Smart Machines & Factories
How manufacturers can prepare for 5G
Published:  23 October, 2019

Heiko Noll, product manager devices at industrial communication solutions provider INSYS icom, explores what manufacturers should do to prepare their machines and plants for the 5G roll out.

As one of 2019’s most disruptive technologies, 5G has captivated consumers and manufacturers alike as we gear up for faster communication and increased connectivity. But, as excitement mounts, it can be difficult to decipher what the upgrade will do for industrial applications, when it will be available and what the transition looks like for platforms using previous generations of cellular technology.

The rapid growth of cellular technology over the past two decades has changed the way we live, work and communicate. As we stand on the threshold of the latest technological transformation, 5G is poised to be the tipping point that will bring the visions of the industrial internet of things (IIoT) to life.

Today, manufacturing facilities rely on network connectivity to carry out tasks around the clock and conduct real-time monitoring of core processes and equipment. As this increasingly becomes a necessity, strong and reliable connectivity is essential to a plant’s everyday operations.

What is 5G?

Anybody familiar with 4G wireless connectivity can hazard a guess that 5G will be a new, better form of communication. But what exactly does the new technology promise? It seems that speed is the technology’s major boon, but its ultra-reliable low-latency communication (URLLC) will be more significant because it addresses services that require sub-millisecond response times.

5G’s high visibility and ability to host a huge number of connected devices in a small area will also allow it to facilitate massive machine type communication (MTC) with ease. From augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) devices to life-critical autonomous vehicle and machinery sensing, the applications that will profit from 5G are numerous.

Current mobile radio networks have a latency of approximately 100 milliseconds. While this is fast, there is still some lag time that makes real-time communication impossible. With targeted radio latency of less than one millisecond and an availability greater than 99.9%, 5G allows real-time monitoring and instantaneous updates on equipment-condition that are vital for crucial production processes.

Another benefit of 5G is network slicing, which will allow operators to apportion parts of their network for specific customer use cases — whether that’s a smart home, smart energy grid or IIoT factory. This creation of multiple virtual slices allows operators to separate users, devices and applications that require different Quality of Service (QoS) rules and manage them more succinctly.

As each use case receives a unique set of optimised resources and network topology, covering factors such as connectivity, speed and capacity, network slicing will enable the construction of end-to-end tailored networks for a customised digital infrastructure.

Out with the old

It’s time to pull the plug on 2G. The technology that helped provide services went live in 1993 and was the basis for the more sophisticated 3G and 4G networks. By 2019, many mobile network operators (MNOs) are beginning to shut down their 2G networks and in some regions, this even applies to 3G networks too.

The end of 2G and 3G isn’t set to be linear. Because there’s no global plan, there are regional differences and 2G may still be running even where 3G is shut off, so businesses must prepare for the next generation.

Even if a country is cancelling 2G and continuing to provide 3G, some frequencies will undoubtedly be shifted to 5G and will therefore not be available for existing devices. Therefore, it isn’t safe to assume that current devices will work in the future due to these missing frequencies and an equipment update may be necessary depending on where you are in the world.

The good news is that 4G and 5G are designed to be compatible, so devices that currently operate on the fourth generation will also be able to work with the new network.

Staying secure

New IT technologies, such as Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) and Software Defined Networks, will help make 5G networks more efficient. While these technologies add functionality to 5G, they also pose security risks that must be addressed in order to prepare for both the benefits and potential risks of the roll out. A vast array of system-level protections must be implemented to defend against distributed denial of service (DDoS) and other active attacks that may increase as a result of these new technologies.

As we begin to think about how 5G will benefit manufacturing, it’s an ideal time to consider enhancing security precautions to help protect company data. For example, manufacturers may want to vary their processes and opt for multi-authentication login on connected devices.

Manufacturers should also consider upgrading their hardware now - ahead of 5G. Integrating a new industrial router should be a key part of this strategy in order to ensure maximum protection.

The road ahead

It will take time for 5G to become commonplace in industry. But it already makes sense to re-examine current processes with a 5G lens and identify the major gaps for further digitalisation. This will help decision makers to plan ahead and invest in the next generation of equipment in good time.

Wherever imminent hardware upgrades are necessary, investing in secure, future-proof technology as part of your ecosystem will be key. To make the transition into the 5G era as smooth as possible and protect such investments, it’s wise to choose upgradable device hardware from the outset.

5G will eliminate data bottlenecks, enable ultra-high-speed wireless transmission and change the way we handle our data. As the roll out looms, manufacturers should regard 5G, and its associated benefits, as a vital part of their digital strategy. It may take a couple of years for the first real industrial 5G devices to enter the market, but manufacturers should consider how 5G will fit into their current operations and when it could be rolled out.