Airspan and Foxconn use LTE and CBRS to operate smart factory

Airspan CBRS radios are part of Foxconn Industrial Internet's CBRS network in a Wisconsin smart factory. (Airspan)

Service providers see smart factories as a promising new use case for mobile networks, typically enabled by 5G. But the world’s largest electronics contract manufacturer has opened a smart factory that uses 4G LTE to control automated guided vehicles (AGVs) used in commercial manufacturing.

“4G technology satisfies many of the requirements for a smart factory,” said Abel Mayal, SVP of technology and marketing at Airspan. Airspan was tapped by Foxconn to help stand up a private LTE network to monitor and manage the factory using CBRS spectrum.

“The first company that came to mind was Airspan. They’re very knowledgeable not only on the spectrum, but also on the networking space,” said Foxconn Industrial Internet’s Ross Harmsen, director of business development. Foxconn Industrial Internet (Fii) makes networking equipment, servers and smartphones for customers around the world. The group has deep expertise in communications infrastructure and has developed its own evolved packet core (EPC), which is part of the factory’s private network. 

Airspan supplied CBRS small cells, an element management system, and a domain proxy server to interface with the Spectrum Access System, which is supplied by Google. Eight AirVelocity 1500 small cells were needed to cover the 100,000-square-foot facility and ensure that AGVs could roam freely without losing connectivity.

In total, 18 pieces of equipment are connected to the private network, using devices made by Fii, which the company calls data transfer units (DTUs). These are integrated with the Airspan radios, the Foxconn EPC, and with application servers. The entire network is managed by Airspan’s software, which Mayal said is engineered to create “plug and play” simplicity so that customers do not need a high level of technical expertise in order to add a new radio.

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Harmsen said Fii could have used a third-party core network solution supplied by Airspan, but wanted to use its own EPC, which it has already deployed in several private wireless networks at Foxconn factories worldwide.

The private network is part of the first fabrication facility Fii has built in Foxconn’s smart manufacturing park in Wisconsin. The company needed an ultra-reliable network to connect automation units, factory stations, a data center, lab space and a parts room. The CBRS network manages autonomous operations for the factory, including AGVs and other robotics. The factory is already making products for a customer, and Harmsen said the private network satisfies Foxconn’s requirements for latency, security, bandwidth and throughput. “This smart factory is meant to be an example of Foxconn’s capabilities,” he said. “As we look at our global footprint, the customers … have a desire to do more in North America.”

He added that customers are thinking more about automation because of the global pandemic. “They have taken maybe a different perspective on future deployments,” he said. “They need to take more aggressive measures to address not only the pandemic, but smart manufacturing. … But they haven’t realized the importance of a private network.” He said that in some cases, manufacturers will not even be able to realize returns on the investments they have already made in factory equipment until they upgrade their networks. 

To supplement the factory’s CBRS network, Foxconn and Airspan are planning an end-to-end upgrade to 5G RF in mid-2021, including separation of the baseband into centralized units and distributed units, and the installation of Airspan’s OpenRANGE radio hardware.

“This proof of concept has demonstrated the orchestration of LTE over CBRS is a functional, reliable and economical solution for automating smart factories,” said Airspan CEO Eric Stonestrom. “We look forward to bringing further enhancements to our CBRS technology at the Fii Smart Manufacturing Center with the addition of 5G RF.”