Shorter business and product lifecycles, squeezed margins as the result of more varied and complex components, and an aging, costly workforce are placing global manufacturers under extreme pressure. As a result, the need to create efficiency and profitability through new process innovation is becoming increasingly important.

The fourth industrial revolution is powering this shift, driven by innovations in telecommunications and connectivity.

Mobile IoT connections are set to pass the 4 billion mark by 2024 and a study by Ericsson estimates that around 29 billion connected devices are forecast by 2022, of which around 18 billion will be related to IoT. Indeed, in 2018, IoT devices such as connected cars, machines, meters, wearables and other consumer electronics surpassed the number of mobile phones globally.

In tandem, 5G is being rolled out in cities across the world. For example, Germany’s largest telecom company – Deutsche Telekom Germany – recently launched the country’s first 5G network and by the end of 2020, there will be 5G coverage across 20 German cities.

Ultra-fast 5G data networks can transfer data at 1,000 times faster than current 4G networks and are designed for use by self-driving cars, connected factories and smart cities. “5G is the foundation for realising the full potential of IoT,” says Paolo Colella, the former head of India Region for Ericsson. “With connectivity at the heart of industry transformation, 5G will have a key role to play—not just in the evolution of communication but in the evolution of businesses and society as a whole.”

In essence, these macro-factors are forcing manufacturers to evolve their technology in order to compete. Consequently, the smart factory has emerged, enabling automation of every area of production and increasingly finding ways to make operations wireless to improve flexibility.

Yet the potential of 5G for manufacturers is substantial. Professor Johan Stahre of Chalmers University of Technology which coordinates the 5GEM project in partnership with SKP and Ericsson believes that 5G technology has the power to transform manufacturing. He said; “For a long time, automation and regulation have put fences around machines but 5G allows you to see what is going on inside the production process again. 5G will transform the four-phase approach to manufacturing anything; ‘design, deployment, operation and maintenance’ – generating different benefits depending on the phase you are in.”

For example, China Mobile and Ericsson are enabling automation by applying cellular IoT technology to operations at a radio product manufacturing site in Nanjing China. The project connected screwdrivers on the production floor to the world’s first cellular IoT-based 5G system. The 1,000 high-precision screwdrivers in the factory require routine calibration and lubrication which until now has been a manual procedure. The new 5G-powered system saw the high-precision tools fitted with real-time motion sensors that collect data via a cellular IoT network over the company’s private cloud and back-end systems, which make automatic calculations and intelligent analyses of the collected data.

With connected screwdrivers, the factory was able to replace manual tracking of tool usage data with an automated solution – cutting the amount of manual work by 50 percent. And since the cost per device is so low, the factory now plans to completely phase out manual tracking.

Ericsson has also partnered with Vodafone Germany and e.GO, a German electric microcar company to launch 5G car manufacturing in Aachen. The 5G platform delivers secure and almost real-time data networking across the production chain, from digital material management to autonomous vehicle control. Incorporating network slicing and mobile edge computing technologies, the 5G optimised on-site network spans 36 antennas in the 8,500sq m facility, delivering gigabit bandwidth and latency of just a few milliseconds. Günther Schuh, CEO, e.GO Mobile AG, says the 5G network will deliver faster and more reliable production with constant access to relevant information. “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.”

According to a recent study by Ericsson which surveyed executives from large companies representing ten key global industries – management expect 5G to play a major role in industry digitalization in the coming years. For example, the manufacturers surveyed expect 5G applications to provide the network characteristics essential for manufacturing including; low latency and high reliability needed to support critical applications, high bandwidth and connection density secure ubiquitous connectivity and higher flexibility, lower cost, and shorter lead times for factory floor production reconfiguration, layout changes, and alterations.

However, when asked about the barriers to adopting 5G in their organisation, three key areas of concerns emerged; 79% of respondents said data security and privacy were a barrier (up from 60 percent in 2016), 76% were concerned about a lack of standards and 69% cited challenges of end-to-end implementation. Consequently, while companies are aware of how to exploit 5G, they have some way to go to overcome the key barriers to actually using the technology.

5G may signify the future of powering the IoT, but it is simply the next step in the evolution of telecommunications. For example, while many government and organisations initiate the roll out of 5G, innovators and early-adopters are turning their attention to the development of 6G.

“6G would facilitate “the Internet of Everything” (IoE) and all its machine-to-machine communication demands as well as robotic and autonomous drone delivery and transport systems. It would also likely be the tipping point for technologies like “ultra-high-fidelity” virtual reality, which consumes about 50 times the bandwidth of a high-definition video stream and which doesn’t currently work well enough wirelessly to generate any real demand,” says Sylvie Barak, renowned technology expert and Senior Director at FTI Consulting.

There is no doubt that the manufacturing sector is at the beginning of a phase of total transformation driven by 4IR technology. Manufacturers are faced with a monumental challenge to adopt this new technology and integrate it onto the factory floor, despite the significant financial outlay this requires. However, to not do so means falling behind and potentially losing the chance to catch up.


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