AT&T, Qualcomm, others push ‘smart manufacturing’ as a 5G opportunity

Manufacturing systems could be upgraded with 5G technology. (Image: Pixabay)

Executives across the wireless industry continue to cast about for business sectors that would make use of—and pay for—faster wireless technologies, including 5G. That search has focused on a variety of areas including connected cars, healthcare and other market segments.

The latest? Manufacturing.

“Manufacturing is going to change a lot over the next 10 years, pretty dramatically,” said Mike Troiano, VP of AT&T’s IoT solutions effort.

Troiano explained that manufacturing sites are keen to make use of wireless technologies in order to be able to quickly reconfigure manufacturing lines to produce new products. That kind of reordering can be difficult if every machine needs to be plugged into a central command or timing mechanism.

Moreover, Troiano said, those manufacturing systems often work at a break-neck pace, in order to pump out more products, and therefore could make use of the super-fast connections – and low latency – provided by 5G connections. Troiano said Wi-Fi has been used by manufacturers to create private wireless networks for manufacturing, but he argued that Wi-Fi technology doesn’t provide the kind of interference protections and high-speed connections those sites need.

“There’s a really interesting story to be had about how you bring this [5G and private networks] into manufacturing,” AT&T’s Troiano said.

AT&T isn’t alone in eyeing the smart manufacturing opportunity. For example, Qualcomm recently demonstrated a wireless PROFINET Industrial Ethernet over 5G NR.

“Private 5G Networks for Industrial IoT are an important area of focus for the next phase of 3GPP 5G NR,” Qualcomm wrote of the demonstration. “The ability to run Industrial Ethernet over a wireless network facilitates reconfigurable factories—a key concept of Industry 4.0—to increase productivity and flexibility. The demonstration previews new use cases for 5G NR ultra-reliable low latency communication (URLLC) sub-millisecond latency, including the ability to run precise command-and-control for high-demand factory automation applications.”

Indeed, Qualcomm’s Durga Malladi, head of the vendor’s wireless R&D, said that the low latency supported by 5G could create significant opportunities for factories that rely on precision instruments and operations.

Other companies too have made noise in the smart manufacturing sector:

  • Huawei’s Wireless X Labs created a “connected factory” study group geared toward researching how wireless technologies “can substantially help to reduce network construction and maintenance costs, while significantly boosting both productivity and safety.”
  • Nokia conducted a joint research project with Bosch to show how the ultra-low latency and high reliability of 5G “is used to instantly stop machinery from operating when an alarm is triggered.”
  • And Ericsson in its market research specifically called out manufacturing use case categories that 5G could enable, including “industrial control and automation systems, planning and design systems and field devices.”

To be clear though, some of these IoT-style applications using 5G will have to wait for the 3GPP’s Release 16, scheduled for release late next year. That specification is scheduled to contain the Massive IoT (MIoT) technologies geared toward supporting millions of connected devices. Thus, services based on Release 16 probably couldn’t make it to market until 2020 at the earliest.