Many manufacturing businesses have already started investing in building smart facilities. Technologies like IoT have begun to prove their worth by capturing as much data as possible and translating it into actionable insights around energy consumption, operational efficiencies, and predictive maintenance. The field of industrial robotics, meanwhile, continues to grow – set to reach $61 billion by 2026 with the help of automation and artificial intelligence improvements. The key to unlocking these benefits might be private 5G.
Why? Technologies like these are missing the ultra-low latency, high data transfer, reliability, and network coverage to truly flourish. Without the connectivity in place to ensure that they are working in tandem and at maximum efficiency, automated manufacturing technologies will continue to be limited in their capabilities.
Why private 5G?
The key to progressing manufacturing into intelligent industry is 5G, and although much has been said about the transformative potential of 5G networks across society and industries, it is 5G Private Networks that may have the highest impact and bring about the most meaningful change.
In fact, by 2030, the private networks market is predicted to reach $109 billion, and manufacturing and industrial firms will make up a sizable chunk of this ecosystem – with an expected 49 million 5G connections in their facilities worldwide by the same time frame.
Unlike networking technologies such as Wi-Fi, which can be cumbersome and suffer from signal interference or security issues – although Wi-Fi 7 may well alleviate some of these – private 5G networks allow for the creation of tailored radio coverage in a specific location for one organization. In short, 5G private networks are just what they sound like. They are a way to ring-fence spectrum for one organization's sole, private use.
The organization can tap into the many benefits of 5G – such as ultra-fast data transfer and low latency required for industrial operations. New devices can be added and connected to the network effortlessly and at scale, as 5G can support more devices than 4G. And because the network coverage is over the air, sites are not subject to the same connectivity dark spots as legacy networking methods.
Moreover, since all the devices are connected to the same private network, communications between them are quick and painless, even with large data transfers like video streaming. Data transfer rates are 20 times faster than with 4G, and reliability is close to wired equivalents, while overall peak speeds clock in at 100 times faster. And because the underlying network is fast and reliable, the compute power necessary to run constant analytics or apply AI systems to them is no longer an issue.
What does the use of private 5G look like in the real world?
The use cases on the horizon are far more advanced than imaginable. Massive networks of sensors, all communicating with one another to enable predictive maintenance; factories that run highly advanced robotics and industrial automation; wearable augmented reality and virtual reality overlays for front-line workers to assist in hardware upkeep or other tasks; drone flight path management and real-time video streaming from the machines; and real-time video or image analysis for risk detection, whether on the assembly line or for security reasons are just several of the possibilities for this technology.
For example, hardware manufacturers can introduce AI-based automatic optical inspection into their assembly lines, drastically improving quality and productivity. Or construction companies can remotely operate equipment – and view live video feeds to ensure quality and consistency.
Despite the transformational potential of use cases like these, today, only 40% of manufacturing organizations understand the critical role private 5G networks can play in building the smart, digital factories of the future. And while the benefits are plain to see, the business experience of building private networks is altogether quite different from the consumer one of buying 5G-ready devices out of the box.
Stepwise approach to implementation
Private network deployments tend to fit into two categories: physically isolated private 5G networks that are operated solely by the organization using it (or a managed service provider) or a private 5G network that shares the public 5G network resources. These two categories will alter the architecture that the organization's facilities will be operating. Still, the exact nuts and bolts of the architecture are less important than what's built on top of it and how.
Without planning and preparation, businesses may encounter severe challenges and, in the worst-case scenarios, could find themselves with never-ending projects that suffer bloat and remain incapable of delivering on the promises of 5G. We recommend that organizations start small, beginning with pilot use cases built on private 5G networks that don't break the bank and are designed to prove viability.
To achieve this, leaders should begin by defining the use cases they believe would benefit from private 5G networks. The focus should be goal-oriented rather than technology-oriented. By taking a step back and investigating potential case studies, organizations will be better equipped to design the network that best suits them.
Use case important when planning for private 5G
It can be helpful to consult existing use cases that may apply to the organization and then plot out a route towards building them. As 5G is highly configurable, all the various elements along this chain can be customized or altered as the business progresses and more use cases are added.
To build a use case, organizations should embrace microservices – the reusable, technology-agnostic building blocks of code that allow each component to communicate via a common foundation. Several microservices can already integrate with 5G, meaning that authentication, compatibility, and analytics capabilities are ready out of the box – removing much of the work from creating a use case from scratch. The decentralized nature of microservices means that they're agile and provide clear visibility into what's going wrong and where.
The key to success with deployment is working towards convergence along the technology stack so that operational technology, background IT, and networking technology all operate seamlessly with one another.
Operational technology, like assembly line robots, will need to be connected to an IoT network for visibility into device functionality, health, and security. On the IT side, existing staff will need the skills to understand how 5G networks impact the applications and architectures they are used to. Getting the culture right is vital – and only agile methodologies such as continuous integration and development will do. Organizations must be ready to test new waters with an open mind, developing iteratively and being prepared to 'fail fast,' but with fail-safes in place.
Ultimately, keeping these principles in mind will assist manufacturing companies on their 5G journey, help them to evolve their architecture as required, and realize the benefits of these ultra-fast, low latency next-gen technologies.
Ben Pietrabella is Executive Vice President and Managing Director of Communications & Media, Americas of Capgemini Engineering.