Image credit: Intel
At yesterday’s Made in 5G event, the Digital Catapult launched its long-awaited Made in 5G – 5G for the UK manufacturing sector paper. As the title implies, the Catapult is looking beyond the current initial 5G deployment, which is understandably targeted at existing hotspots and aimed at superserving smartphone early adopters, towards later phases of both network deployment and 5G technology refreshes. For in those later stages, 5G will begin to offer the features of greatest value to business (supporting sensor clouds, providing ultra low latency, and offering network slicing - although managing many slices simultaneously may prove challenging).
When this functionality becomes available, 5G will offer a huge step up for industry, becoming a crucial component of the 4th Industrial Revolution (AKA Industry 4.0). Connectivity will provide the essential underpinning for command and control of robotics (particularly when operating in proximity to humans), and harvesting mountains of data from sensors attached to every asset (including humans) where it makes sense to attach them, without which no data analytics, no artificial intelligence and machine learning, no predictive maintenance.
Industry 4.0 holds out the promise of raising productivity (where the UK has had a lamentable recent history) and improving health and safety. The Catapult paper categorises industry 5G use cases into 3 clusters:
- On-site and in-factory production optimisation;
- Monitoring and management of goods across the supply chain, including real-time inventory (essential as part of Just-In-Time);
- Connected goods: product life cycle management (including end of life).
The current Worcestershire 5G testbed (funded by DCMS) delivered 1-2% productivity improvements by means of predictive maintenance & Augmented Reality (AR) for service engineers (how to fix stuff or talk to senior engineers back at base). Additionally recent research from Barclays Corporate Banking suggested that 5G could increase annual UK business revenues by up to £15.7bn by 2025.
But before we hear the sound of champagne corks popping at the Treasury, industry has to appreciate what 5G could do for them, what it is unlikely to do for them (and where alternative communications technologies would actually be more appropriate), and who pays for its provision (and in what timescale).
That’s no easy task, but the Digital Catapult has made an excellent start, pulling together a working group comprising a range of manufacturing companies, logistics experts Ocado (who actually operate private 4G networks now), plus equipment vendors. Over many months encompassing roundtables, interviews and an industry survey, the Catapult and this working group have built 5G use cases and, crucially, exposed the considerable knowledge gap within industry.
Quite simply, there is a widespread lack of understanding of the potential value offered by 5G, and the Return On Investment (or, indeed, who would be making that investment, and when). That knowledge gap is a huge barrier to embracing 5G and, unless this is tackled, businesses in the UK risk overseas competitors securing the advantages of upgrading their processes first.
This knowledge gap is especially understandable for the many businesses where connectivity doesn’t currently form part of their R&D plans (indeed, which team was responsible for procuring their current connectivity solutions?). While telecommunications providers (whether Mobile Network Operators or equipment vendors) have a role here, there is a risk that they fail to grasp what business is looking for. Technology push won’t work – industry isn’t looking for the latest bells and whistles, it wants solutions to identified problems.
Systems integrators such as CGI probably have a role understanding industry problems, where regulations (e.g. oil & gas) or special circumstances (e.g. arc welding is a wide band frequency generator) may be relevant, and recommending the network functionality to solve them. Indeed, if they can get the spectrum, SIs are likely candidates to operate many of the future 5G private enterprise networks (not least as MNO 5G coverage is unlikely to reach many manufacturers anytime soon, and may anyway struggle to reach indoors), with a greater appreciation of both demand and supply than most.
However new operators, with their own supply chains, may find it a challenge to maintain private networks at “carrier grade” resilience. In our 5G future, with its promise of substantially everything and everyone being seamlessly connected, could a private 5G network become the weakest link in the chain?
Of course, ensuring industry could make informed decisions on 5G adoption won’t be an easy task, and will require considerable sustained resource, which is why techUK looks forward to working with the Catapult on this.
But this outreach needs to be a simple message into industry and practical, recognising business drivers and that embracing 5G must be done in a way that doesn’t drive a coach and horses through established business processes. That pragmatism also needs to recognise that for SMEs (98% of manufacturers) bespoke probably doesn’t work for them, solutions need to come in a box.
We also need to be upfront in recognising that 5G isn’t the answer to every industry connectivity problem. For example there would be few situations where a business would choose to deploy any wireless technology to pull data from an asset already connected by a wire, such as a wind turbine. And where the use case is to collect small data packets for time series analysis, where neither latency nor capacity is an issue, using 5G may be overkill.
And even when senior management recognise the value, businesses will have an internal comms piece, to ensure that progress towards their 5G-enabled Industry 4.0 future addresses prevailing culture.
Arguably we are quite a few years (and very considerable amounts of investment) away from when MNOs’ network deployment puts them in a position to sell solutions to many UK manufacturers, but industry shouldn’t delay determining where 5G would add value for them, not least as - for quite a few - a private network may be part of the solution.