5G is the next stage in the evolution of mobile communications. It promises higher data rates and faster response times than the existing 4G technology, offering the possibility that it could replace traditional wired networks for offices and factories, and provide the missing piece in the development of the Internet of Things.
Engineering and electronics giant Bosch is one of the companies carrying out trials to explore some of these possibilities, and to test 5G’s ability to deliver business benefits. At its domestic boiler factory in Worcester, it’s examining whether 5G will enable it to increase the availability of plant machinery in order to boost production efficiency.
In spring 2018, the Worcester 5G Consortium won government backing to create a testbed for 5G’s ability to improve industrial productivity. One of the consortium members is Worcester Bosch, which produces domestic heating boilers at a factory in the region. It had identified preventative maintenance as a way of increasing production efficiency in mid-2017, and the Worcestershire 5G testbed meant it could the potential of 5G technology for this application. The trial ran from April 2018 until the end of March 2019.
Worcester Bosch wants to augment its formally-scheduled routine maintenance by monitoring its plant in as close to real-time as possible, in order to spot and avoid potential failures before they happen.
According to Darren Danks, the manufacturing project leader at Worcester Bosch working on 5G, the aim is to improve the efficiency of the plant by 1% by reducing the amount of time machinery is out of action.
“We wanted something that would allow us to see the health of a machine or a piece of equipment in a way we hadn’t been able to before,” Danks said.
Rather than waiting for something to break down, which would cause problems in terms of shutting down our assembly processes, we’re now able to spot a potential issue before it happens and deal with it in a planned and controlled way.
“The technology we’re using is interesting, but the key job is to leverage it to deliver business benefits, in this case productivity improvements. That’s measured from the machine level right up to the overall annual efficiency figures for the plant. The more availability we have of the machines, the more products we can produce.”
The Worcester Bosch trial combines 5G technology with the Internet of Things. About 100 IoT sensors have been installed in plant machinery, alongside two high-resolution cameras. The installation covers about half the plant, and is focused on the more heavily automated upstream section of production, where components are made, rather than the downstream section where the boilers are assembled.
The sensors and cameras are linked via a 5G network, which offers two advantages over earlier technologies - scale and speed. 5G can support more connected devices than 4G could; thousands in the same area compared to just over 100 on 4G. If Bosch were to roll out the technology across the wider factory in Worcester, or indeed more widely across the organisation, it would need to connect thousands of devices, and the only way to do that would be using 5G.
5G also enables much faster transmission of data across the network.
“The faster we can get the data out over the network and delivered to our front-end application the closer we are to real-time - meaning the system and the engineers can react in a faster, more preventative manner,” Danks explained. “5G is the key technology that enables us to do that.”
Worcester Bosch has a small team working on the trial. Led by Danks, it includes an electronics engineer, a mechanical engineer and an electrical engineer. Together the team has not just created the network, but is also writing the software required to collect data from the sensors to help identify potential failure risks more quickly than traditional methods allow.
According to Danks, the biggest challenge the project has faced is also the reason it’s needed in the first place; the fact that 5G technology is still in its infancy.
“A big part of this project is to deploy one of the first 5G networks, and go through the pain of learning what’s required to get it up and running,” he said.
It’s a lot more work than we expected, but that’s not a reflection of how long it would take if the technology was production-ready and there was more expertise out there. It’s an R&D project, and we’re about to move into the commercial element of it.
The other big concern for the team has been security. Worcester Bosch is working with multinational defence company QinetiQ, which is also member of the Worcestershire 5G Consortium, on security questions. QinetiQ is using the Worcestershire 5G testbed as a platform on which to assess the potential trade-off between performance and security, and to demonstrate potential productivity gains for industry.
According to Mark Hawkins, QinetiQ 5G Technical Lead, the company is helping Worcester Bosch make informed decisions about security by balancing potential security risks against the benefits of the new technology.
“In our experience businesses are concerned about security, but often don’t know exactly what they’re concerned about – beyond the fact that there are risks to transferring their core business operations to the mobile network. This is why we advocate a balanced risk-benefit approach; and this is what we have been providing to the Worcestershire 5G project,” Hawkins said.
For manufacturing businesses, the potential 5G security risks go beyond those of 4G for consumers, with issues such as stability, reliability and safety sitting alongside more conventional security risks. While these risks are real, they need to be understood, managed and balanced against the significant productivity uplift, performance gains and the business benefits of delivering higher value services – all of which 5G offers.
Assessing the Worcester Bosch 5G trial, Denks makes a key distinction between test cases like this one, which are intended to investigate the benefits of 5G to manufacturers, and what the ultimate roll-out of the technology might look like.
“A big part of this project is us being involved in the design, the build and the testing of the 5G network,” he said. “When 5G is commercially ready and available, maybe we’d say we don’t care about the technology, that the business just needs the network to be secure and reliable so we can run our use-cases from it. We will want 5G provided as a service.”
But while plug-and-play 5G is the ultimate aim, Denks has some advice for companies looking to set up trials of the technology.
The biggest lesson is not to underestimate the effort required to get this up and running
“We’re doing something that isn’t bread-and-butter for us. We’ve had to recognise we’re not experts in software development or network infrastructure, so we’re having to mobilise ourselves pretty quickly to support what is a cutting-edge technology.
“Looking long-term, if we were going to embrace this and move into more of a commercial environment, we would have to look at what skills and capabilities we have in-house at the moment, and then make the usual decisions about whether we as a manufacturer start recruiting the skills to support this level of technology, or do we bring in out-of-house expertise to support us.”
For Hawkins, the key lesson from this trial - and others in which it QinetiQ has been involved - is that companies need to adopt a “security by design” approach.
“Firstly, we would always tell businesses not to be scared of adopting 5G. Secondly, we advise businesses that it’s never too early to think about security: it’s much easier to build security in from the beginning than try to bolt it on at the end,” he said.
It’s obviously early days for business adoption of 5G and companies are just starting to see what use-cases the new technology might make possible. That means that, for trials like the one carried out by Worcester Bosch, there are two sorts of findings. The first is what’s required to carry out trials in the first place. The second is whether 5G proves to be suitable for the use-case under examination - whether it delivers sufficient benefits to make it worth rolling the technology out at scale.
Conclusions about production have still to be drawn from the Worcester Bosch trial, but it has already shown that other companies wanting to test 5G need to be aware of the amount of work involved, and the degree of resourcing required, to make such trials work to the point that they allow meaningful conclusions to be drawn. Because as Danks says, for a multi-million dollar business, even a one percent improvement in production efficiency amounts to a significant amount of money saved. And getting the trial right is the first step towards making that saving.