5G benefits and barriers

27 April 2020

A whitepaper from Digital Catapult takes a look at the important role 5G is set to play in ensuring connectivity to enable digitalisation of enterprises. It also looks at the current barriers to 5G deployment.

5G’s promise of ultra-low latency, extremely fast data speeds and the ability to simultaneously connect a million devices per km² looks set to open up new opportunities to optimise manufacturing processes. 

Early test cases have shown that 5G represents a step-change in connectivity for the manufacturing sector and its technologies go far beyond what mobile networks have previously offered. 5G offers a unique combination of features that can answer almost any set of connectivity requirements for specific or multiple industrial digital technology (IDT) use cases.

With latency of less than a millisecond – five times lower than 4G – 5G technology holds the key to real-time processes. Further, its high reliability means it can be used for mission critical operations – manufacturers will be able to manage multiple connectivity technologies, including legacy networks, through a single 5G network. It will also give the ability to run a private 5G network, or have control of a dedicated ‘network slice’ from a mobile network provider. Both options put manufacturers in greater control of their own connectivity, security and quality of service.

Advanced manufacturing 5G use cases can improve efficiency and safety as well as reduce downtime. For example, 5G will be needed for large-scale predictive maintenance and time-critical hazard detection or scale deployments of collaborative robotics.

5G use cases can be categorised into three clusters:
1. On-site and in-factory production optimisation.
2. Monitoring and management of goods across the supply chain.
3. Connected goods: product life cycle management (including end of life).

To date, manufacturing companies have focused their industrial digital technology plans on production and in-factory processes, which are often viewed as most business critical. Opportunities to manage incoming and outgoing goods could, however, be transformative, giving visibility of the entire end-to-end supply chain for the first time. Connected products, following entry into service, meanwhile provide an opportunity to build new business models for the sector.

While 4G fuelled mass adoption of mobile Internet and digitised our social lives, 5G looks set to do the same for industrial business use cases. It is  the first cellular network technology designed to address machine-type communications and meet the requirements for multiple industrial digital technology use cases, from high density of sensors to autonomous vehicle.

The difference between 4G and 5G goes far beyond increased bandwidth.  For example, 4G, with a latency of 50 milliseconds (ms), is not fast enough to deal with tasks requiring real-time communication, while 5G at 1ms will do so perfectly.

Telecoms equipment vendor Ericsson worked with Fraunhofer Institute on a 5G test and case study focused on improving process control and speeding up detection of manufacturing failures for high cost metal blades used in turbines,  including jet engines. They estimate that 5G capabilities,  including ultra-low latency, can deliver a decline in rework rates from 25% to 15% – a machine cost reduction of €3,600 per blade. This would equal an annual saving of €27 million for just one factory. Its technical capabilities are grouped into three areas:

Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB): Likely to be the first deployments of 5G technology, to address the large growth in mobile devices and demand for data with 10+ GBps bandwidth. eMBB enables services such as streaming of ultra high definition (UHD) video, intelligent analytics of large volumes of data using artificial intelligence/machine learning, and training and assisted operations using augmented and/or virtual reality.

Massive machine-type communications (mMTC): Utilising sub 1GHz spectrum to deliver large scale machine to machine (M2M) communication. mMTC enables large scale internet of things (IoT) deployments and roll-outs of sensors on-site, across large distributed sites and the supply chain, as well as connectivity between manufacturers and their end-customers.

Ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC): Driven by new use cases such as remote maintenance and monitoring, collaborative robots (cobots) and connected autonomous vehicles, URLLC will deliver ultra-fast mission critical connectivity. This will enable highly accurate and reliable real-time data that can be processed, analysed, visualised and actioned at scale,  both on-site and across the various parts of the supply chain. This feature is crucial in a manufacturing process with extremely high tolerance requirements. Close to one millisecond latency and very high bandwidth make it possible to control manufacturing machines in real-time,  reducing costs and improving quality.

It should be noted, however, that these three capabilities work on the basis of trade offs. For example, to achieve ultra low latency, there may be a need to reduce the device density or the data speed.

A crucial change delivered by 5G lies in how the network is managed. Currently, networks need to be managed separately. Using 5G technology, a company could simultaneously manage different:

• Types of access networks: For example, wired, wireless, optical, copper.
• Technologies: For example fieldbus, Ethernet, wireless.
• Protocols: For example real-time, best effort.
• Equipment products from different equipment: Vendors may otherwise be incompatible.

Addressing the challenges
Unfortunately, to counter the benefits, there are also many challenges to 5G adoption in the manufacturing sector. These include:

• A lack of demonstrable cost-efficiency and return on investment. This is further complicated by the fact that connectivity is typically not part of manufacturing companies’ R&D plans, despite awareness that current connectivity does not meet their future requirements.
• Concerns around compatibility and interoperability of mobile networks when it comes to integration into existing industrial systems.
• A need for security.
• Lack of understanding of how 5G differs from other connectivity solutions.
• Cultural barriers to working with companies in different sectors such as telecommunications, as well as startups.

