“Smart robots assembling products from a plethora of manufacturing lines by physically reconfiguring themselves on the factory floor”
“Security drones handling monotonous tasks ranging from monitoring for intruders to validating employee parking”
“Autonomous vehicles transporting parts not only between buildings, but also across the country”
“Factory inspections performed remotely from a thousand miles away”
All of this is a pipe dream isn’t it?
Just a few years ago, these were impossible dreams which you saw in films like Star Trek, Total Recall, etc. however, with the arrival of 5G connectivity, combined with advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing, these pipe dreams may now become increasingly reachable for today’s manufacturing organisations.
Did you know that data speeds are destined to be 25 times faster than today’s 4G networks and lag reduced to virtually zero?
So, at first glance, 5G appears to promise many, many opportunities to strengthen connectivity and digitisation both within factories’ four walls, and along the entire value chain.
There are five applications showing strong potential for boosting factory productivity:
• Cloud Control of Machines — For many years, factory automation relied on programmable logic controllers (PLCs) that were physically installed on or near the machines they controlled, and then hard-wired into computer networks to ensure accurate, reliable control under extreme conditions. If 5G can meet its performance promises on a consistent basis, the PLC could be virtualised in the cloud, enabling machines to be controlled wirelessly in real time at a fraction of the current cost.
• Augmented Reality — Factory workers are used to performing complex maintenance and control tasks, often directed by standard operating procedures in paper manuals or videos. But instructions streamed over 4G networks can be unreliable due to bandwidth constraints and can fail to deliver the required levels of quality. 5G promises not only the streaming of high-quality instructions on the shop floor, but also stutter-free augmented reality that can guide people, step by step, through each individual motion they need to make. Shop-floor workers will be able to undertake advanced tasks without waiting for specialist engineers or incurring costly machine downtime. Best practice and work instructions can therefore be shared with all workers exactly when they need it, building worker skills more quickly, safely, and effectively.
• AI on the Factory Floor — Cameras are already prevalent in modern factories to monitor processes and security. However, their use is limited to focused applications and often requires workers to monitor video feeds. 5G would allow the streaming of data in real time to the cloud, and the use of live video analytics. A security camera, for example could provide a more efficient mechanism to measure cycle times and monitor process deviations.
• High-Speed Decisioning — The most efficient factories rely on vast data pools to make decisions and there are inevitable delays as data is collected, cleaned, and analysed. 5G speeds up the decision-cycle time, allowing massive amounts of data to be ingested, processed, and actioned in near real time.
• Shop Floor Internet of Things — By adding sensors to multiple machines means factories are creating more data than ever before. Transmission through wired networks is expensive to scale, and Wi-Fi networks can quickly get congested—as anyone who has tried to connect to public Wi-Fi networks can understand. 5G has the potential to support high connection density thereby truly enabling the use of industrial data at scale.
I will say that these technologies are all still at an early stage of testing, but the testing results undertaken to date are encouraging.
In the long term, one of the most intriguing effects may be on the people who work alongside 5G.
Far from creating a world of lights-out, human-free factories, industrial 5G appears more likely to allow people to move away from tasks that have previously been considered dirty, dull, and dangerous and focus on capturing the value made possible by the vast data harvests that 5G will enable which 4G cannot always capture reliably.
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