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8 June 2021

5G and edge compute lighten burden of heavy industry automation

Wireless communication has long held great promise for automation, maintenance and improved safety at work across diverse heavy industrial sectors such as mining, construction and port or terminal operation. Some of the requirements such as ultra-low latency are common across many other industrial sectors including light engineering, but heavy industry raises some distinct challenges and opportunities that merit analysis of admittedly a varied sector.

A common theme is that 5G for the first time provides the required capacity, speed, low latency and robustness both upstream and downstream for critical use cases in the sector, for which wired communications are too unwieldy or static, while both WiFi and LTE fail on at least one or two of these counts.

The field has attracted specific projects, products and services, with the latest involving a pair of Finnish companies, Edzcom and Signal Partners, agreeing to combine private cellular networks, both LTE and 5G, with industrial LTE and 5G devices, initially for European customers. The combined service bundles private networks set up by Edzcom with bespoke devices from Signal as a provider of rugged communication systems such as routers.

As Signal’s CEO Pekka Laitinen put it: “The private network segment is relatively new, and Edzcom is the leading company in this area. It was a natural fit to start a cooperation. We have the possibility to provide an efficient turnkey solution to our customers. What we offer together with Edzcom is everything the customer needs outside of applications.”

Mikko Uusitalo, managing director at Edzcom, added: “In the past, dumpers to trucks or drilling machines have been human-operated. However, this practice is declining as more of our customers are utilizing our wireless technology for increased automation. In this scenario, an operator can work remotely in a safe environment. Our network provides the connectivity between machines and the command center, whereas Signal Partners supplies the device, such as routers or drones with the required software, thereby creating the link between the wireless network and the actual equipment.”

A principal benefit of wireless connectivity that applies to many sectors of heavy industry is remote operation of plant or equipment in somewhat hazardous conditions. In the case of mining there is the prospect of reducing exposure to dangerous pollutants such as particulates or toxic gases, as well as automated surveillance and safety checks.

China has been one of the leaders on this front where various mines are already well advanced with 5G deployments for a variety of processes underground. Here the Huayang Group of mining, chemical and engineering companies, headquartered in Singapore, has become heavily involved in modernizing coal mining in the country in collaboration with Huawei and China Mobile. The group conducted its first underground test of ruggedized 5G base stations resistant to explosion damage in November 2019 at one of its largest mines, Xinyuan Coal Mine. This has been extended to 14 remote radio units), with 64 more planned in the next phase to create probably the world’s largest ‘downhole’ 5G network to date.

One of the challenges was that, with the mining face already automated through use of electronically controlled coal cutters – with electrohydraulic supports and scraper conveyors to keep cut coal moving back – continuous high definition video surveillance had become necessary or highly desirable to maintain almost continuous operations while being able act quickly in the event of any mechanical or other issues before much damage has been done.

Traditional fixed optical fibers had been tried to provide the required bandwidth but were constantly being torn off or damaged beyond repair in this hostile environment. Only 5G wireless communications could combine the resiliency and bandwidth. The 5G network is also proving valuable for conducting examinations by connected robots transmitting inspection data, videos, and audio signals to the overground monitoring command center.

The mine has ambitions to drive automation further and extend it above ground to coal washing, preparation and transportation, where the main motives are operational cost savings and improvements in working conditions, although this will also mean additional job losses in what was once a highly labor-intensive sector.

Other countries with large heavy industrial sectors have also been in the vanguard of 5G development in this area. Germany’s Siemens early in 2021 launched one of the first rugged 5G routers dedicated to demanding industrial environments, its Scalance MUM856-1, also supporting 4G. At the same time, Siemens set up a private industrial 5G test network at its Automotive Showroom and Test Center in Nuremberg, Germany. This is being used to test industrial applications based on prototype resilient equipment for the field in various settings, evaluating safety in interactions between humans and machines in the field.

Ports and terminals have become major hunting grounds for providers of 5G equipment for private networks, where Finland’s Kalmar has become a major player, taking advantage of Nokia’s strong focus on this area. Kalmar has been working with Nokia and Finland’s national research institution VTT to research and evaluate 5G technology for application to terminal operations.

The aim is to extend automation further in ports and terminals, while replacing wired with wireless communications for systems where the latter has already enabled remote operation but with constraints over flexibility and performance.

One of the first applications offered by Halmar is wireless remote control of container handling machines in ports, with an early project involving upgrade of rubber-tired traveling gantry cranes. Such cranes straddle their working environments, typically comprising a mobile bridge that can move from one end of a site to another, while the crane moves from side to side, covering the whole area. Use of rubber tires instead of dedicated tracks improves flexibility and these cranes have been deployed in conjunction with fixed fiber optic cable reels for remote control, but this requires care and can slow operations down.

Fiber was required for the very low latency and high bandwidth in the uplink direction for video based remote control, but now Kalmar has successfully demonstrated 5G Non-Stand Alone (NSA) connectivity for this application.

As Kalmar has noted, the first wireless applications in heavy industry were WiFi-based, followed by LTE, but there is growing momentum now behind standardization around 5G. This does not just apply to the high-performance communication, but also monitoring of sensor networks, as is particularly important in mining where the LPWAN NB-IoT protocol is gaining traction, especially in China.