Industry 4.0 — the term that originated in Germany to describe the fourth industrial revolution of cyber-physical systems — is being closely connected today with 5G, which is often referred to as the fifth-generation mobile network. This connection allows manufacturers to further improve factory automation, human/machine interfaces, and mobility in their processes.

When talking about 5G in industry, there are three basic pillars that can benefit from 5G. First is network speed: 5G is 100 times faster than 4G and in the coming years, could offer up to 1,000 times higher data rates compared to 4G. Second is latency, or the time it takes to send information from point A to point B. Decreasing latency means higher data capacity and the ability of machines and systems to react to controls in real time. Third is connectivity reliability. If operators can work with machine controls anywhere on the factory floor with confidence that connections will not be lost, productivity will increase.

For the first time, 5G offers a data rate and reliability comparable to wired communication. According to Gunther May, Director of Technology and Innovation at Bosch Rexroth AG, “5G opens up completely new possibilities for the industry to retrieve information and trigger actions independent of the real location of machines. This improves flexibility in production, machine availability, and overall equipment effectiveness. New operating concepts are also possible with 5G — one 5G operating device can address several machines as reliably as only wired individual devices could in the past,” said May.

In order to make this new mobile communications standard industry-ready from the outset, the 5G Alliance for Connected Industries and Automation (5G-ACIA) was founded in 2018. To date, more than 40 companies and research institutes worldwide have joined forces in the initiative.

What Manufacturers Can Expect

While previous generations of networks were focused on consumer applications, 5G is expected to provide major benefits to industry. According to Erik Josefsson, Head of Advanced Industries at Ericsson, “Manufacturing is facing numerous challenges and only marginal gains can be had through traditional cost-cutting measures. To optimize end-to-end value, a new connectivity foundation is needed to copy, monitor, and control the physical world.”

So what are the major differences manufacturers will see as a result of implementing 5G? Said Giampaolo Tardioli, Vice President and General Manager of the Network Access and Internet Infrastructure Solutions Group at Keysight Technologies, “5G can be considered a functionality boost for the communication system, which is an integral part of a smart manufacturing factory concept. You could argue that 5G is eventually one of the key enablers and success factors to deliver on the promises of smart manufacturing and is designed for industrial applications.”

From a smart manufacturing point of view, mobile edge computing capabilities of 5G facilitate reliability and latency but also bring new options with regards to the implementation of analytics and artificial intelligence (AI), which can then be performed close to the origin of data and the devices, according to Tardioli.

In addition, said Tardioli, “5G enables three major types of communication services: enhanced mobile broadband services, massive machine type communication, and ultra-reliable, low-latency communication (URLLC). With those, 5G networks will therefore provide functionalities to support and enable different types of industrial use cases, like manufacturing.”

5G can also rehabilitate the “bad name” of industrial wireless, redefining performance and even more importantly, the perception of reliability. “Wireless standards are not created equal. Cellular networks run on secure licensed spectrum and deliver on stricter uptime requirements, all the while limiting interference and dead spots occurring on alternative wireless standards,” Josefsson added.

But 5G is much more than a bigger bit pipe, said Josefsson. “It is a platform for innovation, making it easier to adopt, use, and scale new digital and industrial solutions.”

5G on the Factory Floor

5G has the potential to provide connectivity for a range of different uses in manufacturing. Said May, “The factory of the future is extremely variable: machines and systems are always assembled into new lines according to demand — and it is wireless. This applies both to power supply via inductive energy transmission and to data communication via an appropriate wireless network. For this, users need a very powerful network that transmits data extremely quickly and stably. This is where 5G technology comes into play.”

Robotic and motion control are often mentioned as factory automation use case categories that will benefit from 5G's support for URLLC, according to Tardioli. For process automation, he explained, use cases around massive wireless sensor networks for process monitoring, predictive maintenance, and closed-loop process control are discussed.

Robotic control will benefit from 5G when being applied on a mobile robot or autonomous guided vehicle (AGV). Said Tardioli, “Here we see use cases that will enable efficiency improvements by running control logic remotely with high-performance compute capabilities, for example. Another example is enhanced safety procedures when analyzing sensor data in real time. A key enabling functionality 5G also provides in this context is high-precision positioning. High-precision location information, on its own, will enable a new set of use cases like asset tracking and management.”

How humans and machines interact also will be an important benefit resulting from 5G implementation. While we typically think about highly automated or autonomous processes in the context of how 5G will change manufacturing, “there is another area of use that will become of high relevance,” according to Tardioli. “Despite all the advances in automation, there will be areas where people will continue to have a role in manufacturing. 5G will play a role in enabling new ways of human-machine interfacing (HMI). A use case we can see is the use of augmented reality to guide and support specific operation and maintenance tasks.

“Other areas related to HMI will be new remote-control use cases and the use of mobile control panels,” he continued. “URLLC and the ability to transmit high-resolution video will allow remote control of equipment that had to be operated locally before. Staying with the topic of machine and equipment control, inter-machine or control-to-control communication is foreseen to take advantage of 5G, which will enable new line layouts and flexibility.”

In addition to highly critical applications like seamless human-robot collaboration and real-time adaptive manufacturing for complex milling scenarios, “5G also supports massive, low-energy sensor deployments with ten times the battery life, as well as faster retrofitting of devices and creating digital twins and copies of a factory,” said Josefsson. “By 2030, more than 3.8 billion assets will be connected wirelessly within factories. According to Ericsson's own electronics production in Estonia, there is a need to connect one device per every 20 square feet.”

Beyond supporting remote automation and simpler monitoring to improve overall equipment efficiency, 5G also brings better location services for warehouse and asset management such as faster tool finding and workforce tracking for safety, according to Josefsson.

Enhancing Manufacturing Mobility

5G supports an increasingly moving and trackable shop floor that is especially relevant to the adoption of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). Secure mobility and 5G will become increasingly important as automation cells and workstations become moving “islands” rather than tethered lines.

With reduced latency by a factor of five, cellular is now rivaling wired connections, meaning manufacturing can break free of costly physical constrictions, according to Josefsson. “A mainstream factory has kilometers of wires, and drawing cables is an inefficient way of connecting production and infrastructure. Especially with faster product cycles and increased customization, the manufacturing setup must be as flexible as possible to be competitive.”