5G represents the next generation of broadband cellular technology. I have written before that 5G for supply chain applications is still at the hype stage. However, the 5G protocol is slowly evolving to add more features for industrial applications. The promise of 5G is alluring.
Thus, it was of interest to me to hear what Pietro Valsecchi, who is an expert on operational excellence and part of the Global Process Control Technology team at Covestro, had to say on this topic. Dr. Valsecchi spoke at ARC’s Accelerating Digital Transformation in a Post-COVID World on a 5G panel and then expanded on his thinking after I sent him a draft of the article. Dr. Valsecchi believes that 5G for manufacturing applications doesn’t quite live up to its hype.
Covestro is a leading producer of advanced polymers. This public company is headquartered in Germany and generated over 10 billion Euros in revenues in their last fiscal year.
Like many other large industrial manufacturers, Covestro has been very interested in 5G as a key enabler of the Smart Factory. The vision of the Smart Factory involves using advanced technologies to reach higher levels of safety and efficiency. Covestro is participating in tests of 5G. One example of this is an application study in the Port of Antwerp, which includes one of Covestro’s largest European production sites. Dr. Valsecchi is also the lead of the working group “Mobile Operations” within the European industry association NAMUR (User Association of Automation Technology in Process Industries), where the use cases for wireless connectivity are discussed and analyzed. From these vantage points, Dr. Valsecchi has been able to get a comprehensive look at 5G and come to a conclusion on whether a solid business case for a 5G implementation in the chemical industry is feasible.
For the industrial wireless operations that are carried out today with WiFi or 4G/LTE, the new features brought by 5G can bring immediate, yet marginal benefits. There seems to be no shortage of visionary thinking about what other capabilities this technology might usher in. An image commonly associated with the promises of 5G for industrial applications is an field operator using Augmented Reality technology that provides the relevant information directly in the field of vision. Another common image involves autonomous material handling and, perhaps, even a factory that is entirely operated remotely. If you have heard the word “5G” in any technical discussion on industrial use, you have likely also heard the words “Autonomous”, “Augmented Reality”, and “Edge Computing” in the same sentence.
As you may expect from an expert in the field, the picture he built during the discussion was much more nuanced than what you see in flashy television advertisements aimed at consumers. For industry, 5G is a developing technology. Its features are being deployed through ongoing “releases” and, so far, the features that are particularly interesting for industrial use cases will be in Release 16 at the end of 2020. Release 17 and 18 will contain much more, but they are not due before 2022 or 2023.
The manufacturers of 5G equipment will also require time to harden their equipment for industrial conditions. This will introduce an additional delay. For example, sensitive production conditions are common in the chemical industry. There are requirements that equipment should be certified as being inherently safe. Any inherently safe 5G equipment must be proven to not spark, catch on fire, or explode even if the equipment malfunctions. Currently, no 5G access points or mobile devices have achieved this certification.
Additionally, the dynamic evolution of 5G implies a quick obsolescence for the equipment. As new features are released, the equipment has to be changed. Many new features will require the physical substitution of key electronic components – not only new chipsets, but also antennas and heat-management components.
According to Dr. Valsecchi, the current 5G protocol offers only marginally better connectivity than current technologies like 4G or Long-Term Evolution (LTE) for current industrial use cases. Today, wireless connectivity for the chemical industry translate mainly to “mobile working” applications – the operations that are conducted by a field operator using mobile devices. 5G brings higher data rates, more cybersecurity, and a more reliable connection. But this is not enough to create a solid business case.
These mobile applications also fail to take advantage of the more innovative aspects of 5G. The true return of investment will reside in novel and unexplored use cases such as massive industrial Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous logistics, or running advanced manufacturing control systems on the same virtual network that the ERP is using. This last application is known as “5G Network Slicing”.
There is huge untapped potential associated with 5G. But it can only be reached on a longer time scale – a time scale that encompasses the completion of the protocol and the consequent availability of reliable hardware for industrial uses; a time scale that also encompasses an infrastructure build out as well as new 5G mobile devices and IoT devices.
Better consulting is also needed. Telecom providers today have the highest level of expertise in 5G since they have been at the forefront of implementation. However, their expertise, historically, lays more with using 5G for consumer applications rather than industrial ones. Novel industrial use cases, such as IoT, have requirements that are different from a consumer’s mobile device.