John Deere foresees private 5G at its factories worldwide

Private 5G networks will connect robots, AGVs. and even hand tools at John Deere factories. (John Deere)

The $546,000 John Deere spent to acquire 5 CBRS spectrum licenses last year has started the manufacturer on a path it says may eventually lead to private 5G networks in all its factories.

John Deere purchased Priority Access Licenses (PALs) for CBRS spectrum in Rock Island County, Illinois, where its global headquarters as well some factory operations are located. It also bought PALs for four Iowa counties in which it has factories. In total, There are more than 20 Deere facilities located across Iowa and Illinois.

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Kiel Ronning, Industry 4.0 lead at John Deere, said the company decided to start with “proof of value” 5G networks at two Rock Island factories, and circulated a request for proposals to hardware vendors. He said John Deere has “identified a company to help us stand up this network,” and it will share more information when the networks go live, probably in late October.

John Deere did not work with a carrier, so each private 5G network will include an onsite core and will not be connected to a public network. They will launch as non-standalone 5G networks. 

“5G SA is our objective,” Ronning said. “There’s a journey to get there.”

The two Rock Island networks will help the company scale private 5G to the other factories covered by its Priority Access Licenses. 

“Concurrently to that, we have to build our plans for the facilities where we are not spectrum holders,” Ronning said. “Those are other facilities in the United States, but also include many factories and buildings globally.”

In areas where it does not own spectrum, John Deere could stand up private networks by working with a carrier, but Ronning said no firm decisions have been made about how to move forward. “We are doing research and working with some advisers to help us navigate that,” he said.

The company foresees a return on its investment in 5G because of the increased agility it will bring to factory operations. In the past Ethernet cables have been used to connect factory equipment to the internet. The company also uses Wi-Fi, but Ronning said the latencies are inconsistent so Wi-Fi is not an adequate substitute for Ethernet in most cases.

“By bringing in a cellular communication network, we can maintain reliability but add mobility,” he said. “We can be far more dynamic in the way that we move product through the factory.”

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5G will be replacing Wi-Fi in the manufacturing facilities, and Ronning said the number of access points needed to cover the factory floors will drop. “It’s an order of magnitude less radios than what we’re accustomed to,” he said, adding that the 5G radios extend coverage to the area outside the factory as well.

5G will be used to connect machine centers and even hand tools, which are now connected via Zigbee. Even though the tools are operated by humans, they still need a network connection so John Deere can monitor torque, the rotational force at the point of application.

Right now the factories make use of connected robots and autonomous guided vehicles running on predefined routes. With 5G, these are expected to run dynamic routes based on conditions.

Eventually, other devices and machines on the factory floor will also become more autonomous, Ronning said. “We view this as a key initiative to help us adopt machine learning and AI,” he explained. “As we move forward with further adoptions of those types of technologies we are going to be heavily leveraging the 5G work that we’re doing today.”

Ronning noted that his work in John Deere's manufacturing facilities does not overlap much with his company's efforts to connect field equipment to the internet. John Deere has been a pioneer in the area of connected heavy equipment, and these initiatives are also leveraging 5G.