How 5G can enable the factory of the future

To ensure that 5G can truly open wireless connectivity for factory automation, it is essential there is close collaboration between information and communication technologies (IT) and operational technologies (OT) to understand the challenges and requirements of a flexible smart manufacturing approach from both sides.

Until now, IT and OT have gone about business in their own domains. This is changing with the arrival of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT). Embedded sensors and software in physical industrial machines delivering data to be analyzed to optimize the manufacturing process is blurring the lines between them. IT and OT must work together to ensure greater agility and productivity, while ensuring the safety of employees.

Industry 4.0, or the fourth industrial revolution, is already beginning to transform manufacturing with super-efficient, connected smart factories. 5G will ultimately accelerate these processes. In the not too distant future, we will see manufacturers roll out easily configurable, highly flexible and modular production systems operating on-demand. They will provide enhanced data mining from connected devices, which can be fed into digital twins, for example, to provide production line simulations.

The flavors of 5G

To expand broadband capabilities and provide advanced connectivity to the industrial sector, 5G supports three key types of communication: enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), massive machine-type communication (mMTC) and ultra-reliable, low-latency communications (URLLC). Initial deployments depend on vendor roadmaps and the availability of features in vendors’ equipment.

“Currently, the priority is for launching the eMBB part of 5G, as most operators are opening up their commercial 5G networks this year, or the beginning of 2020,” says Berna Sayrac, Coordinator of Research Programs at Orange Labs in the field of critical IoT.

It is crucial, however, that IT and OT departments work together and understand each other's requirements to make the most of 5G. “It is vital from the beginning that all relevant stakeholders, including industrial companies, equipment vendors and operators, collaborate together to understand the different use cases, challenges and needs. This is essential in helping to ensure a seamless transition to 5G deployments,” adds Sayrac.

The business cases for 5G are potentially extremely diverse and can be implemented using the concept of network slicing. This approach delivers multiple network events over a single shared infrastructure. When it comes to controlling and managing remote factory equipment and assets, a network slice can be used for data transmission between different production sites. Slicing will also enable manufacturers to monitor and control various groups of robots on production lines, for example.

Note that Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) applications, such as smart meters and asset trackers, are also an important part of IoT connectivity for Industry 4.0. These applications are being served today by non-3GPP technology solutions, such as LoRa, Sigfox, etc., a situation that is expected to continue within the 5G era.

5G performance enabling new use cases

5G comes with some hurdles

The technical requirements of 5G, however, can be challenging in the industrial space, which by its very nature is diverse and heterogeneous and covers a huge number of applications and use cases.

Today, manufacturing uses mostly wireline technology, such as industrial Ethernet. Moving to a wireless communications medium like 5G is more complex. The ability to integrate with the existing industrial Ethernet network and industrial nodes and functions is a key requirement. Harnessing 5G’s capabilities in terms of security, network slicing and synchronizing times between devices is also paramount. These challenges are expected to take some time to be solved. Therefore, 4G Private Mobile Radio (PMR) can be a viable solution as a “road to 5G” for those applications whose requirements can be satisfied by 4G.

The industrial appeal of 5G

If Ethernet currently satisfies manufacturing’s low latency and reliability requirements, why the need for 5G?

“Factory owners want to get rid of cables as much as possible – they tend to be expensive to install and replace,” explains Sayrac. “5G offers more flexibility and efficiency in operations. It can provide a wide variety of services for different requirements to a high number of devices on a single technology, instead of needing several different technologies. That is a big differentiating factor and extremely important to future efficiencies.”

These efficiencies include better connectivity and IT integration into production processes to increase automation, such as the use of augmented reality glasses to improve knowledge sharing and safety. Wireless connectivity also allows for efficiencies that can’t be deployed using wired connectivity, such as automated vehicles and robots moving around the manufacturing plant. Wireless connectivity also makes it easier to design factory floors for flexibility and scalability.

The importance of industry-wide collaboration

As we have already outlined, it is imperative that IT and OT join forces to fully understand each other’s requirements. To this end, a number of industry bodies have been set up to raise awareness and address the technical, regulatory and business aspects of 5G.

The 5G Alliance for Connected Industries and Automation (5G-ACIA) is a global forum for collaboration between automation, engineering and processes industries in one corner, and telecom operators and suppliers in the other, together with several scientific institutes.

The Orange Group is playing an active role in 5G-ACIA to help create an ecosystem that is essential for the early adoption of 5G in manufacturing and to align the interests of smart factories worldwide.

“We have opted to work within 5G-ACIA as we think it is an important platform for exchanges within the industry. Through its collaborative work, we can find common solutions to real business needs. At the same time, we can provide standardization organizations with guidance on what is required from 5G to satisfy industrial needs,” explains Sayrac, who is the Orange representative in 5G-ACIA.

5G-ACIA feeds into organizations such as 3GPP, the standards organization that is leading the 5G standardization. Preliminary work done on a channel model in a factory by 5G-ACIA, for example, was provided to 3GPP and passed on consensus.

“On the industrial side, factory owners need to understand what mobile technology is and how it works, they need to be clear on what the capabilities and limits are,” adds Sayrac. “On our side, we are learning how Ethernet-based technologies work in factories, so that 5G will be able to integrate into existing infrastructures and deployment can be smooth and non-disruptive.”

With network slicing set to be a prominent feature of 5G in the industrial domain, the Orange Group is also working with the GSMA, which represents the interests of mobile operators globally. “This includes looking at the service requirements of business customers and how the interests of manufacturing can be translated into network slicing,” explains Nick Sampson, responsible for standards activities in the area of mobile networks at Orange.

5G and the factory of the future

Connectivity is at the heart of Industry 4.0, which is all about creating versatile, scalable and highly efficient smart factories. Its success is largely dependent on the technical performance of 5G – which is why collaboration between stakeholders from the manufacturing and mobile industries is critical for Industry 4.0 to deliver on its promises.

Discover the technologies that are shaping the factory of the future and read this exclusive Industry 4.0 whitepaper from Roland Berger containing interviews with manufacturers at the cutting edge.