectivity. Without a stable, fast connection, industrial networks cannot capture or process data on the floor, generated by IoT sensors or at the edge, and this information cannot be used for equipment monitoring or maintenance. Operators are unable to see problems emerge in real-time, and both SDN and automation-based architecture may not function properly. 

Fiber as a standalone option for connectivity can provide the speed, latency, reliability, and capacity required, but 5G is eventually expected to offer more -- solving the "last mile" problem -- as well as enhance mobility. 

5G, however, should not be considered a replacement for fiber connections, as 5G infrastructure will need to be supported by and underpinned by fiber, especially when it comes to small cell deployments and for 5G radios. 

According to Jonathan Wilkins, director of EU Automation, there are three core ways in which 5G can improve the manufacturing sector when it comes to device traffic. 

Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) is of benefit -- given 5G's theoretical peak data rate of 10Gbps -- as well as Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC) radio latency of as little as 1 ms which can help keep industrial operations from disruption, and Massive Machine-type Communication (eMTC), in which 5G can theoretically support up to one million devices per square kilometer, perfect for machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and industrial IoT applications.

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