Manufacturing in the 21st century has become a highly competitive industry in which even small efficiency improvements can make a big difference. With 5G, manufacturing companies have the opportunity to make significant efficiency improvements in all areas of their business activities, from production line maintenance and machine utilisation to logistics, training and troubleshooting.

Smart technology factories are not a new idea. But until now, they’ve tended to require wired internet services to provide the high-quality connections that make them possible. But this latest generation of mobile networks will enable manufacturers to design and build wireless smart factories, deploying more flexible and innovative solutions in locations where wired connections would be impractical or unnecessarily expensive.

5G manufacturer solutions will employ low latency, stable connections over mobile networks: networks that can support a greater flow of data from more devices than existing technology is capable of supporting. 4th generation mobile networks already provide high-speed connections and can support thousands of devices per square kilometre but 5G is capable of supporting up to a million devices per square kilometre and offers even faster data transfer speeds.

5G in manufacturing: specific use cases

A large majority of surveyed manufacturers in the USA believe that 5G will be an important factor in the continued profitability of their businesses with more than 60% stating that, in their opinion, it will be extremely important. These figures are almost certainly a reflection of manufacturers’ thoughts on 5G across the globe. The high speed, high capacity, low latency connectivity that 5G provides is expected to have applications in areas as diverse as inventory control, assembly, inspection, packaging and employee training. Some specific applications that are widely anticipated include:

1. Industrial control and process automation

Robots, smart machines and IoT devices that are capable of operating autonomously have already been developed and deployed in factories around the world. With 5G, manufacturing automation can be taken even further, as it facilitates the collection and analysis of huge amounts of process data in real-time. Thanks to the greater capacity and higher speeds it has to offer, smart production lines that utilise 5G networks will be able to rapidly collate and analyse data from thousands of individual sensors simultaneously. This technology has already been tested in Germany, resulting in a 75% reduction in the time taken to create the design process for manufacturing critical jet engine components.

2. Collaborative robot fleets

A large fleet of robots can work collaboratively, to complete repetitive tasks at high speed with minimal errors. Such fleets have already been deployed in grocery chains for picking and packing activities and with the quality and volume of connections that 5G can provide, they could be utilised by manufacturing companies in a wide variety of applications. In order to communicate with one another and with a central control system, robot fleets need to send and receive an enormous amount of data. This data needs to be collected and analysed in real-time, a task that requires the highest data transfer speeds and very low latency. 5G has the network connectivity properties to power collaborative robotic fleets in manufacturing facilities of all types and sizes.

3. Faster repairs with AR

The troubleshooting and repair of electronic boards can be completed more efficiently with AR overlays of wiring schematics and layouts. Engineers can focus on identifying faulty components rather than searching for the right files and documentation when troubleshooting production machines. Testing of this technology in Sweden showed promising results, with engineers able to reduce the time taken to repair electronic boards and to update existing documentation to reflect the work they performed. The low latency and stable connections that 5G provides make it possible for such repairs to be performed remotely. With 5G, manufacturers can utilise specialists in their organisation no matter where they are located, ensuring the best team is always available to troubleshoot and repair electronic circuitry in production machinery.

4. More accurate forecasting of equipment failure

IoT cloud platforms and edge computing analytics, in combination with machine learning technology, make it possible for manufacturers to measure efficiency more accurately, at both the production line and individual component levels. Such systems provide real-time visibility across entire manufacturing facilities and enable engineers to predict future equipment failure more accurately through the detailed analysis of collected data. The large volumes of data required to perform such analyses mean that only the highest-speed, highest capacity networks are suitable for this type of application. In the near future, a 5G manufacturing company will likely enjoy significant advantages over less well-connected competitors, with the ability to more accurately predict component failure and thereby reduce unexpected downtime.

Applications for the accurate prediction of equipment failure are not limited to production lines. In the future, automotive manufacturers can use 5G connectivity to monitor the condition and performance of components in vehicles being driven by motorists around the world. Data collected from 5G-connected sensors can be analysed on the fly, enabling manufacturers to provide predictive technical support that will help to avoid inconvenient breakdowns. In the construction industry, 5G-connected sensors can be used to monitor the mechanical condition and operating performance of components in cranes, forklifts, diggers and other heavy equipment. The collected data can be used to accurately predict maintenance tasks and to make valuable safety improvements.

