Here’s how private networks are powering digital transformation across industries

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June 23, 2020
Nick Applegarth

Private Networks Automation 5G

Private networks, and increasingly 5G private networks, are the powerful backbone behind digital transformation in some of the world's largest industrial companies. With low latency, high availability and broad coverage, 5G is fuelling the move towards automation. It’s also helping these companies to embrace the new industrial revolution and implement advanced technologies on their very own networks, throughout their extensive campus environments.

Mobile robots and Automated Guided Vehicles

5G private networks offer lower latency and enhanced coverage (indoors and outdoors) and are not as susceptible to interference as Wi-Fi. As a result, they create the ultimate environment for mobile robots and automated guided vehicles (AGVs), allowing products and equipment to be moved from point A to point B safely and quickly across any large-campus environment. Mobile robots and AGVs elevate what can be a labour intensive and often unpredictable task by automating it, and with a 5G private network the process is infinitely smarter.

A 5G private network has the broad coverage, reliability and ultra-low latency required for autonomous vehicles to be effective

We only need to look at manufacturing giant Whirlpool, which has deployed a 5G private network in one of its North American plants to replace its WiFi network. Previously, its fleet of mobile robots kept stopping as the WiFi signal degraded in certain areas due to factory layout and the prevalence of metal conveyor belts throughout. Mobile robots and AGVs routinely created traffic jams on the factory floor, and were temporarily sidelined as engineers had to investigate. Whirlpool is making the switch to a 5G private network, which has the broad coverage, reliability and ultra-low latency required for autonomous vehicles to be effective.

Virtual reality

Virtual reality (VR), once solely associated with video gaming, is making its way into the industrial space. It has become an invaluable tool for businesses to enhance efficiencies by allowing them to investigate and resolve equipment issues, train on-site personnel to set up specific machines or guide them through a precise activity. Wearing a VR headset, on-site technicians can be guided by the equipment or parts manufacturer to identify and repair a fault. In this scenario, businesses will no longer need to wait for the manufacturer to travel to the site. This vastly reduces downtime and is a boon to production efficiency.

But true VR, with high definition video streaming capabilities, needs super-low latency to eliminate jittering, which can have a nauseating effect on technicians operating the device. A 5G private network, with its high data rates and virtually no latency, ensures the quality of the VR environment.

Asset tracking

Asset tracking is not a new activity; businesses have long been using sensors to keep track of their assets, from wagons, pallets and shipping containers to specific parts or components. Knowing where all assets are is a vital part of the move towards digitisation and automation -- and site safety and efficiency depend upon things being where they need to be, at a set time.

But with WiFi, there are limits to the number of devices a business can keep track of, and signal dropping can mean a business can essentially lose track of key assets at critical moments. A 5G private network means businesses have full visibility of all their devices, in real time. Sensors are wirelessly tracked as they make their way through the supply chain or anywhere in the campus environment, and a central dashboard displays the exact location of each asset. The benefits are obvious for sites such as airports, who are already using private networks to track airfield vehicles and other assets, and to prepare for future developments like autonomous vehicles and remote-control robotics.

Process automation

Smarter businesses have by now taken steps towards automating certain processes. But as we move further into a fully digital world, we expect to see wide-scale automation of processes across a vast range of sectors: everything from manufacturing and pharmaceutical to utilities, energy, logistics and more.

Complete process automation will rely on broad coverage, reliability and of course low jitter or latency. WiFi, though effective in certain environments, is susceptible to interference and unreliability. This unpredictability can result in a process being disrupted at a critical moment

With its comprehensive coverage, and its ability to connect a huge number of devices or sensors, a 5G private network will change the game for process automation.

With its comprehensive coverage, and its ability to connect a huge number of devices or sensors, a 5G private network will change the game for process automation. Across large sites it will enable businesses to monitor and control even the most complex processes by automating sensors such as humidity, pressure and temperature and actuators like valves, pumps and heaters, all visible both from a mobile handset/tablet or via a centralised dashboard.

Machine-to-machine communications

In this automated nirvana, communications will be critical. But rather than humans communicating with humans or machines, the smart site will see machines communicating with each other. This real-time communication will drive through the development of the ultimate flexible site where machines, like mobile robots, will talk to one another, allowing for coordination and seamless movement and production.

For machine-to-machine communication to be effective, connectivity loss needs to be minimal. Even a millisecond loss of connection could lead to a breakdown of communication at a critical moment. And as a range of industries -- including manufacturing plants, ports and airports -- continue to introduce autonomous vehicles, a 5G private network and its ability to effectively connect a large number of machines will be a game changer. The foundations of machine-to-machine are already being laid by advanced shipping ports, where autonomous container handling equipment uses high-reliability private networks to maintain continuous connectivity even in the dynamic quayside environment.

New adaptability for dynamic environments

Today's business needs to be more flexible than ever. The ability to pivot seamlessly, whether that's re-inventing a process or producing a completely different product, can give a business a real competitive advantage. But in the often-inflexible world of industry and large machinery, this can be a challenge.

With no need for cables, large machines, such as printing or packaging machinery, no longer need to live in a set place. They can be moved with minimal disruption to specific locations when required; entire factory setups can be revised faster and more efficiently to accommodate changes in production schedules.

In this wireless environment, 5G private networks deliver the consistent connectivity businesses need to ensure the machines being moved are still connected and operational. And in expansive sites such as the Airbus manufacturing plant in France, there is no need for thousands of access points; a handful of 5G base stations will provide the necessary coverage.

Predictive maintenance

Time is money. Across a range of industries, downtime can result in significant loss of productivity. Today's smart business has a keener oversight of its key machines and equipment and is using that insight to keep on top of maintenance requirements. As businesses continue to automate and rely even more on machines and AGVs, maintenance becomes ever more important.
Through continuous remote monitoring, businesses can view in real time how their equipment and machinery is performing. They can establish what normal looks like and identify early if a machine is under performing and may require maintenance.

By applying predictive models, businesses can essentially predict when their equipment will need maintenance actions. This makes it easier to develop maintenance schedules and can reduce equipment failures, emergency call-out costs and the downtime that comes with production stoppages. A 5G private network, with its connection density and broad coverage, is already enabling large manufacturers and ports to gain complete visibility and real-time insights of their critical machines.

A strategic approach to private networks in your industry

At its heart, digital transformation is about the digitisation of business processes, and for large-campus environments in particular, this means that connectivity must take centre-stage. Daily operations have the potential to become connected, interconnected and automated in previously impossible ways. But that also means that new, strategic partnerships become crucial: it’s essential to work with a partner who offers in-depth radio network expertise, and who understands both the technology and the business challenges it can solve.

At CKH IOD, we have gathered our decades of radio expertise into a Private Networks Centre of Excellence. To learn more about how our radio engineers and solution designers can work with you to create a resilient, fit-for-purpose private network suited to your mission-critical applications, get in touch or request a callback with an expert from our Private Networks Centre of Excellence team.