Connecting industrial applications to a private 5G network

28 September 2020

Control Engineering Europe finds out more about an industrial 5G router for private networks, by speaking to Frank Hakemeyer, director of communication interfaces at Phoenix Contact Electronics.

Phoenix Contact, Quectel and Ericsson have been collaborating to jointly develop and deploy the first industrial 5G router for local industrial applications in a private 5G network, to allow industrial applications, such as machines, controls and other equipment to be connected to a private 5G network, and thus be orchestrated in their resource usage, priority and behavior. This offers an advantage over previous mobile radio solutions, which can only use all – mostly license-free – radio bands with a best effort principle and which have to accept performance losses in equal measure when the radio spectrum is heavily occupied. 

Q: What benefits might this system offer for end-users in industrial applications, when compared to other mobile radio systems using mostly license-free radio bands?
Phoenix Contact has a long term experience in license free wireless solutions based, for example, on Bluetooth, Wifi, or Trusted Wireless and on licensed wireless solutions based on cellular technology such as 2G, 3G, or 4G. We have offered wireless products and solutions for nearly 20 years so can create the right technical solution for a particular application.

From experience, license free wireless solutions mainly suffer from three main challenges:

• No guaranteed quality of service – due to the nature of using a license free frequency band, you can never manage and guarantee the communication. It is always a ‘best effort’ approach. Medium Access Mechanisms like ‘listen before talk’ allow all users of the license free band an equal access and an equal degradation of service in case of congestion of the band. In cellular networks the frequency bands are licensed to operators, or in private networks to plant or factory owners.
• In license free wireless solutions there is no single technology that works for all use cases. You need to select the technology according to the requirements of the use case. In the end you have a heterogenous world of technologies and products which are difficult to combine and challenging to manage at a single location. In a 5G network the management of resources, the orchestration of all applications and the prioritisation of use cases is a characteristic of the architecture of the cellular technology.
• There have been activities to develop industry-specific, license free wireless solutions – WirelessHart, or some proprietary technologies such as Trusted Wireless from Phoenix Contact. These solutions can offer a good solution, but they will never become a mainstream technology such as cellular based communication. The amount of engineering effort, optimisation and cost reduction is not comparable to a mainstream technology.

So, the 5G approach – especially with new enhancements (private 5G networks, network slicing, ultra-reliable low latency communication, etc.) can overcome challenges from the license free world. 

Q: Could you suggest some typical industrial applications that would benefit from this solution?
Clearly any mobile application could benefit. Some applications, like AGVs (automated guided vehicles), electric monorail conveyors, mobile tools, or machine parts that can be part of different production lines, can be difficult to realise without wireless communication.

But I do not think there is a single killer application for an industrial (private) 5G network. I believe the biggest potential of a private 5G network is to become a new communication backbone in industrial automation. If the factory or plant owner can run a variety of applications through the same 5G network infrastructure, if they can manage and prioritise applications within a single communication network, this is the strongest reason to make use of 5G. 
Q: Could you go into more detail about the ‘industrial-grade performance’ of the solution?
The first industrial 5G Router from Phoenix Contact focusses on stand-alone (SA) networks. This is the description for a 100% 5G based infrastructure. The opposite is non-stand-alone (NS), which means you need a 4G and a 5G network to operate your devices. If you run a 5G SA network in a private mode (also called campus network) then you can connect your industrial applications such as AGVs, robots, sensor concentrators etc. via the 5G Router to your network. 

Of course, the 5G Router is designed for industrial use, meaning the circuits are designed for industrial environments and the interfaces and the feature set are specified for the industrial automation world. 

Q: Could you explain how the solution could be integrated into an existing plant set up?
The 5G private network can become a wireless communication backbone for many different use cases in the plant or factory. To set-up a private network a plant or factory owner must decide whether to operate and manage this network on their own, or whether they want to have a service provider doing so. It is important to think about this decision and especially how the data comes ‘out of the 5G network’ and how it is re-inserted into the automation network (network and control level), or the ERP level.

Of course, this is very much related to the different use cases running through the 5G network. The new TC 5G PRIVNET ROUTER enables users to connect different use cases by Ethernet to the 5G private network. It supports the release 15 specification of 3GPP and it can be used in SA and NSA networks. The main focus with this device is on 5G SA private networks and most users want to make use of it to realise their first 5G installations.

Q: Should end-users take any security precautions to protect their networks and data when employing this solution?
The TC 5G PRIVNET ROUTER offers many security features such as VPN connections based on IP Sec or OpenVPN, as well as a firewall. These are well known features that are used if data somehow runs through the public networks (cellular or wired) – which means in the end: the Internet. So, in those cases where the application is connected to a public cellular network from any carrier, it is always recommended to use these mentioned security mechanisms.

If it is a private 5G network, then those mechanisms are not needed and the wireless communication between a base station and the devices will already be secured by 3GPP mechanisms.  

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