Manufacturing may take the lead with 5G expansion as consumer rollout slows

Qualcomm and Nokia have laid the groundwork with factories to use 5G and private networks to support digital transformation.

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At a JPMorgan conference this week, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg announced that the company's Home 5G service would be delayed until early 2021. Apple is expected to delay by a month the launch of its first 5G iPhone.

Bill Menezes, a director analyst of sourcing, procurement, and vendor management at Gartner, said the 5G rollout in the US is being impacted to a certain degree by the COVID-19 pandemic. 
Installation projects already in progress will continue, but there are barriers to new 5G construction. 

"Where local municipalities have to furlough or cut employees due to dwindling tax revenue, it's likely that zoning and permitting are among the affected operations, potentially exacerbating any slowdown," he said.

Menezes said that telecoms may take advantage of this delay to skip non-standalone 5G infrastructure and wait until they can focus on standalone 5G equipment that should provide a more significant performance over 4G.  

As the coronavirus slows down 5G rollout somewhat in the consumer sector, manufacturers may make more progress with the faster and more reliable connectivity. 

Federated Wireless, a pioneer in the newly available Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), is partnering with Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure to offer CBRS connectivity-as-a-service. The unique connectivity service should help enterprises more easily deploy private 4G and 5G networks for IoT tools.  

ABI Research predicts that wireless connections in factories will grow faster than fixed line connections between 2019 and 2030, with 4G reaching 11.96 million connections in the digital factory and 5G hitting 5.23 connections by 2025.

In Germany, manufacturers are deploying 5G on private networks without a telecom operator and Britain started a similar process last year to sell licenses for companies' 5G networks. The US hasn't opened up applications for 5G spectrum licenses to industrial companies.

SEE: Securing IoT in your organization: 10 best practices (free PDF)

Shamik Mishra, vice president of research and innovation at 5G design and engineering firm Altran, said that although 5G will accelerate coverage and connectivity in a post-Covid-19 world, there are several delays in the expansion at the moment. These include device readiness and changes in spending plans.

"5G supply chains particularly for radios have been impacted by the delays caused by the pandemic and lockdowns," he said. "Some countries have even put 5G spectrum auctions on hold - including India which did so today."

While developing 5G use cases and devices, John Smee, vice president of engineering and head of 5G R&D at Qualcomm, said that it has worked with more companies outside the wireless ecosystem than ever before.
 
"We want organizations to be able to deploy cellular networks for a smart campus, factory, or hospital," he said.

As the wireless industry embarks on a decade of 5G growth, this groundwork with other industries may pay off sooner than anticipated, particularly as manufacturers face intense demands for smarter supply chains and more flexible production lines to survive during the coronavirus epidemic.

5G in manufacturing

There has been a lot of talk about how 5G will support the industrial Internet of Things with faster and more reliable connections. Smee said that the company has spent a lot of time discussing use cases with factory owners, including GE, Honeywell, and Bosch, to understand their communication needs today and in the future. Qualcomm also has been working with governments and the automotive ecosystem to discuss smart intersections and other connected city projects.

"We've done a lot of end to end work to prove out use cases internally but also to work with external partners," he said. "We're working with academics and startups also to understand who is having problems today to learn where we can steer the technology today to address those needs."

Smee said that while developing 5G use cases, Qualcomm has worked with more companies outside the wireless ecosystem than ever before.
 
"We want organizations to be able to deploy cellular networks for a smart campus, factory, or hospital," he said.

5G could make AR mainstream

Tingfang Ji, senior director of engineering, Qualcomm Wireless R&D, said that the reliability and low latency of 5G connections could power a broader adoption of augmented reality (AR).

Increased consumption of data led to the 4G boom expansion and optimized for a rich smartphone experience, he said. 

"AR is in some sense the next user interface following the multitouch interface of the smartphone," he said.

This expansion would require ubiquitous 5G coverage and the low latency that comes with those connections.
 
"5G is the missing link to make it a reality," he said.  

Stronger networks will power digital transformation

In late 2019, ABI Research and Nokia surveyed managers and plant directors in the manufacturing industry to gauge their plans for upgrading communications networks. The survey found that manufacturing leaders are planning to digitize existing infrastructure and increase automation. The responses showed that:

  • 74% plan to upgrade their communications and control networks in next two years
  • More than half believe 4G/5G necessary to meet transformation goals
  • More than 90% are investigating use of 4G/5G for their operations

Dave Nowoswiat, a senior product marketing manager at Nokia, said the company has been talking with manufacturing leaders to understand their digital transformation plans and how 4G and 5G connectivity support those goals.

"They need to connect as much as they can possibly connect, collect performance data, and then analyze it in a meaningful way," he said.

Nowoswiat said that 5G will give factory managers the same level of performance that fixed wireless provides currently. 

"Most everything is connected with ethernet connections now, so to be able to add mobility into your factory, you will need tech that is as good as ethernet and that's where 5G comes in," he said.

Now that CBRS spectrum is available, private companies will be able to build their own private networks using this spectrum.

"This gives them the ability to provide ultra-reliable connectivity and good security because all of their intellectual property and operational data is all contained locally within the confines of their own facilities," he said.

Nokia has worked with Nippon Steel on a IoT project to monitor the health of workers in the plant. Sensors on employee uniforms track gas, noise, and temperature and workers also have video cameras on their helmets. The helmet also has a network connection so employees can be connected to a remote tech support center if they need guidance when performing maintenance or other tasks.

Nowoswiat also said that 5G networks will improve communication with a factory that covers acres of land. 

"Being able to communicate with employees and monitor them by having connectivity all over the premises is another important use case," he said.

Sylvia Lu, head of cellular technology strategy at u-blox, said that 5G will complement existing technology instead of replacing it because manufacturing plants have such a range of connectivity requirements. U-blox builds wireless semiconductors and modules for consumer, automotive, and industrial markets to cover a variety of functions, including:

  • Monitoring and maintenance
  • Logistics and warehousing
  • Human machine interface
  • Process automation
  • Factory automation

Lu said that factories need to do more than just connect sensors. 
"New use cases require mobility and that's where 5G comes into play," she said.

Existing 4G connections can manage measurement data from temperature sensors but 5G is required to enable ultra reliable low latency communications across an entire plant.

Also see

aiac-5g-factory-use-cases.jpg

In the white paper, "5G for Connected Industries and Automation," the 5G Alliance for Connected Industries and Automation provides an overview of 5G's basic potential for the manufacturing sector and outlines relevant use cases and requirements.

Image: 5G ACIA

By Veronica Combs

Veronica Combs is a senior writer at TechRepublic. For more than 10 years, she has covered technology, healthcare, and business strategy. In addition to her writing and editing expertise, she has managed small and large teams at startups and establis...