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How 5G Will Revolutionize Manufacturing

5G is poised to take productivity to the next level. 

By Xiang Ling

5G solves connectivity issues and creates more scenarios where cloud computing and artificial intelligence can be applied to manufacturing, bringing new possibilities to the industry. 

Winwin 38

Smart manufacturing today and in the future

Global manufacturing has entered the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Digital, network, and intelligent technologies will revolutionize production equipment and processes as well as product supply. To become part of this revolution, manufacturing powerhouses have launched plans to upgrade the manufacturing industry. Some examples are the US's Strategy for American Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing, Germany's Industry 4.0 strategy, and China's Made in China 2025 plan. All aim to use advanced ICT to empower manufacturing and enhance the industry's core capabilities. China, for example, has deployed the world's largest 5G network and developed more than 100 5G-enabled manufacturing benchmark applications, which the nation is starting to commercialize.

The application of 5G to R&D and design systems, production control systems, and service management systems will revolutionize the production processes of vertical industries covering R&D and design, production, and management services. This will transform manufacturing into a more intelligent, flexible, service-oriented, and premium industry.

Since 2016, countries worldwide have been promoting the development of 5G-enabled manufacturing by developing policies, incentivizing industries, and establishing alliances. In China, the US, the EU, Japan, and South Korea, we’ve seen governments, industry alliances, manufacturers, and carriers leading efforts to implement 5G-enabled manufacturing applications. A number of countries, including Canada, Australia, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, India, Brazil, and Russia, have stated in their digital strategies that they will adopt 5G, showing direct or indirect national strategic support for 5G application in manufacturing.

5G in smart manufacturing

Considering the speed at which 5G is developing, the general industry consensus is that 5G should be introduced to manufacturing in three stages.

Informatization: Network infrastructure optimization began in 2018. In 2020, 5G’s enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) capabilities started to be adopted. Thanks to unprecedented large upstream and downstream bandwidth and low latency, 5G is finding its way into non-crucial elements of manufacturing processes. This is enabling digital transformation in manufacturing and benefits enterprises by offering lower costs, higher quality, and higher efficiency.

Digitalization: 5G is expected to integrate with IT and operational technology (OT) between 2021 and 2023. During this stage, 5G will be introduced into the very core of manufacturing thanks to the development of industrial modules, multi-access edge computing (MEC), network slicing, and ultra-reliable low-latency communication (URLLC). 5G will adapt to use cases that require real-time control and high reliability and integrate with IT and OT in manufacturing. 

Intelligence: 5G is expected to fully integrate connectivity and intelligence after 2023. As the digital transformation and flexible evolution of manufacturing develop, and the low latency, high reliability, mass connectivity, and wide coverage of 5G further improve, 5G will empower fully wireless smart factories. This full connectivity will enable a wide range of services, from connecting basic equipment and meeting office needs, to ultra-low-latency precision control and manufacturing.

China has deployed the world's largest 5G network and developed more than 100 5G-enabled manufacturing benchmark applications, including 5G + Industrial Internet, in numerous manufacturing sectors including ports, iron and steel, cement, aircraft, home appliance, electronics, and semiconductors.

Based on experience from actual projects, industrial connectivity will place the following three requirements on wireless networks:

Solid network performance: The core 5G features of high bandwidth, low latency, and massive connectivity will be required. Currently, 5G is going through the preliminary stages of commercialization and meets the basic needs of connectivity for manufacturing. With the freezing of Release 16 and progression of Release 17, 5G is set to be applied in even more use cases.

High reliability: Wireless networks must have stable connections and latencies. As mobile communications technology has shifted from consumer-oriented to business-oriented, reliability requirements have changed dramatically. Actual 5G projects for business have been examined to develop a preliminary reliability requirement model, and 5G equipment is becoming increasingly capable of meeting the high reliability requirements of manufacturing.

Onsite adjustment: Wireless networks should be easy to deploy, maintain, and expand. As a wireless communications technology, 5G cannot be compared to optical fiber in terms of absolute performance indicators. However, mobility and flexibility are two key reasons for manufacturers to choose 5G as their connectivity solution. In addition, the ease of planning, construction, O&M, and optimization that 5G can offer is beyond even what manufacturing industries need.

The general industry consensus is that the earliest 5G applications for smart manufacturing have preliminarily matured and are ready for massive commercial use.

