Digitalizing the Factory Floor to Support 5G Deployment

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Adoption of Industrie 4.0 business models starts with implementing a digital-transformation strategy within the shop floor. To successfully measure KPIs, as well as capture and aggregate the data required to automate industrial workflows, factory owners must first integrate digitalization technologies. Once digitalization is accomplished, then deploying a reliable communications network solution such as 5G becomes the next step to support the inter-exchange of data.

Digital transformation and the manufacturing industry

Manufacturers and facility managers who intend to remain competitive have fully embraced digitalization of the factory. Today, approximately 91% of manufacturing enterprises have initiated a digitalization strategy and created budgets to actualize them. The adoption statistics within the manufacturing industry show that the average C-level manager in the industry understands the importance of measuring performance and gaining insight from data.

Digital transformation ensures data can be captured, accurately stored, and utilized from diverse aspects of a factory’s operations. For example, updating ledgers or reams of sales data to digital form provides the data required to execute demand-forecasting analysis using forecasting software. In turn, the insight gained from demand forecasts serves as the foundation for determining the number of resources to purchase and how they are allocated for future production cycles.

Demand forecasting is just one example of the importance of digitalizing manufacturing processes. The data captured from shop-floor equipment and processes provide incalculable insight into equipment and production performance. Thus, the manufacturer can measure inadequate production performances and compare them against benchmark performances to pinpoint shortfalls. The challenges that the comparative analysis highlight can then be permanently addressed to ensure the majority of production cycles are optimized. The comparative example is also codified within Industrie 4.0 as a data-driven plant performance optimization business model.

Larger-scale digital-transformation projects include the deployment of IoT and edge computing devices to capture operational data. The data captured from IoT deployments form the basis for developing digital twins, simulation models, and implementing other Industrie 4.0 business models such as condition monitoring and remote-monitoring strategies. However, an inter-exchange of data across these digital-transformation solutions and the factory floor is required for remote monitoring et al – this is where the 5G network comes into the picture.

5G and the digitally transformed factory

By 2025, approximately $575.36 billion worth of IoT devices will be in use across the global manufacturing industry as it attempts to automate its operational processes and ensure safety within manufacturing environments. Successfully transferring the data these IoT devices produce, alongside data from data-producing equipment to centralized storage or analytical platforms, requires reliable connectivity.

Wired networks do not provide the scale to support hundreds of data-producing sources, and 4G networks are limited by reliability. The scalability and reliability challenge the manufacturing industry faces in terms of networking is the reason for 5G. Thus, the process of implementing a digitalization strategy of the factory floor is not hinged on 5G, but a low-latency and reliable communications network increases the success rate of implemented strategies.

The modular approach of deploying 5G means manufacturers have the option of increasing their networking capacity with every new IoT or edge framework implementation. For example, if a new automated guided vehicle system with fifty supporting IoT devices is added to a facility, simply installing an additional 5G box will cater to these new additions. The cost of scaling 5G capacity is relatively low when compared to the total overhead cost for deploying wired networks to cater to the new automated material handling system.

The cost of utilizing 5G is also lower than that of other wireless network solutions, including the previous iteration – 4G networks. By utilizing 5G, manufacturers can transfer large packets of data such as 4k videos in real-time to remote facilities. In this scenario, 5G supports the digital infrastructure within the facility floor to enable reliable real-time communication.

Empowering factory owners through reliable communication

Although manufacturers are expected to determine individual 5G deployment use cases, many believe that supporting the edge computing assets on the shop floor will be its primary application. Edge hardware is expected to empower the factory floor with decentralized computing resources and real-time decision-making. Deployed edge hardware will also interact within its network framework, and 5G enables the transfer and receipt of data across the edge. Thus, a 5G edge platform provides the resources to develop custom apps to improve operational performance within the factory floor.

5G networks will support the implementation of advanced servitization as manufacturers expand their revenue-generation capabilities. By leveraging 5G, manufacturers can deploy effective condition-monitoring capabilities to quickly respond to and fix issues with servitized equipment, thus developing an optimal product-service system that delivers optimized services according to the conditions stated within contractual agreements.

Other possible applications include providing support for machine-to-machine and device-to-machine communications. For example, when utilizing a wearable device to monitor automated systems, 5G provides the means to transfer system data in real-time, and this allows the support staff to make safety-related decisions in real-time.

Conclusion

The above examples show that a reliable wireless network that supports large-scale IoT and edge deployments is a supportive addition to the digital transformation drive within the manufacturing industry. It is evident, however, that pursuing a 5G-implementation strategy without first deploying the digital assets it supports on the shop floor is putting the cart before the horse.

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