Could 5G be the missing link for Industry 4.0 adoption?

Manufacturing Global speaks to Steve Foxley, CEO of AMRC, to get to the bottom of this question. What Are the Benefits of 5G for Manufacturers? 3 min

Leading the 5G Factory of the Future (5GFoF) consortium, the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) is embarking on its innovative 5G journey as active industrial research programmed. 

“We’re hugely proud to be leading the way on this flagship project driven by our team in Lancashire at AMRC North West. We want this programme of research to be a beacon for the potent role that 5G can have for manufacturing,” says Steve Foxley, CEO at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). 

This Government-funded project includes key global players and multiple SMEs in the industry – BAE Systems, IBM, aql, Digital Catapult, Miralis and MTT – the AMRC’s role in the consortium is to integrate the 5G technology within a manufacturing context. Currently, the AMRC is testing the 5G technology through a number of use cases. “These include real-time closed-loop manufacturing processes, digital twins, hybrid and mixed reality spaces, factory ecosystem management, remote asset monitoring. The AMRC North-West brand-new building is also going to be a smart-building and low carbon demonstrator where 5G will serve the fundamental connectivity requirements,” adds Foxley. 

So why is 5G Important in Connected Factories of the Future? Could it be the Missing Link to Advance Industry 4.0? 

“5G is much more than a simple replacement for Wi-Fi or cable,” explains Foxley. “5G builds a new paradigm for connecting factory equipment with intelligent computational units. The unprecedented high bandwidth and low-latency characteristics offered by wireless technology break numerous barriers faced by the industry.” 

With the use of 5G being a hot topic to discuss, the scale of the shift to 5G is both unprecedented and significant. “The jump from 4G to 5G is like comparing a winding single-file A-road in the English countryside to a multi-lane German autobahn,” says Foxley.  

“Fewer corners equal less latency, and faster information flows (up to 250x faster with a theoretical 1ms). The speed represents the bandwidth, where the 60mph national speed limit is compared with as fast as you are comfortable going. Or, in this case, up to 10Gbps, 10x more than the previous 4G/LTE speeds. The number of lanes represents one of the biggest enhancements of 5G, which is network slicing. This allows (as with the autobahn) parts of the network to go at different speeds, latencies, ranges and have different security. Finally, there is the number of cars that you can fit on the road, and more lanes means more cars. In the case of 5G, this is 1 million devices per km2 in comparison to only 4,000 with 4G. Taken together, this represents a significant uplift in capability and opportunity for the manufacturing community; our role is to explore the potential and to highlight the areas that require further work,” adds Foxley. 

What Are the Benefits of 5G for Manufacturers?  

Understanding what makes 5G different to 4G from a technical point of view, Foxley explains the benefits of 5G for manufacturers from a practical application viewpoint:  

  • Improved connectivity: as the number of devices on the shopfloor continues to increase; we need the ability to potentially connect hundreds of devices. 5G provides us with that capability. 

  • Low latency: the ability to reduce the latency of data, capture, analysis and action to a few milliseconds means that real-time control can become a reality. 

  • High reliability: gone will be the days of the signal dropping off or of losing connectivity as you move around the shop floor. 

  • Improved productivity and end-to-end traceability of data: access to better data more quickly means that quality can be improved, and through improved quality, we can take out the rework loop, leading to improved productivity as well as reduced waste.  

  • Advanced technology adoption: the capability to deploy other advanced technologies such as the Internet of things (IoT). 


The Future of 5G in Manufacturing Operations 

When it comes to adopting technology, Foxley emphasizes that new technology often brings fresh challenges. “For 5G, there are several challenges that through this 5G Factory of the Future programme we are looking to explore for the benefit of the UK manufacturing community. 

“The most significant challenge the AMRC is experiencing among manufacturers is demonstrating the Return on Investment; at this point, like many new technologies, we need to build the evidence and working knowledge so that the technology can drive improvements in business performance we anticipate.” 

Beyond this, he also highlights the skills gap, different deployment models, potential machine interface bottlenecks, and the shortage of 5G terminals as other key challenges to overcome in the industry.  

However, AMRC’s 5GFoF programme aims to break down and analyse every part of the 5G deployment to overcome these challenges. “We have already gathered a significant knowledge base and skill sets; therefore, we can offer help to resolve problems faced by manufacturers at various levels, whether strategic decision making, deeper assistance with the technology, finding suppliers, or cost-benefit analysis,” says Foxley.   

Looking to the next 12 to 18 months, Foxley concludes: “We are expecting to see a larger number of suppliers for the infrastructure, devices, and software services. The very nature of 5G allows the computer components to come closer and tightly coupled to the industrial processes. That means we can expect to see some market disturbances; for example, larger software vendors will try to enter the manufacturing sector, which will drive greater competitiveness amongst the actors. 


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