Connecting equipment: This is the most common application of 5G in smart manufacturing. Li Peigen, academician from the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE), believes that because a high-precision manufacturing process can entail accessing tens of thousands of sensors and actuators, it’s vital that wireless communications technology features high reliability, massive connectivity, and ultra-low latency, all of which 5G does. Currently, most smart factories rely on wired connections. However, deploying the hardware needed for wired connections is complex and time-consuming. Hardware also deteriorates over time, and troubleshooting, maintenance, and replacing equipment is difficult. Moreover, wired connections don’t enable adjustments to the production line. As manufacturing becomes more intelligent and flexible, wired connections cannot keep up. That's why more smart factories are connecting their systems and equipment using 5G, which promises communications capabilities almost equal to wired connections, but with greater flexibility.

AI-based detection: For scenarios in which defects are difficult to detect and manual inspection is required, the best approach is a long-term process of photographs plus computing to find the pattern and perform an informed analysis. Wang Guodong, another CAE academician, believes that real-time image transmission will generate huge demand for 5G. Traditionally, photography and detection functions are incorporated in manufacturing equipment, but that is costly and relies on dated detection algorithms backed by insufficient computing power. It’s also hard to upgrade detection algorithms. Now, however, more manufacturers are adopting automatic detection through cloud AI, which imposes new requirements on the network given the volume of data transferred to cloud – mainly images and videos for training and data for real-time detection. 5G technology, with its large bandwidth and low latency, fully meets the transmission requirements of automatic detection in smart manufacturing.

Real-time control: According to Wang, 5G networks are the best way to achieve fast, real-time communications between physical entities and their digital twins in manufacturing process control. Digital twin technology has not yet been widely adopted. Currently, real-time remote control and automatic operations are mainly used for equipment; for example, bridge cranes, gantry cranes, and manufacturing robots require extremely low latency, below 20 ms, which 5G can deliver. Currently, 5G is seeing broad adoption in steel mills, ports, and manufacturing plants.

Synergy across five tech domains is the key to success

"In digital transformation, manufacturers should focus on extended reality, digital twins, multi-domain physical modeling, Internet of Vehicles, digital supply chain, and cloud robotics applications," Li Peigen told WinWin. "These applications are very demanding in terms of connectivity and computing capabilities. Therefore, technologies such as 5G, cloud, and AI should act as a digital foundation for driving the adoption and development of these applications in the manufacturing industry."

As the most advanced mobile communications technology standard, 5G will greatly boost the connectivity experience and act as an important part of future-oriented digital infrastructure, bringing opportunities to smart manufacturing through the synergy across five tech domains: connectivity, AI, cloud, computing, and industry applications.

The explosive growth of data is placing new demands on the computing industry, with 5G set to take cloud computing to the next level. In the 5G era, computing is evolving towards a new paradigm of cloud-edge-device synergy and diversified computing, addressing the varied computing requirements that come with massive numbers of devices and smart application scenarios.

Right now, we’re seeing the rapid proliferation of 5G industry applications. For example, in smart manufacturing, remote control enabled by 5G and cloud has changed how people work. Valin Xiangtan Iron & Steel, a factory in China's Hunan Province, has used 5G and cloud computing to enable remote-controlled bridge cranes. In the past, operators had to control equipment while sitting inside the small control room, a dangerous and unappealing job that made recruitment difficult. With 5G and cloud computing, operators can control equipment in the comfort of an air-conditioned room. One operator can control several bridge cranes, watching them via HD video and greatly reducing the manufacturer's labor costs.

Wang is enthusiastic about the potential of 5G and cloud computing to accelerate AI applications, "Cloud and AI are vital to many aspects of the process industry, including data processing, AI applications, algorithms, and programming methods,” he said. “The edge cloud is especially important, because digital twins will provide the best real-time feedback through direct interaction between the edge and physical entities. The combination of cloud, AI, and the large bandwidth and low latency of 5G can fully address the requirements of industrial manufacturing."

With 5G, the driving force of services will shift from the human brain to cloud. For example, Valin Xiangtan Iron & Steel is now using 5G, cloud, and AI technologies for detecting defects on steel surfaces. Photos taken by industrial cameras are sent to the cloud via the 5G network, and defects are automatically identified through AI-based machine vision. Unlike manual detection, automatic detection can accurately identify subtle defects and objects in motion, and can be used during the hot rolling process. This will help improve product quality and reduce workload.

Chinese companies have taken the lead in applying 5G in manufacturing. Throughout the country, 5G is seeing wider adoption in manufacturing, logistics, and other scenarios. With the evolution of 5G standards and protocols and the improvement of the modular device industry, 5G will become the engine that drives the digital transformation of all industries and the development of the digital economy.