Tapping into Industry 4.0 with 5G private networks (Reader Forum)
“Productivity isn’t everything, but, in the long run, it’s almost everything.” This oft-quoted aphorism from economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman has new life in the shadow of Covid-19. Despite its hefty toll on the global economy, the pandemic presents an opportunity to refocus on optimising productivity, using a broadening range of sophisticated digital tools.
Industrial 5G is perhaps the headline act. A recent trial in the UK hints at the potential scale of the productivity boost on offer. The Worcestershire 5G Consortium deployed private 5G networks on the factory floor for boiler maker Worcester-Bosch and machine tool builder Yamazaki Mazak. The trial saw a two percent rise in productivity.
Those in charge said the real opportunity would be to extend it across the rest of their operations. Imagine applying this across an entire economy.
In the industrial sector, 5G will unlock use cases that were impossible with previous generations of mobile network technology. Equally importantly, successful enterprise uptake will be essential if mobile service providers are to recover the investments needed to implement 5G networks.
LTE-based low-power wide-area (LPWA) LTE-M and NB-IoT, which are already part of the 5G standards, offer a taster of how IoT technologies will transform industry, delivering low-cost, low-throughput connectivity for use cases such as smart metering, condition monitoring, and asset tracking.
These technologies offer the simplicity, flexibility, security, and mobility of cellular. An expanded 5G system, incorporating LTE-M and NB-IoT, will expand these industrial IoT use cases across the factory floor, and back into enterprise systems.
However, despite cellular technologies’ ease of integration, flexibility, and high performance, many industries have been cautious to adopt them for automating factory floors, supply chains, and other operational elements. This is likely due to a reluctance to rely on third parties to manage business-essential services, because of concerns around liability, security, and privacy.
Private 5G networks address these perceived risks, and control and management is taken in-house. But there’s still much to think about, including around spectrum availability, deployment scenarios, network functionality, and ultimately management and ownership. This article looks at the interplay between these issues.
Private networks in a nutshell
5G private networks restrict service to closed user groups. Network specifications around quality of service, security, reliability, liability, and other factors, are tuned to the use cases.
For example, an automotive plant might require a mix of connectivity features to streamline operations, increase productivity, and protect its workers: massive IoT (mMTC) to connect swarms of industrial IoT sensors to the enterprise cloud, enhanced mobile broadband(eMBB) to deliver high-speed wireless connectivity across the plant, and ultra-reliable low-latency communications (uRLLC) to enable VR-based support tools and control industrial robots.
Additionally, it might want to extend service to vehicles beyond the plant, first to dealerships, then to vehicles’ private owners, for post-sale performance-monitoring.
Sliced and diced – virtually
Enabling 5G’s three technological pillars – mMTC, eMBB, uRLLC – requires three critical ingredients: sufficient wireless spectrum in the appropriate frequency bands, network infrastructure to provide access to it, and the end device.
Take broadband IoT (eMBB), which requires a sufficiently broad portion of spectrum at either sub-6GHz or mmWave spectrum (24GHz and up) to deliver high throughput. Massive IoT (mMTC), on the other hand, uses sub-2GHz frequency bands to deliver enhanced coverage at low data rates. A
nd critical IoT (URLLC) connectivity exploits a highly synchronized and low-latency transport network, quick enough to send data packets from one end device to another in under five milliseconds.
Wireless spectrum is a scarce resource, and the way it’s allocated to industrial networks is a subject of dispute. Giving market forces free rein could lead to spectrum-hoarding that shuts out smaller enterprises and late joiners.
Broad-reaching regulation, such as attributing a fixed portion of spectrum to industrial customers, could lead to inefficient spectrum use, eating away at an already small pie and forfeiting the economies of scale mobile network operators (MNOs) need to recover their investments.
Different markets are adopting different approaches, and it remains unclear which will prevail. But the diversity of techniques adds further complexity to the already fragmented mobile network landscape.
The goal will be to ensure enterprises, including late applicants, can affordably acquire the spectrum they need for their operations. One solution is a real-estate-based approach, where industrial spectrum over specific premises can only be purchased by the landowner, while unused spectrum is given to communication service providers to help meet public demand.
Ultimately, solving the spectrum allocation conundrum will involve harmonizing wireless spectrum across territories, to maximize the attainable market for 5G devices and leverage the economies of scale enabled by a global customer base.
It will also involve defining and implementing neutral fairness criteria, to ensure spectrum availability is predictable over long time periods and that as many stakeholders as possible can access the technology.
To meet their application-specific requirements without wasting scarce spectrum, industrial customers have various deployment options. They can deploy the entire network infrastructure on their own premises and operate it themselves or via a third party. This could include a connection to the public network, to extend access beyond the served perimeter.
This approach offers the greatest security, privacy, and control. But it requires deep technological expertise, and expanding coverage to other factories and the public network is more complex.
Alternatively, organisations can adopt hybrid solutions, relying on the public mobile network to varying degrees. Sharing just the radio access network enables OT managers to benefit from a virtually isolated slice of the 5G radio access network, while maintaining full control and ownership of the control plane, as well as their own non-public services.
Other options are to delegate control plane functions to the public network as well, or run the entire private network on a dedicated slice of the public network, while maintaining a communication channel to the enterprise cloud.
Setting up and operating a private network as part of the public network requires far less ICT expertise. However, outsourcing essential infrastructure brings risk, including around data security and service availability. It’s essential the legal obligations and liabilities of the network provider are clearly defined.
Delivering Industry 4.0
Private networks can drive productivity-boosting digitalization of industrial processes. In a white paper, Ericsson reports that digital transformation can deliver a two-to-three percent revenue uptick from increased throughput and quality, and nine-to-18 percent cost savings, from improved capital efficiency and lower manufacturing costs.
Wireless devices also offer unprecedented flexibility, and are simpler to set up, commission, maintain, reconfigure, and replace, than their wired cousins.
Use cases that stand to benefit from deeper-reaching digitalization abound. Smart digital twins will be able to integrate all sensor inputs into a computational model of a production facility. The 5G-SMART consortium, of which u-blox is a member, is investigating the technological requirements. High-reliability and low-latency are among them, essential for value-adding insights.
5G-SMART is also investigating robot control on the factory line, with its stringent one-millisecond latency and six-nines reliability requirements; controlling automated vehicles; and remote control of automated cranes.
5G’s high-throughput, low-latency communication could finally enable mixed-reality applications in factories. It will also bring new levels of performance in terms of accurate distributed timing and synchronization for industrial applications, and indoor (and everywhere) positioning.
Living up to the hype
Hype around 5G has been constant, but consumer subscriptions won’t be enough to foot the rollout bill. Industrial take-up has therefore become essential for the technology to firstly turn a profit and secondly live up to the hype. 5G private networks will play a foundational role, bringing new classes of cellular network functionality to enterprises, while mitigating associated risks.
With a variety of deployment options, OT managers can select a solution that balances their ownership and control requirements with their expertise. And finally, 5G private networks offer a framework that regulators can build on to ensure the efficient spectrum allocation.
With most 5G private networks still in pilot, and associated 5G standards evolving, there remains much to learn. Industry-led consortia, testbeds and trials are essential to understand the technical requirements 5G private networks must address, and to start establishing best practices for deploying, certifying and getting maximum benefit from them.
Adoption will likely be spearheaded by industrial verticals. Success here will drive take-up in other sectors, including satellite, maritime, and automotive communication. With no end to the Covid-19 pandemic in sight, pressure to boost global productivity and contribute to economic recovery will accelerate the trends of digitalization and 5G adoption.
Sylvia Lu is Head of Technology Strategy, Product Center Cellular at u-blox