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  • By Renee Bassett
  • Cover Story
The network infrastructure is being built and pilot projects have launched. Where does 5G fit in your plan?

By Renee Bassett

Popular U.S. media sources from The Wall Street Journal to television evening news are talking about the coming availability of 5G wireless communications—from a consumer point of view. They are breathlessly describing the download of feature-length films in seconds, the thrill of streets filled with driverless cars, and smart cities that keep you connected no matter where you roam. But there is a whole other world of opportunity for industrial applications, a world where 5G’s high speed, low latency, and ability to handle massive amounts of data is already being tested.

Around the globe, providers like Sprint, Nokia, Verizon, Ericsson, and others have spent millions building the infrastructure for 5G wireless. “Cities will be at the heart of the 5G story,” says Dimitris Mavrakis of ABI Research. “The rollout of 5G services in urban centers, where user densities are highest, will boost the smart city ecosystem and establish a new connectivity platform for consumer services and industrial actors in urban environments.” Suburban and rural areas are expected to take a lot longer to be the focus of 5G service.

Some analysts say manufacturing plants are better suited than cities for 5G, because they can more easily install the equipment needed to create a 5G network on their campus or inside the four walls of a plant. In fact, even though the 5G communications standard will not be set until mid-2020 (which means industrial providers of network hardware will not start producing in bulk until then), 2019 was a big year for industrial 5G announcements. First deployments of industrial pilot projects popped up everywhere from Helsinki, Finland, to Hickory, N.C., and discussions about appropriate applications, emerging standards, and multiprotocol layering (5G working in tandem with Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth, LTE, and other 4G networks) took place around the world.

The Hannover Messe 2019 in Germany and the Smart Automation Fair in Linz, Austria, saw an explosion of interest in and presentations on 5G communications. Launched at Hannover Messe 2018 and with a big presence again this year was 5G-ACIA, the 5G Alliance for Connected Industries and Automation. It is a working group of ZVEI, the German Electrical and Electronic Manufacturers’ Association (see the resources box for more from them).

The network service providers and telecoms have been busy as well. As of November, Verizon had already deployed 5G in 15 U.S. cities and has plans for deployments in up to 30 more in the coming months, according to Dennis Ong, PhD, industrial 5G development manager for Verizon and a speaker at ISA’s Process Industry Conference in Houston. “We’re spending upwards of $15–16 billion this year to deploy 5G and fiber-optic cable,” Ong said. “And we’re not limited to just one sector. 5G is applicable for both consumer and industry.”

Verizon is “co-innovating” with Corning, says Ong, “using 5G and fiber to create the factory of the future” in tiny Hickory, N.C. It helps, perhaps, that this is the location of Corning’s fiber-optic cable manufacturing facility—one of the largest in the world. Verizon has installed 5G ultrawideband service in the plant, which Corning will use to test how 5G can enhance functions such as factory automation and quality assurance.

The companies are also working together to come up with new 5G-enabled applications like machine learning and augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR). 5G’s fast speeds, high bandwidth, and low latency promises to dramatically speed data collection so machines can communicate with each other in near real time, and 5G-connected cameras can wirelessly track and inspect inventory. They will also test how 5G can improve the function of autonomous guided vehicles.

“Together, Verizon and Corning engineers expect to break new ground by identifying which 5G-enabled capabilities offer the most promise in a manufacturing environment,” said Claudio Mazzali, PhD, senior vice president of technology for Corning’s Optical Communications business segment. “This builds on our collaboration with Verizon in a powerful way: Verizon turned to Corning for the fiber, cable, and optical connectivity innovations that are bringing their 5G network to life. Now Verizon is bringing 5G capabilities to a plant where those cable innovations are produced—completing the circle.”

Uses for industrial 5G

On the other side of the world, the Swedish multinational networking and telecommunications company, Ericsson, announced the establishment of 5G-based smart factories in Finland, Sweden, China, and the U.S. Ericsson’s 2019 5G for Business: A 2030 Market Compass Report is being used to “better guide our customers in navigating in the 5G landscape beyond mobile broadband,” said Jan Karlsson, senior vice president and head of business area digital services for Ericsson.

“The findings quantify the value of potential services based on more than 200 use cases and a set of 5G-enabled business-to-business use case clusters. Covered use case clusters include enhanced video services, real-time automation, connected vehicles, and AR/VR remote operations. Use case examples that build up these clusters include real-time operations and monitoring of distributed energy resources, advanced-performance autonomous cars, and auto-pilot driving, Karlsson said.

