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5G for Manufacturing: How 5G connectivity is underpinning best-in-class factories

  • 8 minute read
  • Published by Crispin Moller on 26 Jul 2022
  • Last modified 26 Jul 2022
The Ericsson USA 5G Smart Factory is leading the exploration of ways humans, robots and data can work together to drive efficiency and productivity while protecting the environment. In the sixth and final article in his series, Jonny Williamson reveals how the factories of the future are already here.

There are millions of factories operating around the world, but just 103 are classed as ‘Lighthouses’. Each of these sites is leading the way in demonstrating how Industry 4.0 technologies can increase productivity and profitability, while having a positive impact on the environment.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Lighthouse Network spans more than 75 regions and a diverse range of industries including healthcare, electronics, pharmaceuticals, automotive, and more.

"The future belongs to those companies willing to embrace disruption and capture new opportunities. The lighthouses are illuminating the future of manufacturing and the future of the industry."

Francisco Betti, Head of Shaping the Future of Advanced Manufacturing, World Economic Forum

Becoming part of the network means truly being a front-runner in advanced manufacturing, yet the network contains an even more elite subset. Six factories have gained the additional designation of being ‘Sustainability Lighthouses’. These sites are accelerating technological innovation to drive business results while caring for both people and the planet.

Ericsson’s first highly automated USA 5G Smart Factory is one of these prestigious six. The site in Lewisville, Texas, is powered by 100% renewable electricity. Integrated environmental systems are designed to reduce energy consumption by 24% and indoor water usage by 75% when compared to a similar building.

The $100m factory opened in spring 2020 and produces 5G equipment to help meet the rising demand for rapid 5G deployments. But the plant isn’t just manufacturing the latest 5G equipment; it is also equipped with the same 5G-enabled technology.

It is a genuine ‘Smart Factory’ and provides a working demonstration of what 5G can deliver.

To learn more, I sat down with Paul Chan Tse, a 5G Solutions Engineer for Ericsson North America and part of the team working on applying 5G innovation to industrial use-cases.

Why is 5G so important to Ericsson and the future of manufacturing?

We wanted to manufacture in the US, but we needed to do that competitively. Operating costs are higher in the US than elsewhere in the world, for example. We needed to embrace Industry 4.0 thinking and technologies to ensure the factory operated in the most productive and competitive way.

Industry 4.0 encompasses technologies such as smart automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual and augmented reality, and the internet of things (IoT). 5G allows manufacturers to truly start taking advantage of these advancements and combine them to build more efficient and sustainable factories.

A key part of that is helping solution providers embrace 5G more quickly. We are working with suppliers and technology vendors and showing them how 5G connectivity means their equipment can deliver even greater benefits.

A really positive example of that has been our autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). AMRs are already smart machines but are somewhat limited in their capability. For example, early generations of these vehicles were guided by magnetic strips fixed to the floor, which limited their mobility.

AMRs could operate more efficiently if they had free movement around a production environment to conduct inspections or move material, but that requires managing a large amount of data and highly reliable, low-latency connectivity. We are equipping them with 5G modems that connect to our 5G network to deliver this level of connectivity.

We believe in the power of collaboration so strongly that we’ve established an open ecosystem testbed within the factory. This provides vendors with access to spectrum and an innovation space that is as close to real-world as possible in which to experiment.

“Industry can't embrace 5G at scale without 5G-enabled devices supplied via the vendor community. Vendors can’t provide such devices without somebody stepping up and giving them the connectivity and space in which to develop and test them. We are providing exactly that at the Ericsson USA 5G Smart Factory and other locations.”

Since the factory commenced operations, your team has developed different use-cases capable of being deployed at scale in less than 12 months. You’ve already mentioned AMRs. What others are you working on?

Part of being a lighthouse factory involves a desire to innovate. And innovation requires an ability to explore, “fail fast”, and pivot. Our approach to Industry 4.0 and the latest technologies like 5G help us with that innovation approach.

