5G industry news Acceleration & Innovation

5G for Manufacturing: Realising the True Potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

  • 11 minute read
  • Published by Vicki DeBlasi on 13 Dec 2021
  • Last modified 10 Dec 2021
5G provides the means to tackle the UK manufacturing sector’s greatest challenges, from achieving net zero and attracting future talent to maximising uptime and accelerating product development. Former Editorial Director of The Manufacturer, Jonny Williamson, delves into the 5G opportunity and how this could be missed, if industry leaders do not know enough about the benefits of investing in the technology and how to prepare their business.

Increased capacity, greater reliability, ultra-low latency, enhanced security.  With so much for manufacturers to get excited about, it’s easy to see why 5G technology could be a game changer for industry.

Offering almost limitless capability, the next generation of mobile connectivity standard has the potential to revolutionise every phase of a manufacturing operation:

  • New product development will become more collaborative, iterative and rapid.
  • Supply chains will become more resilient and responsive thanks to greater transparency and flexibility.
  • Production will become more automated and efficient, with greater quality control and worker safety.
  • Operations will become monitored in real time and optimised to better manage peaks or dips in demand.
  • Maintenance will become condition-based, predictive and increasingly remotely conducted, helping to maximise uptime and unlock service-based revenue streams.

With so many prospective applications, it comes as no surprise to discover that manufacturing is one of the sectors expected to benefit most from 5G’s arrival.

Recent research from Vodafone says that the adoption of 5G could add as much as £6.3bn to the value of UK manufacturing by 2030, and that it could play “a significant role” in realising the Government’s ‘levelling up’ ambitions.

As Digital Catapult’s Made in 5G report makes clear; “Steps taken now by manufacturers could offer the UK considerable advantages and the edge required in an increasingly competitive global landscape.”

That same report, however, also highlighted a lack of understanding of 5G, particularly regarding return on investment and in how it differs from other connectivity solutions.

 barriers to manufacturing

Image Source: Digital Catapult

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth and latest generation of mobile networking technology standard. Ever since the first generation (1G) was introduced in the 1980s, each new generation has delivered greater data speeds, reliability and capacity. On the surface, 5G is no exception.

Vodafone says 5G is around 10 times faster than 4G, with peak speeds capable of reaching above 1gbps (gigabit per second). That would allow you to download a high-definition film in about a minute.

5G capabilties
Image Source: Digital Catapult

Yet, speed alone isn’t what makes 5G so transformational. Unlike previous generations, 5G isn’t simply an upgraded communication network. It has been built from the ground up to deliver better user experiences, empower new deployment models and deliver new services.


According to mobile tech expert, Simon Rockman, if you think of 1G as vinyl records, 2G as CDs, 3G as DVDs and 4G as Blu-Ray, then 5G is like the internet – an entirely new value proposition which “opens up Netflix, Spotify and iPlayer.”


This has been made possible by pushing mobile technology to exponential new heights, specifically through three use cases:


  • Enhanced mobile broadband (EMBB), which provides much higher, more uniform data rates across wide coverage areas
  • Ultra-reliable, low-latency communication (URLLC), which increases processing speeds and quality of service for critical infrastructure and operations, such as autonomous driving, with minimal delay (or, latency)
  • Massive machine-type communication (MMTC), which supports the deployment of a very high density of low-powered devices, such as a fleet of warehouse robots, with little to no human intervention.

Through these unique capabilities, 5G provides a unified platform that will accelerate the wider digital transformation that is taking place across every industry and geography.


Within manufacturing, this digital transformation is referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), or Industry 4.0, and is being driven by technological breakthroughs in areas from artificial intelligence to virtual reality.


5G will power the Fourth Industrial Revolution


Factories equipped with sophisticated sensors, embedded software and intelligent automation are fast becoming the norm. Already, the average factory generates 1TB of data each day, according to an IBM study, and that figure is growing at a phenomenal rate.


A major contributor to that growth is the Internet of Things (IoT), an ever-expanding ecosystem of connected objects embedded with sensors and other technologies that collect and share data via the internet. Almost any ‘thing’ can be transformed into an IoT device, from doorbells to fridges, medical implants to aircraft jet engines.


For manufacturers, IoT represents an unparalleled opportunity to better understand how supply chains are performing, how efficiently assembly machines are running and how products and services are being used once sold.


Currently, however, just 1% of data generated inside the manufacturing sector is being analysed and acted upon in real time. Additionally, it’s estimated that there will be more than 27 billion IoT-connected devices globally by 2025, many of them in use in industrial applications.


For manufacturers to harness the full business value (and competitive advantages) from these connected assets, systems and people, a paradigm shift is needed. 5G’s capacity, speed, reliability and flexibility provides that step-change.


In such a way, 5G will be the catalyst that unlocks the true capability of not only IoT, but numerous other 4IR technologies, including cloud and edge computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data analytics – many of which are already in mainstream use.

5G as a competitive advantage


Despite being in its relative infancy, a growing number of UK manufacturers are involved in projects helping to progress 5G adoption from theoretical use cases to real world deployments. 


