Expert Q&A: 5G manufacturing

An expert panel discusses the potential impact of 5G technology on the UK's manufacturing sector

From the ongoing spat between the US and Huawei, to lunatic conspiracy theories that phone masts are somehow responsible for the current pandemic, 5G has been grabbing the headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent months.

But away from the politics and internet trolling, the technology’s march into the mainstream has continued unabated, and businesses across the economy are increasingly excited about its potential. This is particularly true of the world of manufacturing, where it is seen as a key enabler of the so-called fourth industrial revolution. The Engineer spoke to some of the UK’s leading experts in this field to find out more about the ways in which 5G promises to reshape the manufacturing landscape.

Meet the panelists

How can 5G enhance manufacturing operations?

Rab Scott: The potential of 5G to enhance manufacturing operations is a result of the capabilities of the technology. 5G offers increased bandwidth, increased connectivity in terms of numbers of devices, reduced latency with in-built security. This is also built on by the potential to have private network deployment in a manufacturing facility. By enabling larger numbers of devices to connect within a factory the potential of Industry 4.0 for a ‘Smart Shopfloor’ can finally be realised. Reduced latency will allow real time remote control of manufacturing systems while increased bandwidth will allow line side support through augmented reality devices. All of these should stimulate improved productivity and competitiveness.

Marc Funnell: Digitalisation is all about gleaning intelligence from data and ultimately automating in near real time. 5G is essentially an enabler; to accelerate digitalisation and transformation across manufacturing, reaping rewards including increases in productivity, efficiency and product quality, shortening product development and manufacturing cycles. 5G as a cellular technology is one step on the journey to opening up the ability to connect to current and future data streams from a large number of machines in a controlled, safe and ultra-reliable way.

Private, reliable and low latency wireless solutions provide more flexibility and opportunities to monitor and make real time adjustments to moving and rotating manufacturing systems which operate in harsh environments, offering alternatives to what is current state-of the-art in most facilities of today i.e. Wired and WiFi base solutions.

Nick Wright: The opportunity for 5G in manufacturing is significant. 5G offers ultra-low latency, extremely fast data speeds and the ability to simultaneously connect a million devices per km². This means optimising on-site and in-factory production and processes, improving efficiency and safety, and reducing downtime. 5G will be needed for large-scale predictive maintenance and time-critical hazard detection or scale deployments of collaborative robotics. 5G could also be applied to monitoring and management of goods across the supply chain when combined with the internet of things to enable real-time asset tracking to manage incoming and outgoing goods, giving manufacturers visibility of the entire end-to-end supply chain for the first time.

5G is a ‘network of networks’ meaning that it works with both legacy and future networks. The potential to have a dedicated, private 5G network offers manufacturers the level of control and security for which we currently rely upon wired networks. 5G will become the underpinning technology to enable the 4th industrial revolution due to the way it enables other advanced digital technologies like virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence and the internet of things.

Can you outline your own activities in this area?

RS: The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) is leading a 5G Test bed, 5G Factory of the Future (5G-FoF) with an industrial consortium that includes global players BAE Systems, IBM and telecoms and private 5G integrator Three, along with the Digital Catapult and North-West England-based SMEs MTT and Miralis Data. The £9.5 million project for the 5G-FoF testbed, which includes match funding from industry, was made by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and is part of the government’s £200m investment in 5G test bed facilities across the country. The programme will establish a primary site at the AMRC North West and secondary sites in BAE Systems Warton and AMRC Sheffield. The AMRC aims to stand up a 5G testbed to evaluate current technologies, demonstrate the technologies and encourage companies to work with us to de-risk their own adoption of this technology. I sit on the UK5G Manufacturing Working Group ensuring that cross-sectoral dissemination of best practice, technologies and opportunities happens.

Vassilis Seferidis: 5G-ENCODE is a pioneering project making the benefits of 5G a reality for UK manufacturers. It has been set up to establish clear business cases and value propositions for the application of 5G technology in manufacturing.

Led by Zeetta Networks and partially funded by DCMS, activity started in early 2020 and will run until March 2022. The key objective is to design and deliver a private 5G network within the National Composites Centre (NCC). This will be used to explore new business models and 5G technologies, including network slicing and splicing, within an industrial environment.

Specifically, activity will focus on three areas:

  • AR/VR to support design, manufacturing and training.
  • Monitoring and tracking of time sensitive assets.
  • Wireless real-time in-process monitoring and analytics.

NW: Digital Catapult’s Made in 5G report is a useful resource for any business that is thinking about exploring their options to adopt 5G.

Digital Catapult is partnering with a number of large organisations, such as Ericsson and Verizon, to trial 5G in a real-world manufacturing environment. Our Industrial 5G project aims to demonstrate the feasibility and value of 5G for industrial service providers and end-users to incentivise early adoption by the UK manufacturing sector by delivering a series of real life early stage test cases to prove 5G’s potential.

We’re also coordinating DCMS’s 5G Testbeds and Trials programme that is looking broadly at the implementation of 5G in manufacturing and logistics settings through two projects:  5GENCODE and 5GEM UK.

