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4 April 2023

Volvo keeps faith in LoRaWAN against the grain

Volvo’s decision to deploy a private network based on the LoRa LPWAN protocol rather than 5G at a factory in Lyon, France, was greeted with surprise in some quarters. It should not have been because LPWAN as a whole has a big future in the industrial sphere alongside higher performing wireless options, increasingly 5G, as well as in more traditional sectors like environmental monitoring and smart metering.

What also raised eyebrows was the decision in favor of LoRaWAN rather than one of the cellular options, given that they are more closely aligned with 5G. But even that was not a total surprise since Volvo was already a LoRa user. The company had deployed a LoRaWAN private network for a slightly different application in September 2020 at another French factory in Blainville to track and locate trucks during production and customization, aiming to make its supply chain work more smoothly at the plant. This used the ThingPark IoT Platform from Actility, a specialist LPWAN IoT connectivity, using tracking devices from its subsidiary Abeeway. Volvo had decided that LoRa was the most mature and robust LPWAN option in the field then and would do the job efficiently.

The latest LoRa deployment is to manage autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) and enable predictive maintenance by collecting relevant sensor information for analysis. These AGVs transport engines for trucks, boats, and industrial power systems around the workshop and run on 24-volt batteries, and failure occurs when the voltage slips below 22 volts. One aim of the new predictive system is to anticipate when this is about to happen, to avoid such a voltage drop temporarily suspending production.

For this sort of predictive application, LPWAN is ideal, but not when real time video monitoring is also required, or control of any driverless systems such as AGVs, drones or robots. For those fiber is only appropriate in cases where movement is very restricted, while WiFi is too unreliable, even though it has been deployed in a few instances for such applications. LPWAN protocols vary in capacity, but apart possibly from the cellular LTE-M variant in some cases, lack the required throughput, as well as falling down over latency. LoRa’s maximum speed is a mere 27 Kbps, so is confined to low bandwidth monitoring applications such as Volvo’s.

Yet most other automakers, and manufacturers more widely, are opting for cellular as their medium for wireless connectivity around factories. This is because the combination of 5G and the cellular LPWAN options can serve all their diverse wireless requirements, including high speed low latency connectivity for robotic and AGV control, or video surveillance, and low bit for environmental or system monitoring of the sort being performed by Volvo’s LoRaWAN networks. LoRa would be highly unlikely to win a greenfield manufacturing contract.

Mercedes-Benz Cars is a case in point, having deployed a 5G NSA (Non Standalone) network across its so called Factory 56 in Sindelfingen, covering over 20,000 square meters, again to optimize production processes. This network based on Ericsson 5G equipment was installed by Telefonica in an example of a telco winning a major industrial private 5G contract.

The first use cases were Automated Quality Control, involving testing of vehicles on the production line to shorten post-production, and deployment of AGVs. The key point was that local 5G could provide connectivity for all systems and machines in Mercedes-Benz factories, including those that did not require the highest performance, according to Jörg Burzer, Member of the Divisional Board of Management of Mercedes-Benz Cars, Production and Supply Chain.

Another factor not mentioned by Burzer is that future 5G releases will support a forthcoming all-embracing successor to LPWAN, called RedCap, within which the current two cellular options of NB-IoT and LTE-M will be converged, to constitute a fourth major 5G use case intersecting with the other three (URLLC, eMBB and mMTC).

This point resonates with other auto makers, such as Ford, another example of a major manufacturing private 5G success for a telco. In this case, Vodafone installed a private 5G network at its electrified powertrain facility in Essex, UK. This is used for high-bandwidth, ultra-low latency data capture to help automate several processes.

Ford is also using 5G for predictive maintenance, aiming to schedule servicing of equipment more effectively to eliminate unanticipated failures as far as possible. A major driver for 5G in automotive manufacturing is the growing need for customization as purchasers expect greater ability to “build their own” cars in the way that say desk computers are, beyond basic options such as color and seat type, according to Chris White, Manager, 5GEM Project, Ford.

5GEM refers to the UK’s 5G Enabled Manufacturing project involving a consortium of eight organizations exploring use cases for 5G private networks in various manufacturing environments, including predictive maintenance. One company involved in this, Vacuum Furnace Engineering, specializes in maintenance of vacuum furnaces, melting and casting furnaces, electron beam welders, pumps, spark plasma sintering and autoclaves operating at high temperatures and pressures, serving automakers among others. Its Director of Control Systems Ian Jenner has stated that 5G’s high bandwidth is needed to collect all the large amount of data feeding predictive maintenance algorithms quickly enough, implying it will increasingly be deployed for these applications.

Stellantis is another major automaker that has been deploying private 5G networks for quality control and maintenance. This European/US company, which earlier subsumed various previously well-known brands such as Peugeot, Citroen, Fiat, Chrysler, Jeep, Alfa Romeo and Maserati, deployed a private 5G network during 2021 at its Automotive Centre of Goiana in NE Brazil as a pilot for assessment of 5G’s potential for use of video analytics to capture images of vehicle movement along the production line for immediate quality control inspections.

Again, the objective is to nip problems in the bud to reduce postproduction delays.