BMW Group has installed an open RAN private 5G network to test new technologies and train employees at its largest European vehicle production site. The automaker, which stated in 2020 it wants to bring 5G to all its global production facilities, built its newest 5G testbed at its plant in Dingolfing.
The Dingolfing factory makes the all-electric BMW iX as well as several other models, and has been a hub for BMW’s research on autonomous and connected logistics for almost three years. Its 5G network was already in place before work began on the new testbed.
NTT Group, Celona, Intel and Microsoft partnered with BMW to develop the new lab. NTT Ltd. Germany’s Kai Grunwitz, country managing director, said BMW wanted the network to conform to Open RAN Alliance specifications in order to support interoperability and avoid vendor lock-in. “Technology is changing with such speed and there are so many players out there,” he said. “I don’t know how the market will look in 2-3 years; it is so dynamic at the moment.”
Grunwitz said that despite the potential added complexities of open RAN, installation of the Celona private 5G network was completed in just a few weeks.
BMW is not the first NTT private 5G customer to choose an open RAN architecture. Grunwitz said the operator is building an open RAN private 5G network for German airport operator Fraport at Frankfurt Airport. It is expected to be Europe’s largest private 5G network.
BMW Innovation Hub
The open RAN 5G private network is part of BMW’s Innovation Hub, which in turn is part of its training center at Dingolfing. The automaker calls the Innovation Hub a "plant within a plant" because it is equipped with the same robots used in BMW’s real production facility nearby. The company said it wanted the lab to be part of its training center so that new hires can work with cutting edge technology from the start.
Grunwitz said the 5G network enables employees to take control of robotic arms in real-time if needed, in order to prevent them from injuring a worker or damaging a product in the event of malfunction.
The network will also support the low latencies needed to leverage artificial intelligence, but Grunwitz said it is too soon to know exactly how BMW will use AI. The AI chipsets used in the Innovation Hub are provided by Intel, Grunwitz explained.
Work completed at the Innovation Hub could be put into practice at BMW factories worldwide, many of which are already using 5G networks. In China, BMW Brilliance Automotive announced complete 5G coverage at all three of its manufacturing plants three years ago.
BMW has also been a leader in building 5G connectivity into its vehicles. Some of its 2022 models will support 5G in the U.S. through a partnership with T-Mobile.
Private networks in Germany
German companies can apply to the government for permission to use midband spectrum (3.7GHz to 3.8GHz) for private wireless deployments. Unlike U.S. companies, which had to buy CBRS spectrum through an auction to ensure preferential access, German companies can apply to use the frequencies for specific use cases.
A recent survey sponsored by NTT found that among companies piloting private 5G networks, 33% are German, 24% are Japanese, 22% are British and 17% American. But the survey found that the U.S. has more operational private 5G networks than any other country.