These deployments typically demonstrate one or more of the following benefits:


  • Control of operations in real-time helps to minimise downtime, waste and ‘lost’ assets, and to maximise efficiencies, quality control and productivity. Be it tracking and monitoring assets and goods remotely, moving to a predictive maintenance model, linking bespoke customer requests to a dynamic supply chain or having the flexibility to easily reconfigure production lines, 5G enables a previously unachievable level of insight and control.
  • 5G-enabled digital twins (computer models of components, products, even an entire manufacturing environment) enable more complex, accurate and rapid testing in a virtual dimension before production hits the factory floor. Processes can also be analysed in greater detail and optimised, helping to reduce downtime, disruption, costly mistakes and risk. 
  • Network security and resilience is paramount for manufacturers – a dropped connection might jeopardise worker safety, hold up production, or affect the quality of the final product. 5G has security and resilience baked in as part of the standard. Artificial intelligence and automated security tools can also be layered over the top for greatly enhanced security.
  • Training, upskilling and reskilling are frequently cited as the greatest barrier to future growth manufacturers face. 5G enables technologies like augmented and virtual reality and dynamic data visualisation on the shop floor, decentralising expertise and ensuring workers are armed with the insights and support they need, when and wherever they need it.
  • Next-level automation, from warehousing and the production line to distribution, will see robots undertaking more complex tasks and working more closely and collaboratively with humans.
  • Ubiquitous, flexible networks across multiple sites are simpler to manage than multiple wireless networks and make data sharing and collaboration across multi-site operations and with third-parties much easier. They are achieved by creating a private 5G network or partnering with a mobile network operator (MNO) to utilise a 5G ‘network slice’, and help to foster greater innovation and collaboration between teams, partners and suppliers.

One of these projects involves Ford Motor Company and the use of 5G to connect production machines, allowing real-time feedback, control, analysis and remote expert support.


Prime example of how 5G benefits industry

5G is completely transforming production at Ford’s new E:PriME (Electrified Powertrain in Manufacturing Engineering) campus in Dunton, Essex, helping the auto-giant to realise its vision of the Factory of the Future.


The motor and battery of a Ford electric vehicle require around 1,000 welds, generating up to 500,000 pieces of data per minute. Capturing and analysing this data is crucial to help improve precision, quality, productivity and safety.


There are present technologies capable of capturing, analysing and storing data, however, only 5G is able to reliably handle such large quantities and analyse it in real-time.

ford laser welding

Image Source: Ford / 5GEM UK

Ford’s laser welding machines have been retrofitted with 5G sensors and interfaces and connected via a Vodafone 5G mobile private network (MPN) installed in the factory. Another 5G MPN has been installed at Cambridge-based project partner TWI, providing Ford with secure connectivity to these remote welding experts. 

5G’s very low latency is key, says Paul Hadley, Programme Leader & Safety Supervisor at Ford;

“Speed is essential. If parameters change, we need to be able to make rapid adjustments to the machines to continuously optimise production quality.”

 Real-time process analysis and control is just one of the business needs the project is addressing. Others include replacing the various computers used for data connections, analysis and decision making on the shop floor with more robust and manageable centralised remote computing; and enabling equipment to be easily reconfigured or moved without having to cease production.


With Ford having never deployed 5G before, being able to draw on the expertise and capabilities of partner members has been invaluable, notes Paul.


A total of eight partner organisations are involved in the project – titled 5G Enabled Manufacture UK (5GEM) – ATS Global, Ford, HSSMI, Lancaster University, TM Forum, TWI, Vacuum Furnace Engineering and Vodafone.


By working together, the consortium intends to overcome the associated challenges, such as cybersecurity, scale-up, standards and ruggedising the hardware, and developing the 5G technology for use in industrial environments.


“For Ford, the project is an opportunity to understand what’s possible with 5G today, but also to see how the capabilities of 5G can be a springboard for future projects,” says Paul. “For example, we’re now exploring how 5G-enabled augmented reality and edge computing could be used to enhance staff training or maintenance procedures.


“Step-by-step instructions, diagrams, videos, even real-time remote support can be overlaid in high-definition via a smart device, rather than someone having to refer to a manual or even leave the job site in order to find that information. That creates immediate time-savings and helps reduce unnecessary downtime of the production line.”

Paving the way for large-scale adoption

5GEM UK is one of many such projects currently underway, all focused on helping to make the benefits of 5G technology a reality. There is a particular emphasis on areas where the UK already has a competitive advantage, such as scientific research, high-value manufacturing, healthcare and the creative industries.


The projects are all part of the £200m 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme (5GTT), the UK Government’s nationally coordinated programme of investment in 5G lead by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).


Current estimates suggest that the 5G Programme will generate £2.58bn or £15 for every £1 invested, in large part due to encouraging the earlier adoption of the technology.


“These projects are helping businesses to view 5G as a mechanism for innovation and see exactly how 5G can be applied to solve the specific problems they experience,”

explains Mohammad Lari, Head of Cross-Government and International Coordination, 5GTT Programme from DCMS.

 The UK is far from the only country striving to reap the productivity, jobs and economic growth generated from 5G adoption. South Korea, China, Japan, the United States, France and Germany all have significant 5G trials in progress, with GSMA forecasting that global 5G connections will more than double by 2025.


This high level of activity worldwide should be celebrated, says Mohammad, noting how the most pressing challenges industry and society experience are global and can’t be solved by one nation acting alone.


For several years, Mohammad and his team have been building and strengthening bilateral relations through collaborative research and knowledge transfer partnerships.


Their efforts have helped foster a wider, more integrated 5G ecosystem and to align regulatory and security standards, both of which have created new opportunities for UK businesses at home and abroad, and encouraged inward investment.


“5G has the ability to create the scale of change we need,” Mohammad concludes. “It’s the key to unlocking more resilient supply chains, higher skilled jobs, more productive and innovative industries, a more prosperous economy and a more sustainable world.”


Related projects