Industrials primed but cautious on private wireless: Special Report

It’s a step-by-step process from trial to scaling, as industrial users have many aspects in digitizing operations that go beyond just the network. (Getty Images)

Industrial categories such as manufacturing, mining, maritime container shipping and ports appear primed for private cellular networks to improve efficiency and ultimately costs. But while interest levels are ticking up, these industries, with their own complex operations undergoing change, are taking a cautious approach to implementation.

FierceWireless is hosting a free virtual event next week, with an in-depth discussion on May 11 about the intersection of private wireless and Industrial IoT.

Bob Gessel, head of technology strategy and marketing development for Ericsson’s Enterprise and Emerging Business segment, said the vendor is seeing an increased number of industrial private wireless inquiries and requests, particularly from systems integration partners.

But for those industries with very sophisticated operations themselves, such as manufacturing, he’s noticed companies are still very cautious in moving from a proof-of-concept to a trial, to implementation and scaling up.

It’s a step-by-step process, as there are many aspects to digitizing industrial operations that go beyond just the network.

“We’re seeing that evolution work in a cautious manner,” he told Fierce, where, for example, a commercial implementation could be taking place at one site but eventually scale up to 10.

Andrew Alleman, chief architect for network solutions at Intel, expressed a similar sentiment.

“It’s a mixed blessing,” Alleman, whose work is part of an incubation and pre-product group at Intel with a focus on standards and wireless, said of industrial users. It’s a big category that’s already transforming, with many existing specialized processes. “At the same time it doesn’t move that fast.”

Part of the appeal is that many of the benefits of 5G or 4G LTE connectivity can apply to industrials, with multiple use-cases and technologies applicable within one factory or set of different businesses.

“That’s what makes it interesting,” Alleman said. “It’s like a microcosm of everything else.” But with business to protect, he too pointed to pilots happening alongside regular operations, or showcasing small parts of how network and compute technologies can make improvements.

The good thing is industrial verticals themselves are interested, Alleman noted. As to what makes it compelling for industrials to invest in setting up a private cellular network, cost remains the top driver, he said. It’s more on the operational side than capital side, with factory automation and less dependence on the presence of humans helping drive cost advantages. 

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Flexibility was another common theme both Gessel and Alleman cited, with increased automation allowing facilities or factories to be more multipurpose and modular, rather than fixed line.

One benefit is the ability to run processes together and aggregate, allowing manufacturers to run more applications on a common compute system, Alleman noted.

Many private cellular implementations for industrials are brownfield scenarios, Gessel said. Companies are overlaying next-generation technologies for use cases like streamlining operations, identifying anomalies and providing worker safety with technology like robotics.

Having mobility throughout a factory facility, and from indoor to outdoor, makes a real difference in terms of the network technology, he noted.  Moving away from more rigid autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) “to something more flexible, is where the 4G and 5G private wireless networks can really shine,” Gessel said.

Capabilities where wireless can come into play are use cases that have very demanding throughput requirements, not always speed but needs for consistent reliable throughput and across a large number of devices. For example, video analytics support or monitoring.

There are a few special customers, like Mercedes Benz, which created a greenfield 5G factory for auto manufacturing and had a unique opportunity to start from the ground up. With Ericsson as a vendor, Telefonica was the operator partner on the private network, which spans an area over 20,000m. 

Ports among early industrial adopters

Tied into the interest in private wireless for industrials are advancements and proliferation of connected devices, sensors and machines for Industrial IoT. 

“Advancements in AGV and devices has become non-trivial,” Gessel said, pointing to ports as an example. 

Ports are one of the earlier adopters in the private network space. Verizon recently secured a private network deal to outfit one of Associated British Ports with 5G connectivity. 

In a port setting, an AGV could actually be a very large container fork-lift-style machinery and Gessel said they’ve had multiple discussions where manufacturers want remote driving capabilities so that if and when an anomaly occurs, rather than stopping the AGV for safety, they can take control and avoid interference in the port’s operations.

RELATED: Verizon snags private 5G network deal with U.K. port operator

“Any time you can keep things moving, in say a port operation for sure, it’s a huge ROI [return on investment],” Gessel said. Ericsson has been working with the Port of Rotterdam for a couple of years, addressing challenges of a less reliable Wi-Fi network with 4G LTE, which he said showed early ROI just from stabilizing operations on the network.

Shipping vessels get connected

Tied very closely to ports, with a significant amount of crossover, is the maritime shipping industry, which is looking at private LTE aboard container vessels.

Wireless Maritime Services (WMS) is one of the companies starting early implementations on container ships, after seeing the start of smart containers that could be tracked in terrestrial markets back in 2017.

Lee Mabie, VP of Strategy, Product Development and Marketing at WMS, cited several reasons cellular private networks are a good choice for maritime vessels.

For one, 90% of the world’s goods are transported by sea, with containers traversing the globe. As a mobility asset, they need a ubiquitous network that can support global coverage. Cellular was born to support mobility and smart container sensors support wireless natively.

The second is the ability to penetrate the environment on the ship.

RELATED: Private LTE delivers for shipping giant

“Wi-Fi would require a whole lot of cabling, a whole lot of access points, whereas a cellular network, say using 700 MHz, could easily penetrate all of the metal, cargo, to reach the deepest holds,” without requiring the same amount of infrastructure as Wi-Fi. Finally, there’s the level of security for cellular by 3GPP standards.

WMS has a few commercially deployed vessel networks and is working with several shipping lines to scale vessel IoT network connectivity sea. 

With a private LTE network and the use of smart containers or sensors, shipping companies have visibility to manage assets remotely. Mabie said main benefits for using digital technologies and deploying telematics at sea, include the reduction of food loss, sustaining maximum operating efficiency of the container itself and reducing greenhouse gasses.

When it comes to refrigerated containers, a primary application is monitoring and responding to temperature changes or malfunctions for food. Mabie explained that today with manual inspections crews typically walk the ship every four hours to check for temperature errors. With temperature sensitive cargo like bananas, mangoes or medicine, a few degrees off could mean lost or damaged cargo. Instead, shipside or shoreside crew can get an alert and respond to the container cargo in minutes.

The network and sensors also allow for predicative maintenance to ensure optimal performance in a situation where cargo could be traveling for weeks or months at a time. Telematics can analyze when a potential container failure might occur.

“It makes a whole lot more sense to replace say a $500 part on a container ahead of time, versus losing a container full of Covid vaccines that may be a million-dollar loss.”

When cargo is lost, costs ultimately get passed on to consumers in some form of price increases, he said. It’s estimated that between 33%-38% of the global refrigerated fleet will be equipped with IoT devices this year to tack and remotely manage in real-time.

And a lot of the same concepts apply in a port environment, which Mabie categorized as a larger version of what’s deployed aboard vessels, in terms of the core network and radio perspective.

“That’s important because the container shipping world doesn’t really have the standards in place one might think.”  

In the past couple of years, shippers came together to form the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA) to establish network standards to support the entire maritime shipping environment, both at sea and in ports.

“As smart ports come online, it’s very important they too use the same protocols to make sure visibility works end-to end,” Mabie said.