When Ericsson delivered its first 5G base station to Verizon in the summer of 2020, the company mentioned that its factory that made the equipment used a 5G private network on the production floor. During a recent webinar, the vendor shared more information about how the private network has increased productivity at the Lewisville, Texas factory, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Instead of having a technician fly in from Canada or Germany to fix a robot, we actually had one of our technicians put on the HoloLens and follow instructions while the remote technician guided us," said Paul Tse, 5G customer solutions manager at Ericsson. "It really helped speed up resolution of the problems.”
Tse said Ericsson's private 5G network also facilitated the implementation of safety protocols. "In March we added ability to inspect for face masks," he said. "I think one of the great things about 5G and cellular technology is the ability to quickly implement new things, based on sometimes unanticipated demands. With COVID we have been able to implement a couple of use cases for digital adherence including smart badges, where we can track if employees have been too close for too long. We also implemented inspections for making sure people are wearing their anti-static smocks when they enter the factory floor. ... Being able to do those quickly without planning a lot of wiring and new cabling was really beneficial to the factory’s operations."
In addition to enhancing worker safety, the 5G private network is boosting productivity at the factory. Ericsson uses autonomous mobile robots to move the 5G base stations around the floor and says it has been able to reduce labor costs by 65%. Sensor data from connected machinery enables the robots to know where equipment is in real time and retrieve it for testing. "They are not following lines on the floor or prescribed paths," said Tse. "These are allowed to think for themselves and navigate based on map updates that are provided in real-time."
Machine-to-machine messages are loaded into a database from which engineers create visualizations that can be used with augmented reality headsets. This is Ericsson's "digital twin" for the production process, and it has already helped the company save time and money by identifying a materials shortage that was causing a downward trend in board production. The problem has now been corrected, and the trend has been reversed.
Tse said that the private aspect of the 5G network is important not only because of the dedicated bandwidth, but also because some makers of manufacturing equipment don't want their equipment connected to the internet for security reasons. With a private network, Ericsson can add wireless sensors to previously unconnected equipment.
Greenfield vs. brownfield
Ericsson's USA 5G Smart Factory was built with a private 5G network in mind, but most manufacturers who leverage this technology in the near term will be adding it to existing factory floors. Private networks are envisioned as complements to existing networks in the near term.
“A private solution effectively lets you stand up a dedicated sensor network without interfering with these other networks," said David Vasquez, director of partnership development, industrial applications and private networking at Verizon Wireless. Vasquez, who spoke on the webinar that Ericsson produced to showcase its 5G factory, said Verizon has customers who are running 5G private wireless parallel to their existing factory networks. One is Corning, which uses a private 5G network to detect product defects at its fiber production plant in Hickory, North Caroline. Another is Ice Mobility, which he said has cut product packing time by 15-30% in tests of computer vision applications running on a 5G edge platform integrated with Microsoft Azure.
“There is a need to share data across machines, systems, people and processes," said Vasquez. “This level of digitization could be accelerated with private wireless.”
According to Ericsson, manufacturers who choose to add private wireless to an existing factory can expect a payoff within just a few years. Graham Osborne, EVP Customer Unit Verizon at Ericsson, said the five most beneficial and mature use cases for 5G private networks are autonomous mobile robots, collaborative robots, digital twins, augmented reality and asset condition monitoring. "Any of those use cases, implemented on their own, standalone, has a three-to-five-year payback window," he said. "However if you implement all of them at the same time then you have a payback of less than two years."