Spectrum licences like phone contracts – industrial 5G a ‘game changer’, says Siemens
Siemens sounded rather chuffed last week with the progress of and prospects for industrial 5G, home and abroad. The company said at its digital enterprise summit that 5G, when it finally comes available as a viable networking alternative for industry, will be a “game-changer”.
In particular, the Germany-based company, engaged with the 3GPP standardisation process for an industrial-grade version of 5G, noted the developing momentum behind both the technological capabilities of 5G based industrial systems and the regulatory liberalisation around access to 5G spectrum.
Siemens is fitting-out factories at home with industrial spectrum for the same price as smartphone contracts. The company said it is pursuing the same in every market in which it which it operates, by securing private or shared spectrum as it is available.
It said private industrial 5G, affording bespoke control of high-end cellular systems, is the only way to guarantee both coverage and performance – with the latter pushing boundaries in terms of latency, bandwidth, and reliability, presented as the holy trinity for industrial networking.
Speaking during the session, which had been forced online like every other calendar event in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Sander Rotmensen, the company’s head of product management for industrial wireless, said industrial 5G is the only means to orchestrate multiple moving parts inside a factory setup.
As they are used in factories today, other wireless local-area technologies – whether ethernet or wi-fi, or most previous generations of cellular – will only do for single applications, he suggested; industrial 5G is required to animate the ‘factory of the future’, where production folds up and down according to a live order book.
Rotmensen commented: “Today, we have technologies that can handle single [industrial] solutions. 5G has been developed from the ground-up to support industrial applications, because we put the requirements into the standardisation process. [it will be] possible to support multiple applications with a single network.”
Rotmensen was in discussion at the summit with Markus Weinländer, head of product management for the company’s SIMATIC automation business, as part of an ‘expert dialogue’ session. Weinländer quoted Eckard Eberle, chief executive of process automation at Siemens, back to Rotmensen, that 5G will be a “game changer” for industry.
“He might be right, responded Rotmensen. “Like I said, 5G is developed from ground-up for industrial applications, and, together with other wireless technologies, it will really enable us to do new things, like the factory of the future, where everything is flexible, and opens up around moving parts.”
Key pieces of the 5G puzzle come in the shape of control and reliability for industry. Rotmensen, a Dutch national, joked with Weinländer that it might be acceptable if a stream of a live football game crashed – for another Dutch goal (“a thousand Dutch goals”) against Germany – but that it mattered if a factory went down. “It matters a lot if a robot misses an emergency stop, and creates a dangerous situation.”
Privately-operated networks using privately-licensed spectrum help to complete this picture, he said. “We talk about public networks [for] what you have in your hand. You plug-in a SIM and you have coverage – or not, as anyone who travels by train in Germany knows. With a private network, you determine where the installation goes, and where the coverage is. But you need spectrum for that.”
But spectrum, as history tells it, is not cheap; in Germany, 90MHz of spectrum goes for about €2 billion at public auction, suggested Rotmensen. But the regulatory market has loosened up for industrialists. “We also have access to 100MHz of [dedicated industrial] spectrum in Germany, at a very reasonable price,” he said.
Siemens paid €5,500 for a 10-year spectrum licence in Germany, for a 100MHz chunk at 3.7-3.8 GHz, as per the country’s industrial 5G licensing regime, to cover a patch of about 200,000 square metres at its factory in Amberg, in Bavaria. “That’s about €550 per year, which is the same as my smartphone contract, and you can connect as many devices as you want to that network,” said Rotmensen.
The company has other factories in Germany being hooked up on similar terms. The parallel liberalisation of so-called ‘vertical spectrum’ variously in the UK, the US, and Japan was also noted.
Rotmensen said: “We are working in other countries to secure private frequencies as well to support home-grown private networks in factories. There are also situations where some providers are sub-licensing their frequencies for industry, so factories can use their spectrum. There are different approaches, but the benefit is the same.”
In terms of 5G use cases, Siemens flagged up automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and augmented reality (AR), and zoomed out to reference “everything that is moving, which is not connected by wires.” In particular, Rotmensen said industrial 5G will give way to interconnected armies of robots on the production floor.
As it stands, AGVs only go between two points, and the only communication is with humans. “Unless we’re talking about Hollywood movies, then I have never actually seen robots talk [together] in an industrial environment.” This will change, he implied, as AGVs ferry goods between automated flexible production lines and cooperative robots (cobots), where everything is running on the same 5G network.
But the message was, also, that industrial deployments of 5G systems must consider legacy comms equipment and practical requirements. “You never want to change your running systems,” said Rotmensen.
“If you have a wired connection, and you’re able to stick with the cable, then stick with the cable – and that can be either regular ethernet as we know it today, or single-pair ethernet in the future. What gets installed depends on what is there already, and what the application is. If you have a solution that works with wireless LAN, then why install a 5G system?”
Wi-Fi 6 will play, a role, too. “If you have just a single application, then for sure Wi-Fi 6 [will suit],” he explained. “But if you want a fully fledged campus network, with AGVs, overhead mono-rails, smartphones, and mission critical communications, then maybe 5G is a better way to go. Time will tell. Both will have their place, and they will work together very nicely.”
Network performance with industrial 5G moves higher at each corner of the triangle, he said, where the key points are latency, bandwidth, and device volumes. But these performance metrics, these corners, cannot be pulled in all directions. “If you support high device volumes, you won’t have the lowest latency; if you want the highest bandwidth, you won’t have lowest latency. You have to decide.”
And although momentum through 3GPP looks good, with Release 16 frozen earlier this month, and new industrial requirements being built into every different 5G release up to 18, there is a way to go, suggested Rotmensen.
He explained: “Yes, 5G is there, in a kind of form, but it comes in different releases. Today, we are working with Release 15 – which sounds really advanced but Release 14 was LTE, so that gives some perspective. Release 15 is focused on users of cellphones and tablets, for higher-definition streaming of films and video calls.
“It is perfect for that. But in industry the biggest challenge is low latency and high reliability, which is coming in future releases, in 16 and 17 – and now even Release 18 is being discussed. [These will bring] ultra-reliable low-latency commuications (URLLC), which means 99.999 percent uptime, and sub-10ms latency, to make sure your application is always running and never falls out.
“We need to wait for hardware to be developed; it all starts with the chip inside your cellphone. The chip for industry will come later because we need to make sure of reliability issues. We need to wait for Release 16 to be fully ready to have the hardware to create industrial 5G products. It will be a little while before we can start to control robots with 5G – we are looking at three-to-five years from now to be able to really control them, and proofs-of-concept before then.”