Imagine a future where smart robots assemble products from multiple manufacturing lines by physically reconfiguring themselves on the factory floor. Security drones handle tedious tasks ranging from monitoring for intruders to validating employee parking. Autonomous vehicles transport parts not only between buildings, but also across the country. And factory inspections are performed remotely from a thousand miles away.
Just a few years ago, these were impossible dreams reserved for the realms of science fiction. But with the arrival of 5G connectivity, combined with advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing, these dreams are becoming increasingly attainable for today’s manufacturing organizations.
The hype is intense. With data speeds slated to be 25 times faster than today’s 4G networks and lag reduced to virtually zero, 5G appears to promise unending opportunities to strengthen connectivity and digitization—both within factories’ four walls, and beyond them at every step along the entire value chain.
But which potential applications deserve manufacturers’ attention? Five show particularly strong potential for boosting factory productivity:
- Cloud control of machines—For decades, factory automation has relied on programmable logic controllers (PLCs) that were physically installed on (or very near) the machines they controlled, and then hard-wired into computer networks to ensure precise, reliable control under extreme conditions. If 5G consistently meets its performance promises, the PLC could be virtualized in the cloud, enabling machines to be controlled wirelessly in real time at a fraction of the current cost.
- Augmented reality—Factory workers are no strangers to performing complex maintenance and control tasks, often guided by standard operating procedures (SOPs) in paper manuals, videos, or—in some cases—even augmented reality. But instructions streamed over 4G networks can be unreliable due to bandwidth constraints, and fail to deliver the required levels of quality without stuttering. 5G promises not only the streaming of high-quality instructions on the shop floor, but also stutter-free augmented reality that can guide people, step by step, through each individual motion they need to make. This will allow shop-floor workers to undertake advanced tasks without waiting for specialist engineers or incurring costly machine downtime. The best knowledge and work instructions can therefore be shared with all workers exactly when they need it, building worker skills more quickly, safely, and effectively than ever before.
- Perceptive AI eyes on the factory floor—Cameras are already common in modern factories to monitor processes and security. However, their use is limited to focused applications and often requires workers to monitor video feeds. 5G will allow the streaming of data in real time to the cloud, and the use of live video analytics. For example, a security camera could see a disturbance, identify if there is an imminent threat or danger, and dispatch a drone or alert a worker to investigate. Alternatively, the same security camera could provide a more efficient mechanism to measure cycle times and monitor process deviations.
- High-speed decisioning—The best-run factories rely on vast data pools to make decisions—with inevitable delays as data is collected, cleaned, and analyzed. 5G speeds up the decision-cycle time, allowing massive amounts of data to be ingested, processed, and actioned in near real time. In several heavy industries, for example, manufacturers have been able to sell excess energy back to the grid when machines aren’t running and prices are favorable.
- Shop floor Internet of Things—The addition of sensors to multiple machines means factories are creating more data than ever before. Transmission through wired networks is expensive to scale, and Wi-Fi networks can quickly get congested—as anyone who has tried to connect to public Wi-Fi networks can attest to. 5G has the ability to support high connection density with tens of thousands of endpoints, thereby truly enabling the use of industrial data at scale.
These technologies are all still at an early stage of testing, but the pilots undertaken to date are encouraging. Long-term, one of the most intriguing effects may be on the humans who work alongside 5G. Far from creating a world of lights-out, human-free factories, industrial 5G appears more likely to allow people to move away from tasks that have previously been considered dirty, dull, and dangerous. Instead, people’s focus will shift to capturing the value made possible by the vast data harvests that 5G will enable—and that 4G could not reliably and seamlessly support at scale.