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Auto manufacturing is in a period of rapid change. As the industry pivots towards electrification, entirely new competitors are emerging, product mixes are shifting, and supply chains are being disrupted. At the same time, cloud, AI, machine learning and IoT—the Industry 4.0 disruptors—are creating new challenges and opportunities. Judging by the number of pilots being launched worldwide, the auto industry seems to recognize that one of the most important of these Industry 4.0 technologies will be private 5G networks.
Of the various industries embracing 5G and digital transformation, the auto industry is arguably the most complex and the most advanced. The auto manufacturing supply chain is global and interconnected. Factory operations are already highly automated with extensive use of robotics. Just in time inventory systems started first in the automotive sector and lead times get shorter every year.
This is both good news and bad news. Much of this highly automated complexity breeds inflexibility, and agility will be critical in meeting the challenges ahead. One of the sources of inflexibility is the reliance on cabled networks for connectivity, largely Ethernet, which makes re-tooling expensive and slow.
"Because 5G is designed as a service-based architecture, multiple virtually separated networks or slices can be supported on the same infrastructure"
There are good historical reasons for the reliance on Ethernet cabled networks. Until the arrival of 5G, wireless technologies were not a reliable alternative for most use cases.
Wi-Fi is used here and there, but it is a best-effort technology and does not have the performance features to replace Ethernet. 5G will change this, making wireless reliable and powerful enough to replace Ethernet in many cases.
The advantages of 5G wireless are easily seen for connecting massive industrial IoT (IIoT). Manufacturing has been the top sector for IoT spending for the last four years, and it is estimated that some of the largest auto factories in the world, many over one million square meters (km2), will eventually have hundreds of thousands of IIoT devices to connect. Cabling them is simply out of the question both for reasons of cost and flexibility. The 3GPP standards for 5G require minimum connection density of 1 million devices (with 100,000 active) for every square kilometer, so it is fully capable of managing the requirements of even the largest and most complex factories.
The other key use case for auto manufacturing is automation and support for very low latencies or time-sensitive networking (TSN). Wi-Fi can, in limited cases, provide the latency required, but being non-deterministic is not reliable or predictable in situations where there are many connected devices. Whereas 5G can assure each of its 100,000 active devices the latency they require, as low as 1ms.
Mobility is another 5G enabler. Supporting devices moving at up to 500km/hr, it will enable intelligent AGVs and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) for layout-free production lines. Intelligent AGVs and AMRs can automatically convey components to the exact spot where they are required based on communication with production line equipment. Workflow management software will be able to analyze workflows and adjust production lines to be more efficient or to accommodate custom builds.
One of the key features of 5G will be its support for network slicing. Because 5G is designed as a service-based architecture, multiple virtually separated networks or slices can be supported on the same infrastructure. This means that devices and applications running on one slice are completely isolated from another, both in terms of security and resources. This will support new as-a-service business models, with multiple sub-contractors and partners working on the factory floor. With 5G network slicing, it will be possible to assign a virtual private network to each supplier ensuring complete data integrity. An OEM supplier, for instance, could have its own private network supporting its machinery for monitoring performance and predictive maintenance.
Further on the data security front, being cloud-native, 5G also supports edge clouds or multi-edge computing (MEC), keeping confidential data processing on the local network. Thus, even if 5G services are being provided by a mobile operator or a third-party network provider, critical factory data remains on the premises.
The 5G cloud-native network design leverages IT cloud-computing capabilities. It uses open interfaces and open architectures, supports containerized software and microservices. This enables deploying new applications in an agile fashion and allowing for rapid innovation using DevOps-style development that takes hours instead of months.
This list of highly desirable features for Industry 4.0 is not an accident. Although being touted for consumers as the next-best thing for virtual and augmented reality applications, the real driver behind 5G has always been industrial use cases. The high reliability, predictability and ultra-low latencies of 5G were all designed to meet the needs of the industry to support applications such as autonomous and remote operations, robotic and critical time-sensitive machine-to-machine communications, and video inspection and analytics, AR/ VR for employee training and improved productivity to name a few.
So, when can I get it, you say? You may have noticed that mobile operators are currently rolling out 5G services for consumers. But current versions of 5G (non-standalone or NSA) still require LTE to be run either in the core or in parallel, which is too complex for most industrial uses. Fully standalone 5G, as described above for industrial use cases, is a few years off. In the 3GPP’s schedule of releases, this means releases 16 and 17, which are slated for 2022– 23.
The ecosystem of 5G devices is growing very quickly because of the high degree of interest from the manufacturing community. Some manufacturers are already implementing either LTE/4.9G, which is the next-to-last step, and an easy upgrade to industrial 5G, or 5G NSA. This is an excellent approach for trialing use cases and proofs of concept. In either case, given the time frames involved in adapting manufacturing processes to take advantage of these new Industry 4.0 technologies, 5G is virtually here and the race is on!
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