We are living through strange, difficult times. The coronavirus pandemic has inevitably put pressure on nearly all businesses, including manufacturing plants. In the same breath, the crisis has highlighted the importance of resilience and agility in this sector: many factories that rely on manual, on-site labour, have been closed – but some have been able to adjust their setup and ramp up production to meet increased demand for essential products.
5G connectivity might boost those factories’ ability to meet such a challenge, while accelerating a shift that is already underway. Many of the machines aiding efficiency and advanced automation would deliver more value if they were connected and managed on a reliable wireless network. At the moment, connection typically relies on ethernet cables, which is expensive and significantly limits flexibility. The new high-performing 5G standard might finally make operations wireless and smarter – and enable real progress.
According to Erik Josefsson, Ericsson’s vice president and head of advanced industries, “It is just not viable to put cables on every sensor or machine [in your factory]. To change the game you have to start to adopt wireless technology like 5G.”
Relying on cables has historically made production processes “more static”, explains Afif Osseiran, Ericsson’s director for industry engagements and research, and vice-chair of 5G-ACIA board, a global organisation ensuring that 5G meets the needs of industry.
“There is an interest, of course, to have flexibility. Take for example the Covid-19 pandemic: if you manufacture cars and suddenly the next day you would like to produce masks – if you do have a lot of cables, [rejigging the production] will take you much more time and will be more costly,” Osseiran says.
Wireless 5G connectivity will usher in a whole new paradigm of manufacturing. Autonomous Mobile Robots will be able to ferry around components or finished goods, dispose of scrap materials, and remove bottlenecks to help workers focus on more value-adding tasks. Sensors will keep tabs on the production process and on the movement of parts and goods, while constantly harvesting and feeding data back to machines and production managers to optimise operations, speed up maintenance and improve safety.
Over time, thanks to 5G’s low-latency, security and reliability, some machines will come to be almost like colleagues, working seamlessly alongside human workers – able to work in close proximity with them, and assisting them throughout the production process. Connectivity might, in other words, propel forward the era of collaborative robots.
A crucial component of this development, Josefsson explains, is how connectivity will extend well beyond the shop floor. It will not only link machines, sensors and workers inside and across the industrial site, but it will also link the factory to the outside world – updating the facility about changing order patterns, logistical snags or simply reviewing instructions through the cloud.
“Big car brands such as BMW, Daimler and Toyota, manufacturers such as Atlas Copco and Hexagon, or truck manufacturers like Scania and Volvo are all starting to adopt cellular [connectivity],” says Josefsson. “This is because it gives them the opportunity to connect things on the shop floor, but also to connect things outside the factory. That seamless connectivity, indoor and outdoor, through local and global networks, is critical for achieving flexible manufacturing, which will fundamentally transform the sector.”
Josefsson says that research carried out jointly by Ericsson and consultancy firm KPMG shows that a factory embracing wireless communication can unlock a value equal to an extra $1 per square metre every day. Given that an average factory can rely on a shop floor of 10,000 square metres, the annual extra value is around $4 million. Another study by London-based insight firm IHS Markit calculated that the 5G global value chain is poised to result in a worldwide gain of $13.2 trillion, and 22.3 million jobs by 2035.
Juha Mirsch, global cellular communication lead at ABB Motion, one of the main businesses of industrial automation giant ABB, says that we are still in the early phases of 5G, and that one of the major challenges ahead will be to “introduce this new way of connecting our devices on the shop floor of ‘brownfield factories’” – over 90 per cent of manufacturing sites have a legacy infrastructure and a diverse machine park and platforms that must be retrofitted. “If we can find a model to integrate [5G] with these factories’ existing IT solutions and we have an ecosystem of use cases to build up, it will justify the investment. Take ABB motors and robots – having them natively connected to the 5G network as ‘plug ’n play’ will accelerate adoption”.
But the move towards the 5G connected factory is already underway in many parts of the world. And Ericsson, long a key player in the connectivity business, is at the forefront of the global 5G roll-out, playing a critical role in revolutionising wireless connectivity in the manufacturing sector. In January 2020, the company – in a joint demonstration with ABB and telecom company Swisscom – held a jaw-dropping showcase of 5G remote-controlled robots at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Visitors drew on tablets, which directly translated into synchronised robotic movements writing messages in sand for visitors 1.5km away. In industrial settings, that level of remote control will allow companies to leverage experts without needing them on site, reducing travel and adding the ability to centralise smarter operations.
“[The showcase] demonstrates the capabilities of 5G for robotics and manufacturing on our commercially live network,” Christoph Aeschlimann, chief information officer and chief technology officer at Swisscom, said after the demonstration. “5G is here and ready to be deployed. Those stepping in now will be rewarded with a competitive edge.”
For more information, visit ericsson.com/5g