Unplugging the Future: Leveraging 5G to Interconnect the Factory Floor

Cabling has long been a critical element of industrial automation and the factory floor that requires considerable thought, including routing challenges, bend radiuses, and maximum supported lengths — and that’s just for starters. We rely on cabling for moving data, supplying power, and facilitating communication between devices and their hosts. Historically, cables have been co-located on factory floors or directly within industrial automation equipment and vision systems. System designers and those responsible for creating today’s industrial automation technology, however, have long envisioned a time when wireless capability would mature to a point that would make all those cables unnecessary — and that time has arrived. But, now that the ever-increasing presence of robotics in automation has forced the adoption of wireless technologies, there’s a new collection of technical and performance challenges that need to be met.

5G Cellular vs 5GHz Wi-Fi

When we think of wireless technology today, most people think of 5G — but does the term mean the same thing to everyone? In the wi-fi world, people sometimes confuse the 5GHz band of a local wi-fi network for 5G. The 5GHz wi-fi band offers higher throughputs than its 2.4GHz companion at the expense of shorter range and is a technology deployed on an unlicensed spectrum with relatively weak signalling, free for anyone to use simply by purchasing a router and configuring it accordingly.

5G, on the other hand, is the 5th generation of cellular network technology that makes use of licensed spectrum bands. Large cellular carriers in the US and abroad license these bands and then invest significant capital to build infrastructure capable of transmitting those signals across vast areas serving entire populations. As the industry looks to recoup their technology investments, though, it’s become apparent that simply raising the cost of cellular service to consumers won’t suffice. That’s why some carriers — recognizing the capability that this new technology brings — are now seeking commercial opportunities within industry that haven’t previously existed.

Decentralized Processing with the Edge and the Cloud

Edge computing continues to advance as small form-factor industrial PCs (IPCs) show greater ability to handle the processing demands of sensor and image data. These edge devices are often responsible for a specific set of requirements: facilitating decisions or processing data, and sometimes handing that result to a remote system, which may be either physical or cloud-based. Depending on use-case, 5G may be an excellent choice for interconnecting edge devices across multiple systems, enabling an efficient and effective means of transferring results and processed data to the cloud for further processing or storage.

Major 5G carriers are coming to market with network cloud/fog solutions known as multi-access edge computing or mobile edge computing (MEC). This technology promotes the idea that edge computing can be managed by MEC infrastructure using 5G communication and implemented as a public or private 5G network targeting the automation, safety, and security segments.

Bandwidth, Reliability and Security Creates Options

5G networks are well-suited for use in high-value applications due to their enhanced throughput, security, and coverage reliability. Total cost of ownership versus alternatives is advertised as reasonable while bringing enhanced benefits over a traditional wi-fi implementation, creating an opportunity to establish advancements in communication and data transfer within the factory.

Protocols such as MQTT promote the idea of autonomous vehicles in the real world maintaining constant communication with one another; this could be particularly beneficial with autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) or automated guided vehicles (AGVs), facilitating communication between devices and the exchange of information critical to their navigation and decision-making. It could also alert them to obstructions, faults, or challenges. This sort of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) or vehicle-to-anybody (V2X) interconnectivity utilizing 5G for reliable flow of communication between devices could represent significant improvements over a traditional wi-fi network.

The rapid adoption of industrial Internet of things (IIoT) technology presents yet another avenue worth exploring. IIoT promises to reduce machine downtime through predictive maintenance and increase product quality and manufacturing efficiency through more intelligent decision making. 5G offers a compelling platform on which to leverage these benefits through interconnectivity and device aggregation on a telecommunications platform.

Not Without Limitations

Many aspects of industrial automation and machine vision rely on deterministic communication and data transfer with low, predictable latency. 5G represents a significant improvement in bandwidth and latency over its predecessor, but still carries the variability associated with being a wireless technology. In many machine vision applications, latency must be deterministic and jitter (the delay between latency events) must remain constant. The availability of bandwidth must also be sustained in many of these scenarios and, because on this, mission-critical applications — as well as those that make use of vision sensors with stringent timing requirements — continue to be best suited for physical cabling.

The Future is Bright

5G has the potential to drastically alter many industries. The high data rates and fast transfer speeds, reduced latency, and ability to connect huge numbers of devices contribute to increases in system simplicity, enhanced worker safety, and reduced costs. As the technology evolves and industry continues to experiment with and investigate its capability, we should expect to see growth in its adoption and deployment across the automation landscape.