The three use cases that have turned Industry 4.0 onto private 5G networks

As with the telecoms industry’s travails with NB-IoT, only just starting to resolve, there is a classic chicken-and-egg scenario with industrial 5G, around availability of networks and devices. In other words, why should an enterprise install a 5G network if there aren’t any enterprise-grade 5G devices to attach to it? And why should a device maker start to pump out enterprise-geared 5G devices if there aren’t any networks to attach them to – and no one to sell to?

That has been the standoff until now; the same as with madly-hyped technologies like LTE-based NB-IoT, and the same with more niche pursuits like unlicensed LTE (MuteFire). It is the same reason, conversely, that the private LTE market for industrial broadband-style IoT connectivity has jumped – because the LTE ecosystem for networks and devices is, after a decade, supremely well developed and well proven. But 5G? Give it a rest.

Except the industrial appetite for 5G has increased, just lately; for once, the big talk by the telco crowd at MWC was not so far off the mark. The future is almost here, and industrial change is discernible, suddenly, in the steam rising off this new digital stew –a meat-and-veg one-pot of IoT sensing and AI sense-making bound in the thick gravy of private 5G and edge compute. And the industrial set is breathing in the fumes. 

This is because the old chicken-and-egg dynamic has been broken; the wait for industrial 5G devices goes on, in line to an extent with the wait for industrial 5G networks – both supporting Release 16 and 17 functions. But industry can make use of less serious-minded industrial tech gadgetry, already – enough, in many cases, to justify investments in small test networks, expanding to single-site production networks, expanding to multi-site strategic plays.

This is because – as Vodafone neatly explained in conversation in a back room at MWC (to be written into a full-length feature later this week) – certain “core applications” have emerged which either do not require much in the way of new ‘industrial’ devices, or else only require devices that have been fitted-early with 5G modules. None of this is rocket science, of course; we write about these cases every week. But credit to Vodafone for drawing the picture.

1 | AUGMENTED / VIRTUAL REALITY (AR/VR)

“The equipment is basically there already, so it becomes more like an application than a use case,” explains Phil Skipper, head of IoT business development at Vodafone Business. The suggestion is VR is driving 5G usage in Industry 4.0; the sense is, actually, this is about industrial AR, which relies on (eMBB-specified) high bandwidth and low latency in the factory environment, and is being used with increasingly sophisticated software on regular or ruggedised tablets and smartphones.

2 | DIGITAL TWIN / DIGITAL THREAD

“Data for digital twinning and threading is somewhat separate from end-user devices,” says Skipper. The ability to load data from large numbers of IoT sensors, in industrial machines and processes, into digital-thread software in order to test production scenarios in digital-twin simulations (sometimes in conjunction with VR) is well served in private 5G setups. In truth, 5G is probably not a deal-breaker, just because LTE will do for most IoT estates – but the ability to layer-in more (mMTC) IoT data, and process it more efficiently (‘real-time’) further justifies the 5G upgrade.

3 | WORK-IN-MOTION – ROBOTS / AGVs

With 5G, and all the rest of it, manufacturing is going from “work-in-progress to work-in-motion”, says Sipper. “This is where you see some of the more advanced materials handling devices coming out with 5G.” The difference here, compared with the above use cases, is 5G modules are finding their way at last into industrial gear on the factory floor – in autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs), collaborative robots (cobots), and transfer tables. Again, they are using Release 14 and 15 devices, effectively running go-faster consumer-style LTE. 

But they are 5G devices for industry, and they are justifying network investments and making a difference already. The rest will flow from here. Skipper comments: “There is also a big accelerator coming. Because once you’ve developed manufacturing process Number One, and deployed private 5G in your production facility to support it, then all of a sudden the infrastructure is in place to drop-in other use cases on top. So you can now do Process Two and Process Three. That acceleration is coming.”

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The three use cases that have turned Industry 4.0 onto private 5G networks

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