Will cloud giants muscle in on 5G vendors’ smart factory opportunity?

The smart factory is simultaneously one of the most talked-about, and most challenging sectors for 5G. Visions of digital twins, advanced robots and autonomous trucks often fade when confronted with the long replacement cycles for factory equipment and the heavy incumbency of wired robots and even optimized low latency WiFi.

There is still a deathly silence about 5G at many manufacturing conferences – earlier this year, there was stark contrast between the chatter about smart factories at Mobile World Congress (MWC) and the lack of interest in 5G at a similarly large manufacturing show, the Hannover Messe.

Even Qualcomm urged caution recently. Gerardo Giaretta, head of Industry 4.0 at the chip company, said recently that 5G would affect the Industrial IoT only gradually and on an individual use case basis. Simple systems with large number of sensors, such as asset tracking, will be supported by the low power WAN technologies – NB-IoT and Cat-M, and even GPRS – for many years.

“Many use cases require a cost structure that 5G may not be able to achieve,” at least not for some years, Giaretta acknowledged. The 5G version of NB-IoT and Cat-M is not yet standardized, and since the LTE-based LPWANs specifications came so late in the 4G story, operators will not want to replace these networks for many years to come.

However, there are clearly factory applications which are inherently mobile, and require the ultra-low latency and high security promised for the next release of 5G standards, and so are candidates for early 5G private network roll-outs. And the emergence of industry-specific private network or neutral host models will make it easier for manufacturers to use a RAN and core that are optimized for their purposes – or as in Germany, even gain spectrum of their own to deploy such systems.

Giaretta believes the biggest impact of 5G on the IIoT will be to support private networks for complex factory applications. The Standalone version of the 5G New Radio standards was built with private networks in mind since it enables deployment of self-contained RAN/core systems which do not necessarily need to rely on external macro networks.

“It’s really the first time where we will see industry players that will be able to deploy their own network, and that will free up innovation,” Giaretta said in a recent interview.

“It’s really, really a big innovation. It will have the potential to change completely the dynamics of factory networks.”

The trials are growing in size and variety, heavily supported by the large vendors, especially Nokia and Ericsson, both of which have worked closely with the manufacturers in their home markets to showcase solutions that might encourage others to replace their robots earlier than expected or add a new wireless network to their mix. Both these vendors have shown high interest in the potential to sell advanced 5G equipment to factories, with or without the involvement of MNOs.

Now, their efforts are starting to bear fruit to a limited extent with some production deployments, often led by the automotive industry, which has been the most engaged with the 5G proposition, partly because it dovetails with work on autonomous vehicles, and partly because of the rising competition in this market, especially from China.

For instance, Ericsson is working with Telefónica Germany to build a private 5G network to support  car production for Mercedes-Benz at the latter’s Sindelfingen plant in southern Germany. All production systems and machines in the greenfield Factory 56 will be connected and operated using 5G.

Mercedes-Benz says it will use the network to increase the flexibility of processes to support different products and adapt on a constant, real time basis; and to enhance precision, quality and efficiency of production by implementing new digitalization and IoT processes such as digital twins.

Markus Haas, CEO of Telefónica Germany, said in a statement: “We are starting the 5G era for Germany as an industrial location and are building the most modern mobile network for one of the most modern automobile factories in the world.”

Arun Bansal, Ericsson’s head of Europe and Latin America, commented: “5G is about to change manufacturing as we know it through secure and almost-real time connectivity that will result in transformative productivity, speed and efficiency improvements.”

The private network will connect production systems and machines within the 20,000-square meter Factory 56 complex. Designed and built by Ericsson and its MNO partner, it will be operated by Mercedes-Benz itself once it goes live, and the car maker says it will form a blueprint for similar roll-outs in other plants. In Germany, those could potentially run in non-MNO spectrum following the regulator’s decision, after heavy lobbying from the country’s powerful automotive sector, to earmark some 3.7 GHz spectrum for industrial private usage.

In another German auto project, Ericsson Private Networks recently worked with Vodafone to connect a factory owned by electric car maker e.GO Mobile with 5G. The aim is to deliver secure and near-real time data networking across the production chain, from digital material management to autonomous vehicle control. And because it is a private network, it will implement some capabilities, such as network slicing and mobile edge computing, well before those find their way into the MNOs’ public networks.

The on-site network in e.GO’s Aachen 8,500-square meter facility is based on Ericsson’s Radio Dot indoor distributed radio technology with a total of 36 antennas, boasting gigabit bandwidth and latency of a few milliseconds.

The first application will be secure automatic identification and delivery of production materials to each specific vehicle as it goes through the assembly process, and this will be followed by autonomous vehicles to move vehicles from station to station on the production line. Next will come autonomous forklift trucks and small trains to transport material between warehouses and the production area.

Günther Schuh, CEO of e.GO Mobile, said: “The assembly plant for e.GO Life is a true Industry 4.0 factory. In other words, it is fully networked in terms of information technology. Connectivity links the physical and the digital world.”

Of course, the risk of private networks, for the mobile vendors and operators, is that they open the doors to additional competitors. In particular, the webscalers are interested in enhancing their enterprise cloud business by adding connectivity, hosted virtualized core networks, and edge computing. Combining all these – in leased, shared or private spectrum – could enable them to offer a complete compute, storage and connectivity platform, with optimized performance and relevant applications, to an enterprise or its service provider.

AWS, in particular, has been expanding its 5G smart factory ecosystem with a series of partnerships plus internal developments based around its Greengrass edge cloud platform. For instance, Finnish manufacturing solutions provider Haltian recently launched a 5G-ready smart factory service based on Greengrass. The vendor says it can reduce factory costs by up to 90% compared to traditional automation techniques, by providing simple and secure asset and process digitalization.

es Haltian combines its Thingsee IoT platform and retrofit sensors with Greengrass IoT edge computing   and private cellular connectivity. The sensors use Wirepas IoT mesh networking to transmit data to the local Thingsee gateway, which then relays it to the Thingsee Edge node, based on Greengrass.

This end-to-end infrastructure enables the factory to process IoT applications and collect sensor data on-site, without having to transmit data through the public Internet or to add to cost and latency by sending all the information to the central cloud.

Meanwhile, software house iBASEt is working with AWS’s Smart Factory program to design a cloud-based digital manufacturing system for aerospace and defense manufacturers. This will deploy the iBASEt Manufacturing Suite on AWS GovCloud, which supports environments in which there are highly stringent requirements to protect data, such as aeropace.

“By working with AWS, either on commercial or GovCloud, our clients will be able to fully leverage a cloud environment to drive greater efficiency and control over their manufacturing operations and the digital thread,” said the software supplier. “The cloud creates a powerful infrastructure to leverage a range of native services that drive seamless adaption of different technologies, connecting operations and sustainment management in a seamless flow of data across the value chain and product lifecycle.”