Augmented and virtual reality are two really exciting areas where we’ve learned along the way. When the Lewisville factory opened, our engineers were trained with almost no face-to-face interaction. It was all done through virtual collaboration and knowledge sharing in the months before opening.

VR-enabled onboarding allowed new team members to sit in a classroom in Dallas to learn directly from their peers 8,000km away at the Ericsson Supply Site Tallinn in Estonia.

An area where augmented reality is delivering significant tangible benefits is maintenance. Every manufacturer understands the importance of maintaining machines and equipment, but finding local talent with the specialized expertise can be a challenge.

AR provides factory teams with virtual guidance from experts to troubleshoot or repair equipment.  With AR headsets or AR-enabled smartphones, the expert can share audio, visuals and annotations in real-time for quicker, more precise support from anywhere in the world. This helps increase efficiency, reduce cost and minimise equipment downtime. 

What’s crucial is that we don’t underestimate the human factors. We know augmented technology works, for example, but is it comfortable to wear a headset for extended periods? What’s the user interface like? Does the annotated image obstruct their view? You have to consider the users and not just focus on the technology.

While most AR devices are on Wi-Fi,  we have found that 5G provides greater stability, bandwidth, and lower-latency that can significantly improve the user experience with AR and VR. So, connecting these technologies to 5G will be a key step toward making them a practical tool for daily use.

What challenges are involved in deploying 5G in manufacturing today?

Interoperability, certainly. Within a particular process or assembly line, equipment vendors are typically quite collaborative or at least understand the need for their solutions to work with those of others. But when you as a factory manager try to connect other parts of your operation, that vendor integration can be lacking.

Industry 4.0 is all about extracting and analysing all the data from across the organisation to optimise and increase throughput. Today, that’s a challenge. 5G doesn’t automatically make that easier, but we’re hoping that 5G will stimulate greater vendor willingness to be more open and share capabilities. 

“Hopefully, with 5G, everyone sees enough possibility that it lifts all boats.”

A good analogy would be how Apple CarPlay or Android Auto makes a car so much smarter. The automotive manufacturer didn’t have to create a mapping solution and figure out traffic flow; they didn’t have to do anything at all.

The driver just connects their phone and can then make better decisions because they have access to the data. Imagine an entire factory benefitting similarly from that level of service from a third party. 

Most agree that mainstream 5G won’t happen for 5 to 10 years. What can decision-makers do today to prepare their operation? 

It's a longer and tougher journey than you probably think, so start now. Otherwise, in the near future, when 5G-enabled devices are more widely available, you won’t be ready.

Experiment and start small through proof of concepts (POCs). Scaling these POCs may not be possible now as the equipment isn’t commercially available and supported, but it’s a valuable exercise nonetheless. You will learn what is and isn’t useful and which use cases you need to push vendors to support.

It’s also perfectly okay to do a POC on Wi-Fi knowing that you’ll need 5G to scale it. Yes, you’ll need 5G eventually, but it’s fine to experiment on Wi-Fi first. The important thing is to start. POCs will also help your IT teams to get ready in terms of providing reliable, secure connections and orchestrating cloud services.

“5G is one way of getting data and asserting control. Whether Wi-Fi, 5G or wired, make sure you have a very strong IT and OT data architecture so that you can take advantage of connectivity.”

I'm particularly conscious of not using 5G like a hammer in search of nails. It's a toolkit item. The focus shouldn’t be on ‘how can I use 5G’ but on ‘what keeps us up at night?’, ‘what are our key problems?’

Forget your current limitations and draw up a use-case wish list. Whittle that down by determining the expected return for each. What do you hope to achieve and how likely is that outcome? Then, create a minimum viable project to test that. If it doesn’t work, then pivot.

Challenge yourself to understand the changes that are coming but also recognise that a lot of this is new. Partnering with external experts and collaborating with others is probably going to help.   

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