High TechApril 6, 2022

Streamlining 5G implementations in factories

The arrival of more robust 5G standards allows manufacturers to finally achieve true Industrial Internet of Things operability in their factories. Untangling decades of custom-connected, limited-purpose networks to make way for 5G is a daunting challenge, but implementation experts are using virtual twins to tame the complexity.
Avatar William J. Holstein

The communication systems that most manufacturers rely on to operate their factories have been cobbled together over decades, with a broad mix of technologies that can be difficult to manage.

It’s a reality that can make the switch to 5G networks complex. 5G benefits manufacturers by delivering the fast, flexible and reliable Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) operating strategies required by fast-changing markets. But disconnect the wrong network in the wrong way and your factory could grind to a halt. That’s a daunting prospect when unexpected downtime already costs manufacturers an estimated $50 billion in lost production each year, according to a recent study conducted for Emerson by WSJ Custom Studio.

How to prevent such a calamity? Some consulting firms and telco suppliers, including Accenture and Nokia, offer 5G network planning with coverage and performance simulation. Those, combined with virtual twins of factory operations, help customers in minimizing the risk when deploying a 5G network.

Combining virtual twins – scientifically accurate and predictive models – into its 5G implementation proposals is an offer Accenture has dubbed “IoT in a box.” By precisely documenting the networks factories already have and how they interact, virtual twins – also known as digital twins – enable consultants and suppliers to test and validate step-by-step paths for replacing them with 5G. Best of all, virtual twins continue to pay dividends long after the 5G transition ends, providing insights for managing current operations and enabling virtual planning and testing for future evolutions.

“If [decision-makers] can simulate in the digital twin to get a credible proof of what the real-world impact will be, that helps them.”

Sanjoy Paul, Managing Director, Systems and Platforms R&D, Accenture Labs

“For a corporate decision-maker, having a digital twin allows him or her to ask, ‘If I replace these parts of the factory with 5G, what impact do I see? What is my return on investment?’” said Sanjoy Paul, managing director of Systems and Platforms R&D for Accenture Labs. “The people who are the decision-makers really want clear evidence. They want to be sure. If they can simulate in the digital twin to get a credible proof of what the real-world impact will be, that helps them.”

5G Benefits for IIoT

The latest 5G standards promise many advantages for manufacturers, including real-time machine control. 5G is roughly 100 times faster than current cellular wireless communications and can support up to 1 million devices per square kilometer, about 10 times more than possible with existing cellular networks. The combination of speed and ubiquity enables significant advantages in maintenance, manufacturing flexibility, and worker safety and training.

Among the benefits identified by Nokia: the ability to understand and control physical assets for improved efficiency, productivity and safety; improved business continuity in the face of shifting market or environmental conditions; improved worker safety, especially where humans and autonomous robots share the same work space.

“Machines on the shop floor operate at a low latency, meaning that the signals from the controller to the machines and vice versa are transmitted very fast,” Accenture’s Paul said. “They measure time in microseconds and milliseconds. Then there are IT systems that collect operational data from the machines on the shop floor, aggregate the data and provide high-level performance metrics in the form of a dashboard view of operations every 30 minutes or once an hour. For these two systems to communicate efficiently, you need a gateway which can translate the information from the machines on the factory floor into something that can be understood and interpreted correctly by the IT system.”

“You want to enable connected workers with real-time data and augmented reality. Providing real-time guidance to workers in the plant . . . will require the ultralow latency and high bandwidth of 5G.”

Guilherme Pizzato, Ecosystem Partner Lead, Nokia

As manufacturing operations evolve from “after the fact” reporting, which occurs every hour or shift, to real-time optimization, which leverages the wealth of real-time data exposed by modern equipment, 5G will be an attractive option. Add the trend toward reconfigurable plants, with mobile equipment being moved around continuously, and 5G becomes an imperative.

