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Industrial automation to become more challenging, more powerful with 5G

Industrial automation to benefit from private networks

By countering fragmentation, next generation cellular technology will enable new business critical applications. Private LTE networks already let early adopters benefit today. 

5G is about to lift industrial automation to new heights. Of course the next generation of cellular communications technology will further fuel the trend of connecting a factory’s operational technology (OT) - its machines, control systems, power infrastructure, local and remote control software - with its information technology (IT) systems - the communication network, the enterprise resource planning system, the cloud, and so on. But beyond that, it will fundamentally change the way people work in, and think about, industrial automation.

The new paradigm that Industry 4.0 enables will raise the stakes - adding new layers of complexity that require more planning, preparation, and a higher degree of competence. On the flipside, the outcome will be more power, representing a quantum leap forward for the sector. In this blog, we explore a few ways that 5G, along with other technologies that are behind the rise of the Industry 4.0, changes the way we need to think about industrial automation going forward.

Success will demand a holistic view

Industry 4.0, and with it 5G, will enable full, real‑time transparency across all processes and assets. The flood of data this involves holds obvious potential, but tapping into it and translating it into actual benefits will require a new, more holistic way of thinking about all the flows of resources, goods, and people, as well as of the supply, production, and distribution chains. Not to mention the operation and maintenance of all the machines and other installation, and the safety and wellbeing of the people involved.

Setting up and running this new way of communicating between goods, production systems and processes will require extensive human thinking and supervision, leading to a shift towards more know‑how and a deeper understanding of all aspects of the production process. Likewise, rationalizing processes on the conveyor belt will demand more sophisticated planning, creation, and process management, combined with a move to strengthen local production capacity.

The advent of digital twins

The culmination of the holistic approach - the marriage between OT and IT - will be the digital twin, a digital representation of all of the relevant information pertaining to the manufacturing process. As digital twins mature, they will progress both in scope and in depth, tying together increasingly more detailed data on resources, products, and assets, as well as information on the status and performance of the operational infrastructure, the machines, and even external supply chains.

Because they build on deep knowledge of the industrial processes, digital twins will serve as an experimental testbed on which process changes can be validated before they are implemented in the physical environment. Additionally, they will help direct maintenance efforts to resolve weaknesses before they cause operations to shut down. And when the inevitable does occur, digital twins can help leverage redundancies in the manufacturing process to devise a temporary workaround until the problem is sorted out.

Private networks - a stepping stone on the way to 5G

With its huge data throughput, fast turnaround times, and a high density of connections, 5G will be vital in making the Industry 4.0, digital twins, and the next generation of industrial automation a reality. It will be joined in this task by a full quiver of enabling technologies, from artificial intelligence and machine learning to augmented and virtual reality, from a new generation of human machine interfaces to seamless indoor and outdoor positioning, edge intelligence, and decentralized ledgers such as the blockchain. But unless industry stakeholders are convinced of the reliability, availability and privacy of the technology, they will be unwilling to adopt it.

An essential element to meet these KPI’s are private, or non‑public cellular networks. With many years to go before the industry‑relevant facets of 5G are rolled out on public networks, non‑public networks, owned and operated by the industries or by professional service providers, represent the quickest way to solve the challenges of reliability, availability, low turnaround time,  and data privacy. Already available using 4G LTE, non‑public networks give companies the possibility to adjust the network configuration and radio spectrum utilization to meet industry‑specific needs, to enable mission‑critical applications, ultra‑low latencies, ultra‑high data transfer rates, or an extra level of safety that rival those offered by 5G.

Manufacturing sites are an obvious target for private networks. To the extent that they leverage wireless connectivity at all, they tend to be made up of a patchwork of technologies that are well designed for their respective use cases but, due to limited interoperability, cannot be integrated into a single platform. This limits the value site managers can gain from their data, as well as the complexity of applications that they can enable. Private LTE networks solve this problem by offering a tailored wireless communication infrastructure that devices across the site can connect to, enabling site‑wide predictive maintenance, process monitoring, asset and goods tracking, and other applications.

Warehouses, supply chains, and logistics is another area in which private networks can bring their value to bear, enabling a versatile, scalable, and easy to implement path to digitalize operations. The applications involved in these scenarios are varied, from wireless tags used to track goods within the site, to autonomous ground vehicles used to transport them from to and from the shelves, to human‑machine interfaces used by staff to locate items, manage tasks, and streamline operations. As in the previous use case, the advantage of private LTE networks over public ones is that they can be tuned to meet the performance requirements of these applications.

Breaking down silos in industrial automation

The promise of 5G and the Industry 4.0 is forcing site managers, process engineers, hardware and software developers, and other stakeholders to think outside of their respective silos. In doing so, they will be exploring new ground, mined with challenges, but holding tremendous potential. The need to step out of the “business‑as‑usual mindset” will be challenging. But expect the pull exerted by the technology to be strong enough to help some industrial players, both large and small, catch the next wave of industrial automation.