Barriers to deployment
A manufacturing survey, conducted in the UK by Digital Catapult, the UK’s innovation centre for advanced digital technology adoption, showed that 71% of respondents believe 5G will bring benefits to their organisation. However, there are barriers to its successful deployment and each area of manufacturing – from aerospace and defence to fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) – has its own sub-set of considerations. 

Many emerging technologies are held back by a lack of certainty about the value they can bring. This often halts investment beyond a proof of concept or siloed use case. A clear ROI and business case is crucial to the introduction of 5G in manufacturing and it would appear that proven ROI in deployments are scarce.

The situation is further complicated by a lack of attention to connectivity at a strategic level within manufacturing companies. Most manufacturers see the value of automation and the introduction of sensors for efficiency and productivity. Several companies interviewed by Digital Catapult said their existing connectivity covers their current needs, but note that the wired connectivity typically used is inflexible and costly to expand to provide further capabilities. One manufacturer, for example, was looking to expand from 1,000 factory sensors to 100,000. This would be challenging, complex and possibly even physically impossible to do with wired connectivity, due to the cost of wiring, tray installations and disruption of production.

Manufacturers typically do not consider connectivity to be part of their strategy and R&D processes. It is often seen as a commodity and a cost centre. Often, current connectivity solutions are assessed to evaluate performance as well as the cost of keeping rather than replacing them, given efficiency, productivity and quality considerations.

The connectivity challenge is therefore often not part of considerations when undertaking proof of concepts using technologies such as IoT or machine learning. For a limited, siloed deployment, existing connectivity has been more than adequate.

There also appears to be concern about compatibility and interoperability with existing solutions. This  is often driven by experience: for example, previous teething problems experienced when introducing new solutions at the heart of processes. If there are problems, consequences can be catastrophic. New connectivity solutions need to cater for existing standards in the areas of security and reliability. This includes specific regulatory requirements in many sectors. Concerns in this area mainly relate to personnel safety and end-to-end reliability of manufacturing processes.

Of course, security is paramount and 5G poses challenges here, due to its versatility. For example, enabling a large number of services and IoT devices increases the range of points potentially open to threat. An open, flexible, programmable network can also be more vulnerable. 

Many manufacturers are also sceptical about having new outside parties – with limited knowledge of their operations – controlling their vital communications. 

5G connectivity, based on network slicing provided by mobile network operators, could partly address the need for security, control and privacy. In this scenario, network operators or systems integrators could provide the advanced services required.

Research undertaken by Digital Catapult showed that manufacturers prefer a fully private network, enabling them to control the production line, giving them full flexibility over any modifications and ownership of risk and support.

The architecture of 5G, with virtual and disaggregated network functions and the introduction of edge computing,  enables private networks. Private network deployments and operations introduce new challenges for manufacturers, as these incur increased network infrastructure costs for both deployment and operations. Manufacturers would also need teams skilled in cellular network deployment and management.

Completely private network solutions will also require access to radio spectrum. In the UK, for example, the regulator, Ofcom,  has not set aside spectrum for use specifically in the industrial sector, but it is consulting on greater shared access to spectrum.

Private 5G systems also require new architectures.  Several telecoms equipment vendors are working to create these. They aim to make networks as plug-and-play as possible, to remove the need for specialised telecoms engineers to manage them.

Lack of understanding
Manufacturing companies recognise that their organisations are often not aware of what capabilities 5G can deliver. Only one-third of those surveyed by Digital Catapult said they have a good knowledge of 5G, while 7% view themselves as experts.

Manufacturers often incorrectly believe that their existing connectivity capability already performs around 80% of what 5G is expected to deliver. This drives a reluctance to investigate 5G, in particular if there is no confirmed business case.

Furthermore, connectivity solutions are often managed by IT teams. The skill set in these roles does not extend to cellular connectivity, in general, nor 5G in particular. This means in-house teams often do not have the knowledge to assess different options.

So, for manufacturers to roll-out large scale changes to processes based on 5G, it will be imperative to re-train and upskill staff.

For 5G networks to be widely adopted, they will also need to be significantly easier to build, configure, commission and operate than they are today and this is an area where companies adopting 5G and the mobile industry need to collaborate and learn from each other. Until these capabilities are recognised as important in the sector, there will be significant barriers to both digitalisation and the deployment of 5G. In a negative circle, what often amounts to a lack of understanding of 5G also means it is harder to determine its potential ROI.

A language gap between the parties involved is also hindering strategic discussions about the opportunity of 5G.  Manufacturing engineers speak in terms of production, IT teams speak in terms of servers and cloud while telecoms providers speak about throughput and MHz. 5G involves the introduction of new systems which blur the line between IT and connectivity. In addition, new technology experimentation often involves collaboration with innovative startups who work, communicate and act in a very different way to large, established manufacturing companies.

For 5G to be deployed in a manufacturing environment,  experts in the various domains need to work together, using a common language. Third parties – with knowledge of all sides of the 5G story – can help mediate between the different businesses. Systems integrators, who are already trusted by the manufacturing industry, will also play a key role. Vitally, education and advisory activities will also be a key requirement.

The original Digital Catapult whitepaper document ‘Made in 5G’ can be downloaded from: https://bit.ly/2IyN94L

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