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5G Networks Can Revolutionize Manufacturing (If You Know How To Run Them)

March 21, 2024
Personnel, not technology access, may determine whether 5G is worth manufacturers’ time.

If your operators don’t know how to access new features on top-of-the-line CNC machines, quality measurement systems or drill presses, you might not get vendor-promised productivity gains. Only skilled operators who understand how to take advantage of improvements get the most out of new machines.

Likewise, sporting private 5G cellular networks in your plant might not make sense without anyone in-house who understands what you can do with the new tech. Unless you’re okay with contracting innovation in perpetuity.

What 5G Actually Offers

John Deere’s Waterloo Works plant in Waterloo, Iowa, sports a plant-wide, 5G network. No longer does the manufacturer need to lay Ethernet cable to network machines. WiFi access points can only handle a limited number of IoT devices at a time before signal interference becomes a serious problem. 5G access points provide clean communication for a much larger number of devices.

By switching to a private 5G cellular network, John Deere gained the flexibility to expand the IoT system at Waterloo Works more easily than was possible with Ethernet or WiFi technologies. This in turn helps the manufacturer create a more robust pool of plant-wide data to analyze operations, increase productivity and enforce rigid quality standards.

[Ed. note – Expect in the near future a deeper story about what John Deere is up to at its Waterloo plant.]

John Deere required expert help setting up the first 5G trials at the plant but thanks to vendor-supplied training now manages the cellular network in-house. Without this expertise, John Deere would have to lean on its vendor every time the company wanted to try something new, dampening the speed of innovation.

And this makes me wonder whether Waterloo Works is a gold standard for manufacturers to emulate but also a warning about what businesses need to take full advantage of investing in 5G private cellular networks and thus justify the capex.

Impossible People to Hire

Following a tour of the plant I asked Jason Wallin, principal architect at John Deere, whether prior to embarking on the 5G initiative John Deere had felt any fear about deploying the new technology.

Why Buy Toys No One Can Play With?

5G home internet service began in late 2018. 5G smartphones hit the market in 2019. Plant-wide 5G network deployment presents a still-nascent use case, however, making the required skillset rare.

Leo Gergs, principal analyst at ABI Research says that only large manufacturing and factory automation companies such as Rockwell Automation, Bosch Rexroth, Siemens and John Deere have the required expertise on hand. The problem for small- and medium-size businesses (SMBs) lies with the need for hiring trade-offs.

“No candidate can be an expert in all three domains [OT, networking, cellular technology]. A compromise would always entail giving up on some expertise in manufacturing OT environments for a bit of telecommunications knowledge. And manufacturers are not prepared to engage in this trade-off,” Gergs says.

Gregory Wilcox, principal application engineer for open architecture management at Rockwell Automation, says that 5G deployment requires not only OT/IT collaboration, convergence and integration but also includes information and communication technology (ICT).

Finding employees who can effectively bridge the OT/IT divide already provides a major challenge for manufacturers. Tossing ICT into the mix further muddies the water.

Daniel Mai, director for industrial wireless communication at Siemens AG, says that anyone managing a 5G network also needs to understand all the vagaries of manufacturing deployment, to make absolutely sure mission-critical applications stay reliable.

“Wireless communication in an industrial setting needs deep knowledge and experience to cope with the environmental surroundings like a lot of metal, reflecting surfaces, electro-magnetic interferences, constantly changing floor layouts, moving participants, industrial network protocols, etc.,” Mai says.

Per Treven, senior director for enterprise sales at Ericsson says that not only are these candidates rare, but they’re also spoken for already.

“A lot of times, the knowledge about the OT environment lies in the OT organization and not in the IT organization. I think [5G] requires this bridge between the two organizations and that is almost as hard as finding somebody who can actually do the technical stuff,” Treven says.

“If you’re looking at the availability of that knowledge in the market, I think those [people] are pretty few. And the ones that are there, they are working for a specific manufacturer. They are driving this for themselves globally and they are building that competence internally. So, I would say they’re not available on the market per se. They are in those organizations,” Treven adds.

5G Training Requires Practical Skills and Imagination

To handle the challenge of internally managing and expanding its 5G network, John Deere chose internal candidates and trained them. Based on this, Wallin estimates that someone with experience working in OT environments and with enterprise networking may take three-to-six months to become proficient in cellular technology implementation and management.

Gergs agrees with the estimate and says it partially explains why manufacturers would rather hand 5G management over to a telecommunications network partner.

“They are simply not willing to invest the money and time to train their employees in a subject area (mobile network connectivity) that is not in the strategic focus of their manufacturing operations,” Gergs says.

Six months of training provides only the basics, says Mai. Mastery requires facing the aforementioned challenges deploying wireless networks in industrial settings.

“To guarantee that everything works smoothly in industrial environments, an end-to-end solution should be implemented that is tested and certified and covers OT applications, networking, and wireless aspects. With training of six months a technician will learn the basics, but what matters more in a complex industrial setting is experience that people gain after a longer time working in this area,” says Mai.

According to Treven, that three-to-six month estimate depends largely on what background the candidate comes from. And agreeing with Mai, Treven states that training doesn’t determine success using 5G networks. He argues that understanding the technology’s potential and the ability to draw long-term roadmaps matters more.

“[If] somebody has installed the system for you, and you are looking at actually operating it, understanding if there are faults, adding devices to the network, etc. … that portion is not that hard. That is fairly simple from a pure operations perspective. I don’t think that you’re seeing that much harder than what it is to manage a Wi Fi network, maybe a little bit more, some terminology that differs a little bit,” Treven says.

“As with any technology, you need to understand what is coming and what those capabilities look like for you. … You have this network now that is set up a certain way, but then you’re looking at maybe adding additional use cases that have different demands. Your initial setup was for what you initially thought that you were going to use [5G] for but then your requirements are changing over time,” he adds.

You Could Start Fresh with 5G but Probably Won’t

John Deere has extensive experience dealing with Ethernet and WiFi networking. Switching to 5G represents evolution. What about a manufacturer approached by a vendor with the prospect of jumping straight to 5G technology from the get-go with no institutional networking knowledge base?

“It’s more a matter of what it is that you’re aiming at doing in your factory, which use cases you’re going to run on your private 5G network. It’s about planning the use cases that you’re thinking of running, but I don’t see a problem starting with a private 5G network,” says Treven.

Wilcox and Mai agree that greenfield facility can easily begin with private cellular from the ground up, but it’s more likely manufacturers will supplement existing Ethernet and WiFi networks as John Deere does.

Gergs said the question isn’t the impossibility of manufacturers finding someone to run and fully realize their private cellular networks, or whether or not they can begin fresh with 5G even if they have no prior networking experience. Rather, the question is why it’s worth even thinking about the technology in the first place.

“In theory, [manufacturers] could start with private 5G straight away. However, the reality paints a different picture: All manufacturers have experience with previous connectivity technologies —  maybe fixed line or wireless— so they will always consider private cellular as an additional step on the connectivity ladder and compare/benchmark it against other alternatives, like Ethernet or WiFi,” says Gergs.

“This is why the telecommunications industry needs to do everything possible to create a strong enough value proposition for private cellular connectivity. This value proposition needs to address manufacturers’ burning questions and current pain points – which is where the telco industry currently does not do a good job,” Gergs adds.

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