The 5G factory: a look inside

The 5G factory: a look inside.

Manufacturing may not have started in the United States, but the U.S. has a rich history of innovation in the industry. And nowhere is that more evident than in 1913 when the first moving assembly line was introduced by Henry Ford, reducing production time to build an automobile from 12 hours to just 93 minutes. Today, China may be the epicenter of the world's manufacturing industry, but it is still crucial to the U.S. economy. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry supports nearly 13 million jobs.

ABI Research suggests that organizations without a digital transformation strategy are already falling behind their competitors.

But with a growing skills gap and vacancies becoming more difficult to fill, improving factory automation is becoming increasingly important for companies hoping to increase profits and productivity, and gain a competitive edge. ABI Research suggests that organizations without a digital transformation strategy are already falling behind their competitors.

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, we were able to witness first-hand how a global health crisis can place unforeseen demands on an entire industry. By watching how these unexpected market changes and challenges affected businesses, it’s clear that the manufacturing sector must become efficient and agile enough to rapidly increase production and pivot to support different products. With inevitable personnel absences—during the pandemic and otherwise—highly automated production lines are a key part of the solution as the organizations aim to navigate the crisis without unnecessary loss of output.

Another benefit of 5G-connected factory automation is that it has the potential to enable manufacturers to boost throughput, lower operating costs, and increase their return on investment. Along with enhancing productivity, factory safety and product quality could also improve, thanks to better traceability of parts data as well as tighter process control, which could ultimately reduce failures while boosting reliability and repeatability.

How 5G-enabled operations deliver important advantages.

Emerging 5G networks support three types of communication that will be used to enable the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT):

  • Enhanced mobile broadband, a faster version of the mobile communications we’re already using with 4G.
  • Massive machine-type communication (mMTC), which has the power to connect a very large numbers of sensors, each requiring relatively low bandwidth.
  • Ultra-reliable, low-latency communications (URLLC), which allows remote and automated control of high-precision, time-critical operations, providing potential as a real game changer.

Each of these types of communication could help transform one or more of the main functions in the manufacturing chain.

Logistics & warehouse management.

As we begin to fully realize the potential of 5G networks, it's easy to imagine a world where delivery trucks approaching the factory are able to relay precise cargo details and time of arrival to ensure just-in-time transfer of parts to the production line or check-in to stock control via 5G-controlled drones. Meanwhile, inside a factory or warehouse, components and works in progress could potentially be transported using automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) capable of coordinating with each other and with the production line or dispatch department.
Factory worker holds tablet while standing near robotic arm

One important transformation we hope becomes a reality is increased human-machine interaction. Collaborative robots (“cobots”) are designed to safely work with humans in a shared space.

The benefits of factory automation.

A wide range of devices could connect to the factory 5G network—all with different demands in latency, capacity, throughput, and mobility.

This is where manufacturers could really benefit from the potential advantage of 5G latency described above. With a future freed from cumbersome cables, assembly robots could move freely and precisely, following instructions from cloud-based software and the network edge, while test instrumentation feeds metrics back for quality control and analysis. Meanwhile, a network of sensors could monitor processes on production lines and the tags on products moving through the factory, and the system could correlate these with test data. Locally, some processes could even self-regulate and coordinate workflow with other processes further along the line.

One important transformation we hope becomes a reality is increased human-machine interaction. Collaborative robots (“cobots”) are designed to safely work with humans in a shared space. While earlier cobots were limited in their speed and movement to protect human workers, 5G-enabled cobots can leverage the low latency bandwidth to monitor sensor outputs in real time and optimize collaborative behavior.

In hazardous environments, or where a skilled person is working in a remote location, a robot could complete delicate operations by mirroring and adjusting the movements of a human operator over long distances with very little delay.

The digital twin, a software-generated model of a physical object or system, is another futuristic concept that could positively impact the factory floor. Through artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G, the digital simulation combines information from real and simulated sensors, allowing walkthroughs of complex situations to predict problems – and solutions. Gartner previously hailed the tech as a top strategic trend, suggesting it could save organizations billions by avoiding downtime and optimizing the use of IoT assets.

Effective, efficient remote operation.

As staff work from home to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, unprecedented challenges emerge for the manufacturing and utility companies that provide essential products and services.

Some organizations are beginning to rely more heavily on remote automation software, enabling their workers to operate industrial systems from a laptop or mobile device in their homes over a secure connection, such as a VPN link. While remote software has been used for over a decade by key personnel working outside of an office, factory, or main control room, using it at home is a new extension.

GE Digital reports that at water utilities, for example, plants are now operating with roughly two dozen distributed personnel, with just a few employees on-site as a safety precaution. To help its customers keep plants running while workers remain at home, GE is giving them a free 90-day license to its remote monitoring and control systems software for 20,000 utilities and factories.

Augmented reality (AR) is another factory problem solver: It can help detect operational inefficiencies like poor maintenance planning, reduce production downtime and has the potential to decrease costs related to machinery breakdowns.

The future of augmented reality in manufacturing.

As we begin to more fully realize the possibilities, 5G and AI could also collaborate to provide personnel with immersive experiences to ease their work. Superimposing simulated objects in a real environment, for instance, could improve training, enhance product design, and guide operators through factory procedures that still require manual intervention.

Augmented reality (AR) is another factory problem solver: It can help detect operational inefficiencies like poor maintenance planning, reduce production downtime and has the potential to decrease costs related to machinery breakdowns.

Recently, International Airlines Group (IAG) partnered with an AR platform vendor to transform the maintenance and repair operations for its fleet of 573 aircraft, using a new initiative called Hangar 51 that introduces digitally augmented structural inspection for aircraft engines. Replacing existing—mostly paper-based—compliance and training processes that mandate the capture of detailed photographic and video evidence, the project delivered significant time savings.

Improving your carbon footprint.

With the 5G-enabled factory, regulating the industry's carbon footprint may also become easier. By providing closer control over factory processes, it could help minimize energy consumption by allowing organizations to monitor energy usage at every stage of production and finding the most energy-efficient solutions.

The 5G factory is here.

The industry is already bringing these 5G innovations to reality. In fact, one of the first examples of a 5G-controlled factory is one that manufactures 5G infrastructure. Ericsson’s new smart factory in Lewisville, Texas, produced its first 5G millimeter-wave base station in 2020 and today is in full scale production utilizing 5G with Industry 4.0 to enable intelligent automation and leverage real time data with over 200 robots in operation.

We built our 5G network to give you an advantage today.

With America’s largest and fastest 5G network, T-Mobile® for Business is ready to help manufacturers like you unleash the power of 5G now and prepare for the emerging use cases of the future.

We offer a collaborative approach, building customized solutions to help you get ahead of the 5G curve faster. Lean into 360° support from a team of experts dedicated to helping your business create efficiencies—and supercharge operational results.

T-Mobile® for Business has an ambitious vision for fueling innovation in manufacturing. To continue exploring 5G-fueled transformations across the manufacturing ecosystem, visit our industry webpage today.

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