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5G and the Manufacturing Edge: Optimism Tempered

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The 5G-enabled factory will have the capacity to maintain connections for far more sensors than either wired or previous wireless facilities.

As 5G moves into the world, network operators and manufacturers alike say it’s only a matter of time before it reaches its potential. Manufacturers, in particular, are optimistic about the enhanced machine-to-machine capabilities the emerging standard offers.

That’s the word from a survey of 141 network operators and enterprises released earlier this year by Heavy Reading, conducted in conjunction with Wind River. The enterprise respondents do not believe LTE or Wi-Fi is meeting their current industrial requirements, with only 12% satisfied with the performance of LTE and two percent that consider Wi-Fi to be an effective communication protocol. Clearly, the perception is that 5G is superior for industrial applications. More than one-fourth, 28%, believe that 5G’s performance advantages “will force its use” where wireless is needed in industrial networks. At the same time, they are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward 5G technologies. The majority, 58%, say that the claimed theoretical advantages of 5G still “need to be proven in practice.”

“The 5G era is only just getting started,” states Gabriel Brown, principal analyst with Heavy Reading and author of the study. A majority of operator respondents expect that by 2023, 5G will have become the mainstream mobile service. A significant number (36% enterprise; 40% consumer) think this will happen by the end of this year. “This new nexus in the mobile network architecture enables operators to offer higher performance services – particularly low latency services – that are impossible or impractical to deliver with 4G and cannot be effectively delivered from large, centralized data centers,” Brown notes.

At the same time, the Covid-19 crisis may be accelerating enterprise adoption of 5G technologies, as borne out in a recent PwC report. “The unique advantages of 5G in further automating the factory floor and incorporating new services into all kinds of products will make it a must-have in the post-COVID-19 era,” the PwC authors report. They say it may take time to fully realize the benefits of 5G environments, however. “Although 5G promises high levels of reliability, the factory floor is a notoriously difficult, noisy environment for any wireless systems. It is possible to implement 5G as an entirely closed system, but that would likely mean losing the speed and flexibility gained by maintaining critical computing processes in the cloud.”

Cost issues may arise

Industrial 5G implementations may also be hampered by costs stemming from investments in networking, sensors, and revising base architectures, PwC warns.

This cost needs to be offset by productivity gains realized through 5G, which can be realized with careful planning, the PwC authors continue. “When integrated into factory solutions, 5G’s faster speeds, lower latency, and greater bandwidth should, in theory, enable companies to increase their factories; throughout, by minimizing the downtime required for maintenance and by enabling faster changes to the production line. And greater integration with supply chains will reduce delays in replenishing parts interventions.”

The Heavy Reading survey covered the automotive and industrial sectors among enterprises, which reflected bullish plans for 5G rollouts. Among respondents within the automotive sector, initiatives leading the way in connectivity include telematics, navigation, and infotainment built within vehicles, as well as advances in driver automation and mass-scale electrification. When asked which cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) applications will lead deployment, vehicle-to-networks lead with 56%. In second place, with 36%, is vehicle-to-infrastructure. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) scores almost as highly at 35%. A majority (64%), however, do not see 5G as essential to autonomous driving.

Among industrial respondents across the board, most believe embedded monitoring is more important to infrastructure than it is to the applications themselves or to deriving business insights. The most important use of embedded monitoring is for “security” of the edge cloud infrastructure, which is identified as “extremely important” by a majority (56%) of respondents. “Performance” comes second (44%), followed by “business insight” (33% “extremely important”) and “application analytics” (19% “extremely important”). The relatively low percentages seeing 5G value in direct business improvements “imply that respondents will have an alternative, dedicated tools at the application and business insight layers,” Brown states. “These are still important, however, and the response does not preclude that edge infrastructure monitoring could feed data into those tools and contribute to business insight.”

The PwC researchers are optimistic that 5G will have a major impact on industrial operations as it’s rolled out. “By eliminating the need for wired connectivity, 5G will supplement the high-speed manufacturing environment with a far greater degree of flexibility. And the sheer richness of the 5G-enabled factory, which will have the capacity to maintain connections for far more sensors than either wired or previous wireless facilities, offers the potential to connect just about anything.”

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About Joe McKendrick

Joe McKendrick is RTInsights Industry Editor. He is a regular contributor to Forbes on digital, cloud and Big Data topics. He served on the organizing committee for the recent IEEE International Conference on Edge Computing (full bio). Follow him on Twitter @joemckendrick.

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