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21 September 2021

Network slicing makes commercial progress in UK 5G manufacturing

Government-backed 5G projects are often criticized, round the world, for lack of commercial impact, but in the manufacturing and automotive sectors, the pent-up demand of large companies for new processes is driving adoption of the results of some 5G-focused R&D initiatives.

One example is the UK’s 5G-Encode, which we noted, last week, has just entered its second phase. Now it emerges that the 5G-Encode consortium, which is led by Zeetta Networks, has partnered with a manufacturing research group called National Composites Centre (NCC), to install a sliceable private 5G network. This will be used by NCC customers such as Boeing and Airbus on a commercial basis.

Zeetta works with an international group of partners including Siemens, Toshiba, private networks integrator Druid Software, and Telefónica in 5G-Encode, and their collective efforts will be the basis of the 5G network at NCC. The network will be based on Open RAN specifications, though it will not be a multivendor affair at this stage, with US-based Airspan providing the radios, the distributed and centralized baseband units, and the software.

Druid, which is working with Airspan on a similar project for umlaut in Germany, will be the main network deployer. While 5G-Encode is using test spectrum, this network will run in permanent spectrum, licensed from regulator Ofcom under its relatively new local licensing framework. This is specifically designed to enable enterprise and localized networks to be economically viable, by making spectrum available in limited areas, and with various limits on power and usage, for a nominal fee.

Like 5G-Encode’s projects, the key area of development on the NCC network will be 5G slicing. Many manufacturers are interested in using multiple slices on their private networks, each one optimized for the specific requirements of a different application, from robotics to sensor-based analytics, from real time video analytics to the automated operation of a variety of machines and tools.

This slicing will be enabled by the developments of Zeetta and Druid. Druid provides a locally deployable core called Raemis which is designed to facilitate creation of slices, each with its own capabilities and service level agreement. Airspan’s VP of technology and marketing, Abel Mayal, believes private networks are pushing ahead with real world slicing applications at a far faster rate than public MNO networks because the requirement is more urgent, and the scope more manageable. “Private networks are the ones that are pushing the features of 5G,” he said.

Zeetta says it has taken the slicing concept a step further with the development of ‘network splicing’, which refers to the automated and on-demand combining of several slices from different networks. That enables a high level of resource flexibility, with the slice engine able to tap into available capacity and performance owned by multiple operators. Zeetta has combined slices from three separate networks for the NCC roll-out – one from the NCC’s private network at its headquarters in London, another at a separate NCC location, and a third from the public transport network. This feat will be part of phase 2 of 5G-Encode, which will allow for the approach to be more broadly applied and tested.

“For the first time in the world, an industrial 5G network can not only be customized and divided into multiple logical networks, but each of those virtual networks can be extended across a transport network to reach another virtual network in a completely different administrative domain,” said Zeetta Networks founder and CEO Vassilis Seferidis. “This would allow, for example, a critical asset to be tracked continuously in real time and with the same quality-of-service as it is transported from the point of production, to being received at the destination location.”

5G-Encode has recently entered its second phase. The first was based on 4G and aimed to establish a baseline against which results from the private 5G network testbed could be benchmarked. The results of Phase 1 will be shared next month. This new phase will assess how well 5G meets specific industrial use cases in manufacturing such as AR/VR to support training or design; tracking of time-sensitive assets; or real time in-process monitoring, among others.