At the recent 5G World event, I had the pleasure of hosting a 5G vertical sector panel on manufacturing. The panellists reflected on the learnings from the DCMS 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme, as well as the latest insights from 5G manufacturing trials in Germany and Sweden. Discussions uncovered the demonstrated benefits that 5G will bring to the manufacturing sector—such as increased flexibility, automation, more efficient supply chains, predictive maintenance, and reduced downtime—in addition to some of the difficulties encountered.
Understanding the opportunities and benefits of 5G is, however, only part of the story. In order to unleash the full potential of a much-awaited 5G-enabled digital transformation, we also need to be addressing the associated challenges and provide assurance in adoption.
The lifespan of the industrial infrastructure and equipment last for at least 20 years, and the fourth industrial revolution will continue its course for decades. Backward compatibility of 5G advanced and beyond is, therefore, crucial, in assuring the longevity of the 5G networks and devices in line with the long lifetime of industrial equipment. This will enable early adopters to future proof their deployment and allow them to tap into the benefits of 5G as soon as possible.
The manufacturing sector is truly heterogeneous with many niche applications and constraints; it is important that technology providers can offer tailored and optimised solutions for different scenarios. We need a truly open interface, scalable architecture and APIs, with capability exposure to facilitate highly modular, and industry-optimised solutions.
This requires 5G to be seamlessly integrated into existing industrial infrastructure and applications. OPC Foundation and 5G-ACIA are already exploring the integration of OPC UA with 5G to enhance wireless communications with industrial-grade reliability and latency guarantees. In the UK, we need more discussions and considerations around how manufacturers can leverage this in 5G adoption.
The 5GTT programme is thriving. It is demonstrating robust use cases and is helping to create a strong ecosystem. Scaling should be our next priority. We are hosting a range of manufacturing outreach events, covering productivity and efficiency; sustainability; “how to get 5G”; and “how to make the most of 5G”.
Though 5GTT use-cases may be commercially robust to rollout, we need to look at certification, especially in the private networks to further boost the confidence of adopters. Such a step would help to provide true reassurance to manufacturers that rolling out 5G. In an industry where margins are tight and downtime is costly, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of buyer confidence in helping us scale.
Undoubtedly, 5G is going to transform the manufacturing sector. But there’s still work to be done. To quote economist Paul Krugman, “Productivity isn’t everything, but, in the long run, it’s almost everything.”