Getting started with 5G for manufacturing

3 min read

Ste Ashton of nexGworx Testbed as a Service explains how manufacturers can take advantage of 5G networks

Much has been written about the potential benefits 5G brings to manufacturing. From higher bandwidth, low latency, and ultra-secure networks to the ability to process terabytes of data at lightening speeds, the technology presents an opportunity not only to make the most of new developments - such as  AI, machine learning, mixed reality and digital twins - but also to unleash the potential of existing infrastructure to maximise productivity.

As with any new technology, there are a host of potential benefits as well as challenges involved. Getting started with 5G is not a simple ‘plug and play’ process but there are various key players who can help you begin your digital journey, from telecoms providers and mobile operators to testbeds, hyperscalers and systems integrators. 

With different 5G objectives for every business, there a one-size-fits-all solution, so what do manufacturers need to consider before embarking on digital transformation?

Firstly, be clear about what you want to achieve from your 5G journey. With so many potential use cases - such as tracking equipment, AI-driven training, automated intelligent quality inspection processes, identifying and releasing under-utilised capacity, or greater supply chain collaboration - it can be difficult to know where to start. 

In our experience, it’s crucial to accept that it is a journey. Start with one clear objective or use case but be conscious that this is likely to evolve - in most cases expand - once you get underneath the hood of the process and begin identifying additional ways 5G networks can power positive change across your business.

For those who think smart, connected manufacturing is interesting but ‘not for the likes of us’, take a second look. Explore what other manufacturing businesses are trialling and speak to industry professionals who can help you identify relevant use cases for your business.

In-house teams

While it is not impossible to embark on your 5G programme with a purely in-house team, it does require significant investment in time and research. Creating a working group made up of multi-disciplinary experts is far more likely to result in success that simply allocating the task to the I.T. department, allowing you to identify and prioritise multiple use cases, understand how they impact on each other and ensure systems and programmes are optimised from the start. 

This working group should include operations directors, change managers, logistics teams and shop-floor staff. It is also worth considering if you will need to engage key clients or suppliers in the process as collaboration can often amplify productivity gains and prevent communications or logistics issues arising further down the line.

External advisers

With your internal team in place, now is the time to identify which external experts or suppliers you need.

Telecoms providers and mobile operators can be crucial facilitators during the early stages of 5G adoption. They can provide essential advice on when 5G will be available in your location, as well as which other options you may need to consider - be they private indoor or outdoor networks, public mobile networks or hybrid infrastructure.

5G testbeds allow you to try out processes off- or on-site, experiment with different networks and test use cases to highlight issues you need to consider in your implementation plan. Testbed providers also usually work with lots of different companies, bringing the benefit of experience gained elsewhere to your 5G project and providing an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of different suppliers, as well as facilitating access to the latest thinking in specialist areas, such as security.

Manufacturers may also consider working with hyperscalers, such as Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google, or the alternative connectivity platform and ‘network software’ providers. These companies offer a range of services, from applications to virtualised network cores, which are readily scalable and can be used with a range of radio networks. By using shared spectrum licenses, traditional mobile operators don’t need to be involved.

Finally, systems integrators and professional services providers can also be useful allies, working with any or all of the above to help build your strategy, facilitate and organise network build and use case integration.

Collaboration

One further consideration is exploring collaboration opportunities with complementary organisations. These could be with companies within your supply chains, key customers, businesses located in a similar geographic area or those working within the same or complementary sectors. 

In a sector where industry norms have yet to be standardised, this collaborative approach offers a number of potential benefits, including ensuring change programmes effectively integrate with key partners’ operations, providing critical mass to actively shape your industry’s direction of travel, bringing fresh perspectives that can unleash greater productivity gains, and reducing costs.

Change is always challenging but, just as the industrial revolution brought huge benefits to the western world, the fourth industrial revolution promises huge benefits for companies of all sizes.

Digital adoption is coming. Are you ready for the journey?