5G network slicing can drive Industry 4.0

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5G – with its ability to create network slices that can deliver independent, yet integrated communications services – could transform every industry it touches. Manufacturing, transport and healthcare are all likely to be radically evolved by the advanced communications that the 5G network will deliver.

For enterprises, the current wireless communications infrastructure is mostly based on the 4G cellular network and Wi-Fi. These rigid networks lack the flexibility needed to support rapidly expanding sectors, such as autonomous vehicles that require low-latency connectivity, or manufacturing, which is embracing IoT and AI.

The central premise of 5G is to create a dynamic and powerful virtualized network – based on an advanced cellular communications infrastructure – that can be divided or "sliced" into layers, each of which can be individually designed, deployed and controlled. The idea opportunity is that each "slice" might be adapted to a specific usage or the needs of a group of users in a business ecosystem.

It's the use of NFV (Network Function Virtualization), coupled with SDN (Software Defined Networks), that delivers the ability to slice the network into flexible layers. This fundamental change to the architecture of mobile networks enables 5G to be customized to deliver the precise needs of each business use case, while the shift to more virtualized networks enables them to be hosted in data centers at the edge of current network topologies.

For businesses, the value of 5G and its ability to slice the network into discrete layers is clear. It enables them to optimize latency, transmission rates, QoS, security, automation, time-to-market and cost. From media and entertainment to healthcare, manufacturing, retail, transport, energy and agriculture, 5G will have a profound impact on how these industries use their communications networks to deliver next-generation services and products.

For example, take the burgeoning autonomous automotive sector. 5G slicing would enable vehicles to include onboard entertainment systems, emergency communications and advanced GPS and environment tracking, all of which would require their own slices of the 5G network. Factories are also ideal environments for 5G slicing. Massively connected IoT sensors could be used by automatically guided vehicles, for instance. Components in cars would be highly trackable and able to give field operators the information they need for repair and maintenance.

"Businesses are waiting for a communications network that offers them more flexibility," commented Isabelle Finkler, Account Manager, Orange Business Services. "This is why network slicing is such an exciting technology. It delivers a fundamental change to how businesses can customize the network to provide the services they want to deliver to their customers."

Slicing communications

The concept of the network slice is to deploy specific services across the 5G network that are defined by stated service level agreements (SLAs). Network slicing allows a custom network to be constructed that includes highly focused components – such as low-latency, data speed and security – all of which can run on dedicated or shared networks. Network slices could be configured to deliver many essential services, including low-latency communications for the burgeoning autonomous vehicle sector. Another use case could be security, whereby a business or industry establishes a private 5G slice that they control with made-to-order authentication. This sort of connectivity would be ideal to enable a business ecosystem to control the degree of openness and security it wants to establish with its partners.

Network slicing

With 5G network slicing, advanced communications that embrace AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) could become commonplace across a business, as VoIP is today. And the burgeoning IoT sector is a perfect match for network slicing, as operators could deploy separate 5G slices for each IoT user. For example, an in-situ worker in a factory, a remote expert providing robotic maintenance services and a supply-chain partner would all have differing connectivity needs. The 5G network slices would be used to control every aspect of production as Industry 4.0 takes shape.

Nicolas Bihannic, Network Architect, Orange Labs commented: "Network slicing is a key concept to shift from the current 'one size fits all' model for mobile networks towards multiple tailored connectivity services. The goal of 5G slicing is to enable businesses to fully optimize their networks to deliver seamless systems that can be managed independently yet still connect together into an asset that can evolve as business needs change. 5G and network slicing can then be seen as a system of systems."

Flexible, customizable networks

The impact that 5G slicing could have on multiple industries is profound. Operators could offer enterprises various types of slices to meet their specific needs. For instance, a single network slice that has low latency and high levels of security would be ideal for the autonomous vehicle or emergency services sectors. Multiple network slices could also be bundled together that offer specific services, such as analytics, M2M communications or real-time sensor monitoring, which would deliver new capabilities to the manufacturing sector, for instance. According to McKinsey, 30-55 percent of the activity in manufacturing is related to ICT intensive services, and out of every dollar invested in manufacturing infrastructure, 19 cents goes to ICT services. 5G slicing will be the catalyst that drives the development of the connected factory, as this networking technology enables manufacturers to take control of each aspect of their processes and securely connect their stakeholders to the entire value chain.

"5G promises to be a key enabler for factories of the future. It will not only deliver an evolution of mobile broadband networks, it will provide the unified communications platform needed to disrupt with new business models and to overcome the shortcomings of current communications technologies. As such, 5G technologies have the potential to amplify and accelerate the ongoing transformation and to unlock the next level of efficiency gains in manufacturing," argues the 5G PPP, a joint initiative between the European Commission and European ICT industry, in its Factories of the Future paper.

According to Nicolas Bihannic, Orange is actively engaged in several 5G network slicing initiatives and trials, and a key part of this is listening to what industry wants, whether that be automotive, transport, manufacturing, energy or healthcare.

Want to know more? Read this interview with Bernadette Villeforceix, Head of Research Projects for connected and autonomous cars within the Orange Innovation, Marketing and Technologies Division, followed by this whitepaper on network slicing and blockchain in the manufacturing sector by Nicolas Bihannic and Isabelle Finkler.