Nokia built a virtual twin of its manufacturing process at its factory in Oulu, Finland in 2019. The factory makes the company’s prototype products, including new base stations for wireless systems. Because it is constantly shifting the mix of what it makes, managers must routinely reconfigure its manufacturing lines as well. Relying on fixed cable lines for machine communications, which can require many days to reconfigure, was not an option.

The company originally tried Wi-Fi, but “when you started changing the layout of the factory, you had blind spots,” said Guilherme Pizzato, ecosystem partner lead at Nokia. “The mobile robots were stopping.” Nokia then upgraded the factory to 4.9G, and later to 5G. Now, “the problems are gone.”

A Multi-Step Evolution

Paul and Pizzato, whose companies help factory clients plan and execute their 5G transition strategies, agree that mobile robots, both in manufacturing and warehousing, will be among the first pieces of the manufacturing equation to go 5G.

“Then the cameras, which are put on the factory floor to take pictures and spot possible defects or safety problems, they can be converted to 5G relatively easily,” Paul said. “Smart work helmets [worn on factory floors] will start communicating with 5G. Newer machines on the plant floor will probably come with 5G [pre-installed]. The things last to be connected will be the legacy machines on the factory floor because that carries the risk of disruption. People have to be convinced that going to 5G is going to work.”

For those who can successfully embrace 5G, the payoffs could be enormous, Paul and Pizzato agree:

  • Remote asset monitoring and predictive maintenance. This could arguably be the biggest win for manufacturers. Right now, they are essentially guessing when and how often different machines and systems need to be maintained based on generic schedules. The ability to collect and analyze actual operating data – and warning signs such as increased heat from a component – would help them better predict and schedule what to service when.  While data collection from shop-floor machines, and using artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms to predict maintenance, do not require 5G, the ability to augment operational data with ambient data collected from vibration sensors, temperature and humidity sensors, cameras and other 5G-connected devices has the potential to make the algorithms for predictive maintenance more accurate.
  • Optimization of production and transportation. If management can see how various processes are working together, it can produce more with fewer inputs. Fleet management also could be dramatically improved if Automated Mobile Robots (AMRs) and Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) in the warehouse could be better coordinated with trucks and delivery vehicles on the road.
  • Improved worker safety. With high-definition cameras watching the plant operate in real time and connecting to a computing system that can recognize potential accidents before they happen, a plant can automatically stop the machines before they inflict harm. “If a crane is lifting drums of molten iron or some dangerous goods and a worker is on the floor below, both the crane operator and the worker could be notified,” Paul said. “Or if a worker moves her hands in a drill press in a way that suggests the hands might be hurt, the information could be sent by a sensor over a 5G network and analyzed and a response sent back to stop the drill press.” Current wireless communications systems are neither fast nor reliable enough to achieve this.
  • More powerful worker training. The manufacturing sector is experiencing an enormous knowledge drain as Baby Boomers retire and young people shun the jobs, perceiving them as low tech. “You still have workers walking around with papers to see instructions on how to perform tasks,” Pizzato said. “You want to bring all this to tablets and enable connected workers with real-time data and augmented reality (AR). You don’t want to measure and report your manufacturing operations using Excel and email. Using Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) in worker training, and providing real-time guidance to workers in the plant during maintenance and operations, will require the ultralow latency and high bandwidth of 5G.“

With factories and ancillary operations linked via 5G, less experienced workers who encounter breakdowns or other challenges also can use a tablet computer (with proper security protection) to access troubleshooting guidance in augmented reality or communicate with management or more experienced workers, who may not be physically present, via 5G. The folks with a few grey hairs will be able to see in the virtual twin what has gone wrong and diagnose the problem, then guide the on-site worker through the repair process.

Long-Term Virtual Twin Benefits

As factories implement updates and upgrades, the virtual twins that have enabled each modernization step will update as well, giving management a permanent window into its systems, past and present – plus the power to simulate different operating scenarios for the future.

“With 5G, you can connect all the assets in your manufacturing process,” Pizzato said. “Basically, what you have in the physical world, you will be see in the virtual world.”

Learn more about 5G, IIoT and virtual twins

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