AT&T lights up 5G private wireless network for manufacturing testbed

Many manufacturers remain undecided about 5G, but realize they need solutions to capture and analyze data from connected equipment. (AT&T)

AT&T has developed a 5G private network at Chicago's MxD (Manufacturing x Digital), a public/private partnership launched in 2014 with funding from the Department of Defense and a host of private members. The network is designed to help companies learn how private 5G networks can improve their manufacturing operations. 

According to Jush Danielson, AT&T Business's GM for channel marketing for retail, manufacturing and global accounts, the MxD private network uses just two radios — one with mmWave 5G and one with sub-6 5G that connects to AT&T’s central network core. The control plane is offsite and the user plane is managed by multi-access edge cloud computing (MEC) servers at the MxD facility.

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"Having the MEC user plane on premise allows MxD participants to offload select data traffic from the AT&T public core network to the local server of the MxD participant for processing," said Danielson. "These MxD participants then have better control of their cellular data."

Drowning in data

On a recent webinar hosted by AT&T's Danielson, Lockheed Martin's Corey Cook, senior program manager for advanced technology solutions, said he has robots on his factory floor generating 20 terabytes of data a day. "I have no idea what to even do with any amount or inkling of that," Cook said. "5G is only going to make that problem worse to some degree just because it's going to give you so much more data ... unfortunately we'll be drowning in unusable data."   

Not if AT&T can help it. The carrier wants to use 5G-enabled private wireless networks and MEC to bring data processing and analysis closer to end users so they can start to find the value in the treasure trove of data their networks are creating. The company has identified three specific areas in which it believes manufacturers can benefit from the data generated by 5G private networks. One is production quality (using video to immediately find product abnormalities during manufacturing and pull defective products off the line.) Another is video-enabled safety, or real-time alerts sounded when someone enters a zone they shouldn't. A third is inventory, or using sensors and cameras to track inventory levels and locations in real-time.

Lockheed Martin's Cook agrees that in time, 5G will be a huge help. "First order of business for us is to ... establish a truly usable digital thread that can persist through the supply chain and production operation, and when we have that, then 5G will help us significantly enrich that data, resulting in much more useful, powerful analytics .... we will have so much power at our fingertips," Cook said.

If one of the biggest manufacturers in the U.S. still has work to do before 5G can truly pay off, it's not surprising that most factories are not putting the technology at the top of their to-do lists. During the AT&T webinar, a survey of participants found that 58% are still undecided about 5G transformation.

MxD offers alternatives

Federico Sciammarella, president and CTO at MxD, said AT&T's 5G mmWave installation covers about half of MxD's future factory floor, and he's excited to see the use cases that may be demonstrated there. In addition, MxD plans to use Department of Defense funds to support a separate 5G testbed for military and dual-use applications. Sciammarella said his group may also experiment with public spectrum, including CBRS.

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For many of MxD's smaller members, the type of private 5G network AT&T is demonstrating may be out of reach, Sciammarella said, adding that there is talk about Wi-Fi 6. 

‘What we try to do here is educate manufacturers on ways that these technologies can work for them that maybe they haven’t thought about," he said. "What we’re meant to do is work with cutting edge companies like AT&T delivering some really unique solutions so people see what the future is and how they can use it."