How 5G supports more nimble and efficient business operations.

Businesses have an ever-expanding toolset available when it comes to boosting operational performance. Everything from facilities management and manufacturing processes to picking and packing items can be calibrated using technologies that sense, predict, and automate systems. And these benefits can lead to lower costs, higher quality, and faster time to market.

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What technology can enable transformative operational refinements for business--today and tomorrow? The ready answer: 5G.

5G cellular connectivity, with its public and private networking capabilities, is well suited to powering these continuous operational improvements. In a T-Mobile for Business survey of IT and network decision-makers whose companies are adopting 5G, 80 percent responded that increased efficiency was among the top benefits. And 41 percent said adopting 5G has helped their organizations optimize operations.

There are additional opportunities for improvement when 5G is combined with edge computing, artificial intelligence (AI), and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions. “As you’re adding in new optimizing technologies, it creates a lot of ‘pull’ on the network,” explains Chris Casey, Strategy and Innovation Development at T-Mobile for Business. “Connectivity is a requirement to enable revolutionary capabilities like the higher efficiency that comes from automation. Connectivity begets digital transformation.”

Enhancing human productivity with collaborative mobile robots.

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) connected to a 5G network represent a huge opportunity for efficiency gains by performing repetitive tasks anywhere in a factory, warehouse, or other facility. Unlike stationary robots, AMRs are constantly on the move. They use navigation algorithms, LiDAR sensors, vision technology, and virtual maps to detect and avoid obstacles and determine the best route to move autonomously and safely through industrial settings.

These advanced robots can coordinate with human workers in tasks ranging from moving large goods and materials to detecting anomalies in secure areas or monitoring perimeters. On a factory floor, for instance, a fleet of cable-free, 5G-connected AMRs can roam from one production line to the next, lifting heavy objects, moving large loads, and finding the right parts—all without bumping into one another or endangering their human co-workers.

As they operate, AMRs continually generate and share sensor data that contributes to smooth-running operations. That includes knowing where products, pallets, and other goods are and when they arrived, with links to inventory-tracking systems. Camera-equipped AMRs can also be used to enhance security by monitoring vast spaces and identifying risks in environments like airfields, supply yards, or manufacturing plants. 

Even with these sophisticated navigational capabilities, it’s important in the planning process to consider the spatial complexities of enterprise environments such as warehouses or factory floors. “There are robots that can crab walk, move around things, and coexist with people while doing everyday tasks,” says Casey. But like humans, he adds, “AMRs need space to move around. Make sure you have it.”

“There are robots that can crab walk, move around things, and coexist with people while doing everyday tasks. But like humans, AMRs need space to move around. Make sure you have it.”

Chris Casey, T-Mobile for Business

So, how do businesses start down the strategic path toward 5G-enabled AMRs? “Before investing in a new solution, identify partners and advisors that can share best practices on how to solve your needs,” Casey advises. Early wins pave the way to bigger successes. “Start small with something very repeatable that you could potentially automate,” adds Casey. “Then measure and increase that role.”

With a stepwise approach, organizations can gradually establish the business case for 5G-enabled AMRs and other business operations technologies that drive efficiencies. We at T-Mobile for Business refer to the business benefits gained from such investments as the realization of value.

Avoiding downtime with predictive maintenance.

Another area where 5G connectivity can boost business operations: predictive maintenance. As the term suggests, the goal is to anticipate and address potential issues before they happen. Sensor-enabled IoT devices help do this by monitoring equipment and generating real-time data—information that can then be used to identify trends and predict when an asset will require maintenance, thus preventing failures

5G connectivity is ideal in large industrial settings because the radio signal can propagate throughout facilities—something Wi-Fi can’t do nearly as well.

For instance, dozens of cameras can monitor the automated assembly of a product, sharing data with AI analytics on an edge server to automatically recognize defects or potential quality problems. Also, in a typical assembly line, some sensors may look for voltage spikes or consistent electricity flow, while others monitor heat and vibrations. Adjustments or repairs are accomplished proactively—either by humans or autonomous resources—before costly malfunctions or breakdowns can occur.

A predictive approach provides analytics that improve supply chain planning and operations. Inventory insights generated by the IoT sensors, for example, can enable a purchasing department to conduct just-in-time acquisition of materials and other resources, boosting operating efficiencies while enhancing cash-flow management.

With both predictive maintenance and supply-chain management, says Casey, the high-speed connectivity of 5G is valuable. But the more significant advantage, he says, is the orchestration of data flowing across many connections, sensors, and devices. 5G connectivity is ideal in large industrial settings because the radio signal can propagate throughout facilities—something Wi-Fi can’t do nearly as well.

Measuring twice, cutting once—with digital twins.

So-called digital twins are an increasingly popular and valuable way for enterprises to plan and execute complex industrial operations. A digital twin is a dynamic software representation of physical objects, systems, and processes, intended to test scenarios and identify necessary refinements that can lead to optimal outcomes in the physical world. 5G can greatly enhance the accuracy and effectiveness of digital twins.

5G can help keep these virtual replicas up to date. Data pulled from 5G-enabled sensors in the real-world environment the twin is modeling can provide continuous, accurate real-time monitoring and analysis. Based on this data flow, the digital twin can be tweaked to see how changes in the physical world might benefit operations—or cause unintended repercussions.

“Digital twins can help you imagine what’s possible. Leaders can optimize costs and customer value simultaneously, improving the contribution margin and helping teams reduce the time needed to reach agreement on changes by up to 20 percent.”

Chris Casey, T-Mobile for Business

Think of these software twins as providing a digital sandbox, in which business analysts can test and make adjustments without the risks or complications they might otherwise encounter.

For instance, pairing the virtual and physical worlds on a factory floor for sophisticated scenario planning can enable managers to conceive new ways to run their manufacturing infrastructure as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, while identifying new business opportunities.

Digital twins can also help improve supply chain resiliency. The Covid pandemic exposed global cracks in supply chains, causing shipment disruptions and consumer frustration. Using analytics, AI, and visualization tools, it’s possible to model and incorporate greater flexibility into operations and continually evaluate the delicate balance between lean operations and risk mitigation.

A transportation company, for instance, might create a digital twin of its entire logistics chain and use the model for route optimization. Plant managers can assess bottlenecks and take corrective measures. The ability to look at the system as a whole makes all the difference.

“Digital twins can help you imagine what’s possible,” says Casey. “Companies in many different industries are already capturing real value by applying digital twins to product development, manufacturing, and through-life support. Leaders can optimize costs and customer value simultaneously, improving the contribution margin and helping teams reduce the time needed to reach agreement on changes by up to 20 percent. This accelerates time to market.”

5G lays the foundation for greater operational efficiency and agility.

Innovative business leaders are increasingly intent on applying AMRs, predictive maintenance, and digital twins to drive operational efficiency and optimization. In fact, these technologies could be combined in some contexts, creating a force-multiplier effect. For example, an organization might use a digital twin to model predictive maintenance or map the pathways of AMRs.

Many companies are still early on the adoption curve with these emerging technologies. For that reason, says Casey, it’s important for business managers to choose the right industry partners—those with technical know-how and industry expertise—instead of expecting upfront to have all of the answers about how exactly to plan, deploy, and use these powerful tools.

“A lot of business leaders have an appetite for 5G-enabled automation, but they don’t know where to start,” says Casey. “The right strategic partner will help identify and prioritize areas to start and deliver value for your company and shareholders.”

Read the latest data on how business leaders are leveraging 5G to optimize their business operations. The insights in this report will open opportunities to make your customers and employees happier and help you innovate new products.

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