5G built in: how tailor-made networks can transform industries
5G technology provides a whole new level of connectivity compared to previous wireless standards, delivering ultra-high bandwidth and low latency. This involves a lot more than faster mobile broadband for our smart devices: 5G networks can help make Industry 4.0 a reality by connecting machines and other equipment on a large scale, in real time. While the roll-out of public 5G networks is gathering speed across Europe, deployment of private 5G networks for smart factories is still in the early stages. “The requirements of vertical sectors such as automotive, manufacturing, healthcare or public safety are often better addressed by purpose-built networks,” explains Sven Wittig, research associate at the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute. “Private 5G networks, operating locally and optimised for specific applications, are key to helping both 5G and Industry 4.0 deliver on their promises.”
Industrial 5G use cases
To make such networks fit for purpose, the institute hosted the EU-funded 5G CONNI project. It set up two interconnected trial sites in Europe and Taiwan to demonstrate industrial 5G use cases on an international private network. The project also helped define the requirements for architecture and deployment models of such networks. “Our work provides a solid basis for businesses considering the use of 5G for their operations, including those with no extensive ICT background,” Wittig notes. The applications developed and demonstrated by the 5G CONNI team aimed at increasing the efficiency of industrial manufacturing processes, for example through higher reconfigurability, better access to process data, or centralisation of maintenance functions.
Flexible collaboration with humans and robots
The use cases include an industrial robot platform whose intelligence and control functions were moved away from the robot to a nearby edge cloud, closing the control loop wirelessly over 5G. “Offloaded control functions enable wireless robots to move more freely across the shop floor,” Wittig says. Removing cabling between an external controller and the mechanical parts of the robot allows for more efficient use of robots as these can easily and quickly be moved where they are needed. Other benefits include more flexible collaboration, as task data can directly be exchanged through appropriate interfaces within the cloud. Centrally monitoring and managing the robots through the edge cloud can also help achieve higher productivity. Another successfully tested application was a digital twin of a physical machine, synchronised in real time at a remote location. If issues with the manufacturing process occur, expert personnel can access the twin, using a tablet or VR headset, providing immediate support remotely.
Developments for large-scale use
In addition to demonstrating the added value of 5G connectivity for industrial applications, the use cases helped identify current limitations of the technology and potential for future improvement. The partners also worked towards future iterations of 5G technology: this involved developments on the network equipment level, novel algorithms for network design and modelling of indoor radio propagation. While private 5G networks for Industry 4.0 applications are still in their infancy, Wittig believes that his team’s contribution can help them reach their full potential: “Large-scale productive use of the technology is still down the road. However, projects such as 5G CONNI are vital for closing the remaining gaps.”
5G CONNI, private 5G networks, Industry 4.0, smart factories, vertical sectors, reconfigurability, industrial robot, digital twin