We’re also really excited about the recently announced 5G Factory of the Future project. Partnering with a range of partners including the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), IBM, Three and BAE Systems, we’ll create an open access industrial 5G testbed in Lancashire.

How can manufacturers tap into 5G capabilities and what are challenges of adoption?

RS: There are a number of 5G testbeds being set up across the UK by the UK5G Group. The purpose of these is to stimulate the growth of a 5G eco-system in the UK, both in terms of technology providers and in terms of adoption. These test beds demonstrate a variety of use cases in a number of different sectors, including manufacturing, and will be providing guidance and lessons learned about the adoption journey and how to overcome the barriers to adoption. These barriers or challenges to adoption include the business case of adoption of 5G – the ROI question; the cultural barriers as recently exemplified during the Covid-19 pandemic; and the technology questions – what tech should I use?, where can I access it? A variety of case studies will be published to inform and educate those wishing to adopt this potentially game-changing technology.

5G manufacturing
5G is widely viewed as an enabler to accelerate digitalisation across manufacturing. Image:

MF: Through the 5G-Encode and Digital Engineering Technology & Innovation (DETI) programmes that National Composites Centre (NCC) is involved in, manufacturing organisations will be able to use a state-of-the-art 5G enabled industrial test bed to explore 5G and associated digital technologies to invest in, and exploit value from vast quantities of data generated. DETI will develop tools, technologies and processes for smart manufacturing and design, underpinned by the 5G-ENCODE network.

The main challenges are around IT infrastructure where there needs to be an increase in equipment to be able to connect effectively. There is a gap in IT knowledge and skills around the difference between current 4G and the benefits of moving to 5G, and how to successfully implement and operate a 5G network.  With considerable UK investment, programmes like 5G-Encode and DETI will offer risk free demonstrators and access to test beds, showcasing benefits to the manufacturing industry.

NW: The biggest barrier at the moment is concern about cost efficiency and return on investment. The previously described projects are all intended to demonstrate how 5G can deliver value and impact for manufacturing industries. There are also worries about compatibility and interoperability, and integration into existing industrial systems, as well as the need for security, lack of understanding about 5G in general and cultural barriers to working with companies in other sectors, as well as startups.

There are two routes we are supporting manufacturers with:

  • Early experimentation, through building POCs and running trials on specific use cases to prove value and slowly build up capability inside the organisation or,
  • Strategic approach, where the impact of 5G is considered for all aspects of the business, and a longer term roadmap will deliver value throughout the organisation.

Whichever route an organisation chooses, tapping into the capabilities will be a coalition of the willing, with partnerships required across network operators, 5G equipment manufacturers, operational technology integrators, data platform providers and many more.

5G manufacturing
5G could help drive and enhance the deployment of manufacturing technologies such as this automated fibre placement system in operation at the National Composites Centre

How will 5G shape the development and deployment of other areas of manufacturing technology in the longer term?

RS: Current technologies enabling the connectivity for industry 4.0 (e.g. 4G, Wifi, LoRa, LPWAN) have limitations in terms of bandwidth, latency, number of supported devices and security features. Beyond replacing the traditional wireless technologies and cabled infrastructure, 5G is expected to make a paradigm shift across the connectivity solutions by providing fine-tuned control capability and flexibility over multiple parameters such as network slices, availability, energy usage and bandwidth per unit area. For example, the use of Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs) in manufacturing facilities will be increased as connectivity challenges are overcome. In addition, the potential to provide dynamic AI-optimisation of the AGVs through the use of cloud-based services will improve their productivity. Cloud-based AI with very low latency will enable closed loop autonomous control of manufacturing systems. The use of AR for line side support will also increase as bandwidth challenges are overcome. So overall, 5G will accelerate the 4th Industrial Revolution in the UK.

VS: For manufacturing in particular, 5G has the potential to be truly revolutionary. Machine-to-machine connectivity, ultra-low latency and unique network slicing capabilities will transform traditional manufacturing processes, making them more efficient and productive.

Unlike 4G and WiFi, 5G is designed from the ground up to be truly secure. Not only this, but 5G is scalable in a way that other technologies are not. Its wireless nature means that mission critical availability can be deployed rapidly across a given environment, with minimal waste and maximum benefit.

Harnessing the power of 5G technology will improve the efficiency of manufacturing processes beyond recognition. We know that. Now, our job at 5G-ENCODE is to demonstrate exactly how 5G can be applied to solve specific, tangible problems in an industrial setting. When we have done this, we will have succeeded in building a reliable, effective business model of the future.

NW: Manufacturing has so far  focused on use cases for optimising operations within production and in-factory processes, which are often viewed as most business critical. Opportunities to develop resilient  and trusted supply chains, however, be transformative. In addition, connected products in the in-service lifecycle provides an opportunity to build new sustainable business models for the sector, some of which are beginning to be explored. These are service based business models (“servitisation”), which bring manufacturers closer to the end user by giving the manufacturer access to usage data. We’re working on a project with a major manufacturer to do just this.