The coronavirus pandemic forced manufacturers across the country to down tools, with many still struggling to reopen safely and securely. Industry body Make UK recently reported that, even now, manufacturers are operating at between 25% and 50% of normal levels. (1)
Now that we are at a point where the industry is looking to get back on its feet, there is a real opportunity to embrace technology to drive forward efficiencies. Through the DCMS-funded 5G-ENCODE project, taking place at Bristol’s National Composites Centre alongside Zeetta, Siemens, Toshiba and Solvay, O2 is helping build a 5G-powered smart factory that demonstrates the opportunities for private mobile networks to revolutionise the UK manufacturing sector and power the technology that will help businesses build back better.
Private mobile networks are some of the most exciting developments made possible by the rollout of 5G networks, with the ability to bring huge benefits to the 276,000 manufacturing businesses in the UK,(2) as well as the 2.7 million employees working in them,(3) from large multinationals down to small SMEs, all of whom are suffering as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Through a number of 5G trials with local authorities and utility providers, we are putting theory into practice and developing clear use cases that will shape the future of UK industry in three ways: making workplaces more productive, safer and more environmentally friendly.
Making manufacturers smarter and more productive
Through the 5G-ENCODE project we are gaining detailed knowledge about the use of ‘network slicing’ in industrial settings, allowing manufacturers to slice the resources of private 5G networks according to the demands of particular users and applications to improve productivity.
Factory maintenance and management also stand to benefit from the installation of private mobile networks. At the Worcestershire 5G Testbed, in partnership with Bosch and the Worcestershire Local Enterprise Partnership, we helped test 5G-enabled sensors that collected real-time environmental data to help predict when equipment required preventative maintenance, helping to avoid future equipment failure and factory down-time.
This is a step-change for many businesses, as up-time of systems will be improved and the overall cost of ownership of assets will be reduced significantly once systems are connected to a private network.
Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of private mobile networks is in collaborative automation, in particular deploying collaborative robotics and automated ground vehicles (AGVs) in factories using wireless and cloud-based artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning computer vision systems.
Paired with a secure, reliable private mobile network, automated systems, collaborative robotics systems and AGVs can work together with humans, thanks to a dedicated portion of spectrum, which ensures critical services are always on, no matter what’s going on with the external network.
One of the use cases we’re going to explore at the National Composites Centre is employing people and robots together within factories. Using mobile edge computing, which enables cloud computing to be done within the local network rather than on remote servers, machines can be carefully managed to ensure they can operate with humans in their environment safely and reliably. This has the potential to improve productivity, especially with more complex production line tasks that robots can’t manage alone.
Improving safety through the latest technologies
Some of our recent trials have shed light on how to successfully embed private networks in factories to get the most out of 5G-powered technologies, including augmented, virtual and mixed reality (known as ‘XR’).
For example, working with Northumbrian Water Group and Ericsson, O2 set up a private 5G network for the utility provider that allowed experienced technicians to remotely guide on-the-ground teams through complex tasks by relaying real-time infrastructure data and instructions.
These technologies are incredibly helpful in light of the current COVID-19 restrictions. As policies are put in place to protect staff and restart manufacturing safely, XR applications can allow key staff members to remain on-site, with outside expertise brought in remotely to provide advice and train workers across multiple locations.
Computer vision also has the potential to transform health and safety and quality assurance in factories, using AI to spot any dangerous events or inconsistencies taking place on production lines and switching off equipment to stop workers getting in harm’s way. These same systems will be able to automate the inspection of components and goods, ensuring they meet strict quality assurance standards.
The green future of manufacturing
Over at the National Composites Centre, as the 5G-ENCODE project gets into full swing, we will be able to explore use cases in heat management, where systems connected to a 5G network will be able to increase efficiency and reduce the amount of energy required to heat premises.
Recent research from IC&CO and Cenex, commissioned by O2, calculated that automated systems like the one mentioned above will create sweeping efficiencies across the manufacturing sector that could take up to 40 megatonnes of carbon out of the economy by 2035.
Finally, ensuring that factories are using solar, wind or renewable energy will help Britain in its journey to net-zero.
Feat image: © thanakorn hormniam
(1) Make UK, Responding Resetting and Reinventing UK Manufacturing Post COVID-19, 29 June 2020: https://www.makeuk.org/insights/reports/responding-resetting-and-reinventing-uk-manufacturing-post-covid19
(2) House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper: Business statistics, 7 July 2020: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn06152
(3) Make UK, UK Manufacturing: The Facts 2019/20: https://www.makeuk.org/insights/publications/uk-manufacturing-the-facts-2019-20