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5G unlocks potential to accelerate operations in rural manufacturing.

The manufacturing sector faces a host of challenges—sustainability, infrastructure, skills, and research among them, according to a report by the National Association of Manufacturers. Considering that many factories and jobs are located outside of big cities, these challenges are especially noteworthy in rural areas.

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In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has noted that manufacturing is “relatively more important to the rural economy than to the urban economy,” underscoring the essential connection between a strong manufacturing sector and the economic well-being of rural towns everywhere.

Due to the high cost of installing fiber optic networks, rural communities have traditionally not received the same technology investments as urban areas. As a result, innovations such as robotics and predictive maintenance that are driving efficiencies for many modern companies have been slower to reach the factory floor in those communities. But that doesn’t mean manufacturing 4.0 can’t benefit rural communities.

5G wireless networks can help accelerate innovation by enabling digital technologies, such as sensors and drones, that can drive process improvements and modernize rural factories in other ways.

For instance, the next-generation connectivity of 5G can bring augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) inside the factory, opening the possibilities of remote training and consultations conducted by specialists, regardless of where they’re based. Among the benefits, the National Safety Council reports that AR and VR training may be able to mitigate the risk of workplace injury. All of this makes for a safer work environment and smoother operations.

Manufacturing worker/engineer uses AR on the job with an overlay of the benefits with icons for each

AR guided training via 5G can enable: Safer problem solving, lower operational costs, and streamlined collaboration.

The potential for low latency and high bandwidth with 5G can allow AR to transcend in-person training and helps build worker competency faster and cheaper.

Immersive training with AR and 5G can help to minimize training time and mistakes.

Employee training is being reinvented with augmented reality (AR) coupled with 5G. That’s an important breakthrough as manufacturers around the globe face a shortage of skilled workers.

The potential for low latency and high bandwidth with 5G can allow AR to transcend the limitations of in-person training and help build worker competency faster and at lower cost. Startups such as VictoryXR and Taqtile are using their AR headsets and platforms paired with the T-Mobile 5G network to provide immersive training, with impressive results.

Those utilizing AR-enabled training report that they can reduce training times for even complex procedures from weeks to days. What’s more, employees generally have greater retention of the information they learn using AR, VR, and extended reality—providing a valuable return on investment in the form of career development and hard-to-find skills. That’s the promise of AR-enabled training: fewer mistakes in the production line, increased productivity, and lower overall costs, all while providing a safer workplace.

AI and machine learning enable predictive maintenance and automated quality control.

Rural manufacturers in America could benefit from adopting 5G innovations already in use elsewhere—employing artificial intelligence, coupled with 5G, to help run their factories and produce higher-quality products. Some examples:

  • A tire maker in Japan uses AI to inspect tire quality during the production process. Automated quality checks measure each tire based on hundreds of criteria, resulting in a more than 15 percent increase in the uniformity of its products.
  • A German carmaker uses AI and image-recognition systems on the assembly line to identify small defects otherwise invisible to the human eye.
  • In France, a food producer has employed machine learning to predict variability in demand and help with forecasting. That has translated into a 30 percent reduction in lost sales.

Other manufacturers are using AI for machine maintenance. That’s another advantage of AI: Manufacturers can more accurately predict when equipment is likely to fail and establish optimal maintenance schedules, minimizing downtime and reducing the rate of unexpected disruptions on the factory floor.

3D illustration of a manufacturing plant with 5G connecting remote workers using a mixture of connected devices (AR/VR wearables, laptops, tablets, etc.) for training purposes, collaborating on virtual 3D models and documents, remotely controlling manufacturing robots, etc.

A 5G network can facilitate communication between the factory floor and an engineer or machine operator, regardless of where they’re located.

Remote work goes beyond the office to the factory floor.

The term “remote worker” calls to mind professionals and other staff working from home rather than in an office. Yet, factories increasingly support remote work as well. A 5G network can facilitate communication between the factory floor and an engineer or machine operator, regardless of where they’re located. 

For now, private 5G, coupled with AR and VR, can mean engineers and other experts in off-site locations can collaborate and provide support to those inside a factory, a trend sometimes referred to as remote assistance. A front-line worker wearing a hard hat with a camera attached or a glove with a sensor can broadcast video and data to a colleague who can troubleshoot problems. Similarly, that information could be used to guide less experienced workers through a repair or could prevent issues that might impact product quality or threaten employee safety. 

The future, however, may include remote-operated factories run largely by workers wherever they are based, creating additional opportunities for those living far from urban centers.

Industry 4.0 in rural areas.

The potential speed, capacity, reliability, and low latency of 5G will allow manufacturers with plants in rural settings to capitalize on Industry 4.0 technologies such as edge computing and machine learning. That, in turn, could potentially result in increased automation and improved productivity.

With 5G, businesses can reap the benefits of digital transformation, regardless of locale.

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