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5G in Manufacturing: What’s Important, and What Can Wait

Nov. 19, 2020
If you’ve not yet developed your 5G strategy, you’re not behind the curve.

You’ve likely seen mobile phone commercials touting the wonders of 5G and how these networks are now available across the United States. To some degree, this is true – if you have a 5G device and if you’re situated in hot spots in select cities across the country. As a cellular service for consumers, 5G obviously remains a work in progress. But as a driving technology for manufacturing, the introduction of private (and eventually public) networks in the coming years is going to be a game-changer. 

My organization recently released a study, “Next-Generation Connectivity: 5G’s Role in Advancing Manufacturing,” that shows not only the vast opportunities awaiting manufacturers (2 in 3 executives surveyed now agree the benefits will be worth the cost of adoption) but also the complexities and challenges that companies will encounter over the next decade.

Let’s start with the opportunities: Over time, 5G will reshape how most manufacturing companies connect equipment, sensors, processes, and products, as well as communicate with employees. Up to 100 times faster than the fourth generation of mobile technology, 5G brings lower latency, greater reliability, increased security, edge computing capabilities, greater agility, and more. It will drive these outcomes by enabling a range of new possibilities for manufacturers including innovative technologies like AI, advanced robotics, digital twins, and massive Internet of Things (IoT) deployments. It will power smart factory initiatives and accelerate more agile digital transformation.

As promising as this is, it’s not going to be an overnight revolution. Here are some key takeaways from our research:

1. For manufacturers who have not developed 5G strategies, you’re not behind the curve.  Few U.S. companies have deployed 5G, much less made large investments yet. That’s because aside from the limited general deployment of public 5G networks, critical 5G standards and supporting technologies for manufacturing applications (such as time-sensitive networking) are not yet commercially available.

2. 5G is just a tool. Connectivity is the name of the game. Although 5G will be a key part of connectivity for consumers and businesses, manufacturers should be focusing their efforts on smart connectivity, whether through 5G, Wi-Fi 6, 4G LTE, wired ethernet, or another channel. (Sixty percent of manufacturing executives surveyed see a next generation of Wi-Fi solutions, including future iterations such as Wi-Fi 6, as alternatives to deliver faster speeds and better performance in the next few years.) What matters most is generating actionable information from a web of connections — from people to systems to sensors to partners.

3. The use cases that drive 5G deployments vary. For example, a use case that requires mobility, such as communication with drones, mobile robots, or autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs), is a prime candidate for 5G consideration. Other leading use cases include asset tracking, augmented reality, condition-based monitoring, and product and services enablement. Finally, applications involving extensive data and sensors, and situations where workers need to be connected including in warehousing, are compelling cases.

4.  The complexity of 5G implementations varies. For some, 5G may end up only being the cellular network their personal cellphones run on. For others, it will replace hardwired connections or Wi-Fi networks in factories. For others still, it will be an opportunity to enable IoT, smart factories, and Industry 4.0 with thousands of sensors that monitor equipment, processes, and more, communicating through edge devices to cloud-based services for analysis or connectivity to partners.

5. Initially, private 5G deployments will outpace public ones, primarily because U.S. wireless companies are deploying networks based on different types of 5G spectrum. Areas of coverage, bandwidth, and speed will all likely vary significantly, even within extremely limited geographic areas. Just as companies started investing in private branch exchanges for telephony in the 1970s instead of relying on public telephone networks, initial 5G manufacturing deployments will most likely rely on private 5G deployments.

6. 5G is evolving. With future releases every one-to-two years, a multitude of new 5G standards and technologies will roll out over time. For manufacturers, the next five years will be critical as 5G Release 16 technology becomes available (estimated for mid-2021), with its support for industrial capabilities. Forty-four percent of the respondents to MAPI’s survey also noted that within three years, they expect they will have at least one 5G application deployed, while another 28% said they would be piloting or testing.

7. 5G will accelerate smart factory initiatives, and vice versa. With more sensors, more automation, more visuals, and lots more data, digitalization will define the factory of the future. As companies continue their digital manufacturing journeys, 5G will eventually be a key enabler for the movement of all the data that enables Industry 4.0, from production planning to predictive maintenance to AGVs.

Stephen Gold is president and CEO of MAPI, the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation.

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