Private wireless networks, now
There’s no need to wait for 5G – deploying a private wireless network on 4G/LTE can help enable Industry 4.0 technologies in manufacturing
June 3, 2019 – Despite the growth of the internet and the tremendous advancements in digital technologies, the productivity growth in manufacturing during the last four decades has not kept pace.
Part of the reason for this is the slow deployment of these technologies into the manufacturing sector. To the extent that robots, AGVs and other technologies have been adopted, they are only second-order inventions that do not dramatically change the way we produce physical goods. The assembly line is now more automated, for example, but remains just as inflexible – with a range of wired and wireless technologies being used to connect the factory floor. Re-tooling factories is still a major expense and, in some industries, can take months or even years to carry out.
This expense and lack of flexibility is holding back the full realization of upstream computing processes, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), as well as technologies such as the cloud and modern mobile networks. While these inventions have made it possible to rapidly innovate in areas such as knowledge work, software and entertainment, the assembly line has remained much as it always has been.
However, that is beginning to change with the broader adoption of Industrial IoT (IIoT) augmented with AI and machine learning, which are expected to bring about a fourth industrial revolution — or “Industry 4.0.”
Industry 4.0 will fully harness these technologies in manufacturing processes for the first time. The extension of the cloud will bring multi-access edge computing (MEC) to the factory and warehouse floor, enabling distributed computing for intense local tasks. This enormous growth in computing power will, in turn, allow machine learning and AI to play a much larger role in operational control, quality assurance, predictive maintenance and safety. Informed by a host of IoT sensors and devices, this new, smart, end-to-end production process will be capable of continuous improvement and optimization.
The rise of wireless networks
Dedicated wireless networks will play a key role in Industry 4.0 by enabling greater mobility and, thus, greater flexibility on the factory floor. Untethering production lines and work stations from wired infrastructure will allow for faster reconfiguration and re-tooling, operational flexibility, agility and performance – robots will become more context aware, AGVs will be capable of open-path navigation and workers armed with smart tools and heads-up displays will collaborate more closely with other connected equipment, and each other, using wireless communications.
Although mobile operators are expected to start rolling out 5G (the next generation of wireless capability that will transcend walls, and offer multiple private networks on a single architecture) in 2019-20, the version of 5G standards that will bring key vertical features is not expected until mid-2020. Similarly, 5G industrial devices for connecting smart tools, workers, AGVs, assembly line machines and sensors will most likely start to develop a few years later. So the question remains: should manufacturers wait until then to begin shifting in that direction?
The answer is no. Today’s field-proven and secure mobile technology standard (i.e. 4G/LTE) is available and capable enough for most Industry 4.0 applications. It also brings a major leap in performance compared to wireless solutions currently used in factories. And over time, the few remaining, very low–latency and time-sensitive processes that 4G/LTE cannot support will be supported with the evolution to 5G. In the interim, latency-sensitive applications like remote control of machines, automated AGV, video and AR/VR–based applications can be supported with 4G/LTE and multi-access edge computing. This provides a distributed architecture that brings content and processing closer to the device, boosting performance and reducing delay. 4G standards have also evolved the network to support the massive connectivity and need for low-power, infrequent data transmissions of IoT devices and sensors. So, luckily, there is no reason to wait for 5G before manufacturers can begin enabling the next phase of automation.
If installing mobile cellular technology in a factory setting sounds daunting and expensive, the good news is also that it is now almost as easy to install a private 4G/LTE network as it is a Wi-Fi network. Yet it is far more robust, secure and capable of supporting greater numbers of connections per access point — a key requirement when sensors and devices are multiplying like rabbits across the factory floor and warehouse. In terms of size and installation, there are now also 4G/LTE small cells that are no larger or more complicated than a Wi-Fi access point and can feature plug-and-play installation. Additionally, multi-racks of servers for the mobile packet core have been reduced to the size of a mini desktop PC, which decreases the need for space.
Private LTEs may be available as a service to enable a pay-as-you-grow model, reducing upfront capital costs and allowing the network to scale as devices are added. Additionally, if data privacy and security is a concern, an edge computing server can also act as a local breakout point, keeping enterprise data on premise.
Along with the licensed 4G/LTE spectrum mobile operators have, which may be available on a leasing arrangement with enterprises, governments worldwide are also opening up spectrum for these private networks. For instance, in the U.S., this would include spectrum formerly occupied by Citizen Band Radio Services (CBRS) in the 3.5 GHz (3550-3700 MHz) band. Alternatively, Multefire uses unlicensed LTE spectrum in the 2.4 and five GHz range that peacefully co-exists with Wi-Fi but brings better performance and more robust capabilities. A number of countries also have proposed spectrum to be dedicated specifically for private enterprises (e.g. Germany 3.7-3.8 GHz and 3.8-4.2 GHz in the UK).
Finally, 4G/LTE has a well-developed ecosystem of industrial interfaces and devices. The first big wave of IoT adoption is well underway and the industry has decided on 4G/LTE as the de facto standard. IoT-friendly chipsets are now readily available and low cost for many sensors, smart tools and wearables, including retrofit kits for connecting legacy machinery to newer 4G/LTE networks.
As 5G standards are finalized and spectrum becomes available, these private 4G/LTE networks can migrate to 5G with mostly a simple software upgrade. However, it is likely manufacturers who implement 4G/LTE network today will not see the need to move to 5G for a long time; at least until the new standard is firmly established and has a well-developed and supported ecosystem.
While it remains to be seen if Industry 4.0 will bring about productivity increases as dramatic as those seen in the 20th century, it is certain that these technologies will disrupt current manufacturing practices in the coming decades. They will enable cost efficiencies, quality control and faster response times to globally shifting consumer demands — allowing manufacturers to innovate and bring products to market faster, without needing to wait for 5G.
Stephane Daeuble is head of 5G industry vertical network slicing and private wireless networks solution marketing at Nokia.
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