Announced in June, Ericsson’s own $100 million 5G smart manufacturing plant in Lewisville, Texas, will begin operation in early 2020 using 5G to produce 5G and advanced antenna system radios for sale in North America. Niklas Heuveldop, president and head of Ericsson North America, says, “Fast and secure 5G connectivity will enable agile operations and flexible production.” Ericsson’s 5G industrial operations will include automated warehouses, connected logistics, automated assembly, packing and product handling, and the use of autonomous carts.

At Volvo Construction Equipment’s research and development facility in Eskilstuna, just west of Stockholm, Ericsson teamed up with Swedish telecom company Telia to run Sweden’s first 5G network for industrial use. Remote-controlled machines and automation are among the first applications being tested. The partners aim to further develop the remote control of construction machinery and heavy machinery in real time. They also aim to increase industry efficiency and sustainability through 5G testing.

Operating with a test license, Volvo CE employed a 5G network based on Ericsson commercial hardware and software, including 5G new radio and core products from Ericsson’s 5G platform. According to a spokesman, Volvo CE hopes to apply the lessons learned from the tests at Eskilstuna to its global activities. By minimizing the potential safety risks and downtime associated with sectors such as mining, Volvo CE expects to get closer to its goal of zero emissions, zero accidents, and zero unplanned stops, he said.

AI + 5G to empower employees

Telia, in partnership with software engineering firm Atostek Oy, is also supporting what is being called “the world’s first industrial artificial intelligence [AI] application using 5G technology to assist the assembly of drives.” ABB’s drives plant in Helsinki has about 1,300 employees and is the company’s main facility for the development of low-voltage drives.

The AI application is being applied to the power module assembly line, which is critical to production quality and is particularly demanding for employees because dozens of different versions of the same product are assembled on the same line. According to Simo Säynevirta, country digital lead at ABB Finland, fast 5G connections will provide workers with real-time feedback, helping to improve quality by making assembly significantly easier compared to following work instructions from a paper document.

Atostek, which specializes in industrial applications, is responsible for the computer vision and the AI application. Telia is providing the system’s high-speed 5G mobile connections and the computing capacity needed by the application in its data center. Announced this past spring, the project was expected to be in full-scale production by June 2019.

“The potential of AI is strongest when combined with human expertise, and the goal of supporting employees in a new way is at the heart of this project,” says Säynevirta. “At its best, this real-time quality assurance system not only improves production line quality and productivity, but also reduces the stress associated with human errors, which helps improve well-being at work.”


The traditional separation of communication solutions into process-oriented real-time communication and enterprise communication is disappearing as web technologies and Industrial IoT create additional communication paths. That means data-driven functions, such as condition monitoring and predictive maintenance, are easier to implement.


Autonomous mobile robots

Network services provider Nokia is teaming up with industrial equipment maker Omron and NTT Docomo for what is said to be one of the first 5G trials involving the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). IIoT is considered one of the top use cases for 5G, enabling things like the remote monitoring of production assets and the use of autonomous drones for delivery of emergency services.

The three companies are testing the feasibility of operating a layout-free production line staffed by 5G-enabled autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) working alongside humans. 5G is expected to be a boon for industrial robotics, because the AMRs will get the high-speed, low-latency connectivity needed to communicate with production line equipment and bring components to an exact spot.

During the trial, the AMRs will be trained in real-time using AI. The performance of the human technicians also will be monitored with an AI system that will offer feedback on their movements using machine vision. The goal is to help improve the training of technicians by analyzing the differences of movement between skilled and less-skilled workers.

John Harrington, president and CEO of Nokia Japan, said, “Production lines will be more flexible and adaptable, and productivity on the factory floor can be more easily improved. We are dedicated to helping manufacturers enable this Industry 4.0 vision.”

Takehiro Nakamura, senior vice president and general manager of NTT Docomo’s 5G Laboratories, said “having conducted multiple trials creating 5G use cases with a variety of partners, [I know] factory automation is one of the most interesting and yet challenging fields to explore. We are confident we will be able to prove the feasibility of layout-free factory production lines with autonomous mobile robots and person-machine collaboration.” If successful, the trial will enable factories to rearrange production lines at short notice in response to shorter production cycles driven by fast-changing consumer demands, he added.


In May, ABB announced what it called the world’s first industrial artificial intelligence application using 5G technology. The pilot, implemented in partnership with Telia and software engineering firm Atostek Oy, assists the assembly of drives at ABB’s Helsinki plant.


Chip-level 5G support

U.S. chipmaker Intel helped Nokia and Telia run a series of 5G smart factory tests using a trial 5G radio access network operating in the 28-GHz frequency band. A video application monitors and analyzes a process on an assembly line at the Nokia factory in Oulu, Finland. It uses machine learning to alert the assembly line operator to inconsistencies in the process so they can be corrected. A second trial showed data from the site could be rendered and accessed in real-time at Telia’s data center in Helsinki, 600 kilometers away.

