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5G Technology- A Game Changer in Manufacturing and Supply Chain

What is 5G? 

5G is the 5th generation mobile network, surpassing 4G. 5G is designed to connect people, machines, objects and devices together seamlessly.  5G wireless technology delivers higher peak data speeds, ultra-low latency, more reliability, increased network capacity and availability, and a better experience for more users.

5G represents a step-change in performance capability within the supply chain.  It wirelessly connects automation equipment, remote operations, predicts maintenance and improves asset tracking. For example, 5G helps improve the visibility of inventory to prevent shrinkage as well as providing accurate real-time product location data. 5G connectivity also enables vehicle-to-vehicle communication, optimizing logistics and transport operations.

In manufacturing

The key elements of 5G, which are high reliability and increased speed, support emerging technologies and their applications in smart manufacturing, such as process automation, remote monitoring, and maintenance and device life cycle management.  By eliminating the need for wired connectivity, 5G provides the manufacturing environment with a high level of flexibility.  Sophisticated control systems already manage repetitive tasks using emerging technologies like IoT sensors, AI vision cameras and autonomous robots. 5G technology streamlines automation through wireless communications that simplify real-time machine monitoring and controls, delivering better management insight.

Best areas of applications for 5G

5G technology is having a big impact on the way leading manufacturers produce and distribute goods.  Innovative 5G applications such as these help industry users cut costs, reduce downtime, reduce waste and improve productivity:

1. Smoothing production cycles

Collating real-time data on production processes means production can be correctly sequenced, flow can be maximized, speeding up production cycles and reducing waste.

Tools and equipment can be re-purposed thereby improving efficiency.

2. Remote managing of production assets

Assets can be located and managed in real-time. Machines can be configured to optimize safety, efficiency, and quality. Siemens, for example, implemented its first live remote monitoring system for Factory Acceptance Tests (FAT) in its transformers factory in Mexico.

3. Maintenance and life cycle management

IoT sensors are often installed on machines to monitor equipment status and send out alerts for routine maintenance.  5G technology can provide up-to-the-minute information about their condition and output leading to cost savings on repairs. The stable connectivity offered by 5G technology-enabled Swedish vendor Ericsson to experiment with augmented reality (AR) overlays to repair electronic boards.

4. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs)

AGVs are used to transport heavy materials around large industrial facilities. 5G technology can play a key role in setting up the conditions where AGVs can deliver optimally. Hitachi is partnering with telecommunication carriers and technology providers like Verizon and Ericsson to replace Wi-Fi at the edge, significantly increasing the density of connected devices, sensors and machines and improving the throughput of data streams.

5. 3D parts and additive manufacturing

With predictive analytics, the demand for spare parts can be monitored and 3D printers can create parts on-demand. This reduces waste and the cost of storage. Home appliance manufacturer Whirlpool adopted 3D printing to combat obsolescence and fulfill part-shortage areas.  As well as cost savings, Whirlpool believes that the most significant outcome is the impact on customer service.  5G boosts this process by enabling operators to connect with multiple standalone 3D printers remotely.

6. Real-time video analytics

Some of the potential uses enabled by real-time video analytics are visual quality inspection, health protocol adherence, workplace safety as well as perimeter surveillance & intrusion detection. 5G is the enabler by supporting many connected devices.

7. Combining robotics

Most industrial robots are connected using a wired system as the data required cannot be supported by current wireless speeds. 5G technology is the key to the expansion of the collaborative robotics concept. Ocado, the online grocery retailer, has over 1,100 robots at their Andover facility picking up items from crates and delivering them to packing stations. They travel along a grid using an air traffic control system and travel up to 37 miles per day.

8. The human interface

5G frees up staff from working at fixed computer terminals.  Mobile hand-held devices and augmented reality tools enable visual interaction with machines and products while on the move and remotely.  Safety is improved due to fewer people present in the facility.

5G technology in action 

Companies in the technology sector are leading the way.  5G networks offer telecom manufacturers and operators the chance to build smart factories and take advantage of opportunities in automation, artificial intelligence, augmented reality for troubleshooting, and the Internet of Things (IoT). At Ericsson, high-speed 5G wireless connectivity enables managers to track quality control and inspect products remotely using AI vision cameras along the assembly line. Ericsson has identified the most crucial manufacturing use case categories for 5G. These include industrial control and automation systems, planning and design systems, and field devices.

Where are we now?

There is still some hesitancy in going ahead with 5G technology solutions.  Cost is a factor. Some studies have shown a payback time of between 12-24 months. People are also concerned about the rate of change in the telecom environment. 6G is on the horizon. Worries about security can usually be set aside as 5G offers higher levels of security and compliance than other networks.  The concern over public health has been found to have no validity, 5G operates at a wavelength that does not produce enough energy to cause cell damage.

With wider availability of private 5G networks as well as increased device availability and diversity, 2022 could be the year when companies begin to fully exploit 5G-enabled digital solutions.

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