5. Offsite analysis of critical components with hybrid visualisation

In addition to forecasting equipment failure through the use of IoT sensors, 5G will also make it possible for manufacturers to analyse the performance of individual components under various conditions, with a combination of live information, historical data and VR images. Instead of running tests on the actual components, a digital twin can be created. This can then be monitored as different production parameters are applied to it. This will have important applications in the field of maintenance and repair and the optimisation of production machinery and components. Such activities will no longer necessitate the stopping of production and can therefore be employed more often and in more production facilities. It will be especially useful in analysing and refining components that are ordinarily hidden from view and therefore difficult to monitor and test with existing systems.

6. Remote training

AR/VR technology, powered by 5G networks, will also enable manufacturers to train maintenance and repair technicians in remote locations. Using the same hybrid visualisation discussed above, it will be possible for technicians to practice routine maintenance and repair tasks at any time. Training that would normally require a production line to be halted will no longer have an impact on productivity, which means it can be conducted at less cost. Better trained technicians will be able to perform future repairs more efficiently, further reducing the downtime that manufacturing facilities experience in the future.

7. Greater efficiency in spare parts manufacturing

3D printing has already had a major impact on the manufacturing of spare parts and with 5G connectivity, efficiency improvements in this area can be taken a step further. In addition to printing new parts on-demand, manufacturers will be able to use the data gathered from 5G-connected sensors to anticipate this demand and adjust their stock levels accordingly. Rather than waiting for orders to arrive, they will be able to predict the likelihood of future component failures and manufacture the parts in question just before they are needed. In order to achieve this aim, a large volume of data will need to be collected and analysed, which can be accomplished with high-speed mobile networks such as 5G. Carrying a large quantity of spares for older machinery is not a cost-effective proposition for most manufacturers but they need to provide a decent level of technical support to customers who are still using this machinery. With 3D printing and data analytics powered by 5G networks, they will likely be able to achieve this fine balancing act8.

8. Remote monitoring and configuration

5G-connected manufacturing facilities will allow technicians to monitor and configure production assets remotely. It will also make it possible for factory acceptance testing to be performed without the physical presence of customers. Real-time monitoring and remote testing both require the transfer of large image files and high resolution streaming video, which can be accomplished with 5G networks. Wired networks are capable of providing the necessary speed and stability, but 5G offers a more flexible and convenient solution with lower maintenance and installation costs. With this in mind, we can expect many more manufacturing companies to adopt remote monitoring, configuration and testing systems over the coming years.

9. Creation of new manufacturing process models

The manufacturing and industrial 5G applications we have discussed so far are all focused on improving existing production processes and business practices. However, it is almost certain that 5G will also facilitate the creation of completely new processes and practices. Of particular interest is the use of drones, which need stable, high-speed data networks in order to fly over longer distances. 5G can provide stability, speed and responsiveness that intelligent drones require, opening up the possibility for manufacturers to operate direct-to-customer sales services with automated drone deliveries in the future. Retailers such as Amazon have already tested such delivery systems, and it shouldn’t be long before other manufacturers follow suit. Whether they decide to deliver directly to customers or use drones to supply wholesalers will depend on each company’s business model and ambitions but, in either case, 5G will be able to support their future activities.

Manufacturing industry 5G adoption: how long will it take?

As many parts of Australia and other countries gain access to 5G, industry leaders are actively testing and adopting new manufacturing practices that make use of the latest generation of mobile networks. Companies in Germany and the USA have already begun to take advantage of the technology utilised by 5G equipment manufacturers, to build fully autonomous production facilities that rely on low latency, high-speed connectivity. Productivity, efficiency and accuracy improvements are just some of the reported benefits of such facilities. It cannot be long before other companies follow suit, especially those that are active in the most competitive manufacturing sectors.

Existing mobile networks currently support manufacturing industry automation in many production facilities and the greater capabilities of 5G make it the obvious choice for manufacturers that wish to remain competitive in the future. The ability to support a huge number of devices without any drop in network performance makes it the perfect connectivity option for smart technology factories. You’re able to employ hundreds of thousands of sensors to monitor machine performance in real-time.

Vodafone 5G is now rolling out in selected areas of major Australian cities. For more information about 5G, head to our support page.

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