Data was collected and processed close to the assembly line by using multi-access edge computing (MEC) from Nokia and a video analytics application from Finnish startup Finwe. Data was then transmitted across Nokia’s 5G AirScale base stations, operating in the 28-GHz band, and collected in Helsinki using Nokia’s AirFrame data center equipped with Intel Xeon Scalable processors. The data was rendered using Intel’s 5G Mobile Trial Platform.

Nokia said it will continue to use the setup, combining its MEC platform with Finwe’s video analytics across a 4G LTE network at its Oulu factory, and upgrade its software to the 5G Airscale platform in due course. The 28-GHz frequency band and massive MIMO antennas have the low latency and bandwidth needed.

Use of wireless in industry

5G applications are being built with the lessons learned from industrial wireless trials that have come before. “While companies are striving to make their production processes smart, they must consider which communication technology has the qualities to achieve that,” says Marcela Alzin, author of a report from HMS Industrial Network. “The well-known wired solutions cannot cover the requirements of Industry 4.0, and thus wireless systems have entered the next stage. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and the like have been around for some time, but now they are contended by 5G, which promises to overcome the shortcomings of the other wireless systems.”

HMS Networks surveyed 50 international manufacturing professionals in spring 2019 at Hannover Messe to find out “5G: Is the Industry Ready?” It asked professionals about the use of wireless communication in their companies, how they are getting ready for the launch of 5G, and how they felt about industrial wireless technology so far.

As expected, the most widely used wireless technology in industrial production is Wi-Fi. Most respondents (74 percent) indicated that they are using it either on the factory floor or in their products. “Some noted Wi-Fi’s poor quality in factory environments. Some mentioned they hoped for improvement with the introduction of the new Wi-Fi 6 standard,” said Alzin.

Cellular technologies were the second most popular communication technology mentioned. Forty-two percent said they use cellular technologies (GSM, 4G LTE, MulteFire) in some way (in most cases for IIoT/HMI or routers). In addition to that, 39 percent of respondents said they use Bluetooth in their companies, in some cases specifically Bluetooth Low Energy.

A smaller portion (13 percent) mentioned their companies also were using other wireless communication systems, mostly proprietary: ZigBee, SigFox, LoRA, WiMax, etc. “Two respondents mentioned using RFID [radio frequency identification] tags, and 10 percent of the interviewees were not aware of the communication technologies used by their companies and could not answer the question. One interviewee expressed high hopes regarding low-power solutions, such as NB-IoT, while another company referred to solutions based on ultrawide band,” said Alzin.

Important requirements

The HMS Networks survey results showed that wireless systems, especially 5G as a new technology, must fulfill certain requirements to gain trust and acceptance in the automation community, said Alzin. “Some of the requirements go in line with the expectations of the industry toward each communication system (reliability, interoperability, affordability); some of them are new because 5G is a cellular technology (availability of spectrum, end-to-end security, quality of service),” she added.

For the majority of respondents (58 percent), the reliability and robustness of wireless systems play a decisive role, whether they were skeptical or had a positive or neutral response to 5G. Low latency was mentioned as important by more than a quarter (26 percent) of the interviewees. “Interestingly, this feature was indicated more by IT [information technology] people (43 percent) than by OT [operational technology] people (17 percent),” said Alzin. About the same importance was attributed to end-to-end security (22 percent), quality of service (20 percent), and affordability (18 percent).

Sixteen percent pointed out the importance of interoperability with legacy systems, and 18 percent felt that affordability of a wireless 5G solution was important. Some importance (14 percent) was given to the issue of spectrum availability.


The new era of 5G

According to 5G-ACIA, one of the main differences between 5G and previous generations of cellular networks lies in 5G’s strong focus on machine-type communication and the Internet of Things. The capabilities of 5G thus extend far beyond mobile broadband with ever-increasing data rates.

Because 5G supports communication with “unprecedented reliability and very low latencies, as well as massive IoT connectivity,” it paves the way for the next era in industrial production known as Industry 4.0, “providing powerful and pervasive connectivity between machines, people, and objects.”

5G-ACIA contends that, in the long-term, 5G “may actually lead to convergence of the many different communication technologies that are in use today, thus significantly reducing the number of relevant industrial connectivity solutions. Just as there is an ongoing trend toward Time-Sensitive Networking for established (wired) Industrial Ethernet solutions, 5G is likely to become the standard wireless technology of choice. It may, for the first time, enable direct and seamless wireless communication from the field level to the cloud.”

Are you ready?

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About The Authors

Renee Bassett is chief editor for InTech magazine and, and publications contributing editor for ISA. Bassett is an experienced writer, editor, and consultant for industrial automation, engineering, information technology, and infrastructure topics. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism and English from Indiana University, Bloomington, and is based in Nashville.