Nowadays there is a great buzz around the new wireless network technology 5G and the possibilities it will bring to the industry. Reading it makes one believe that this is the first time wireless can be used in industrial applications. But this is not the case. For more than 20 years wireless technologies such as industrial Wireless LAN, WiMAX and the different cellular networks (2G, 3G, 4G) have already been used for various industrial applications. If it is not new, what’s all the buzz about? Is 5G so much better than previous generations? How will future industrial wireless networks look like? Will they be public or private? Or maybe a mix?
About 40 years ago the first cellular networks were released. Their main focus was on enhancing usage in the public domain like mobile phones. Since then a new generation was released every decade. But these only included minor innovations from which the industry could really benefit. But with the 5th Generation cellular network technology this is different. Early on, Siemens, among other industrial players, became part of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) to ensure the industry’s requirements would be met by the upcoming 5G standard.
After all this work the outlook for 5G in the industry is very promising, but we still have some work ahead. Before we look into what the future will bring us let’s look back at where we are coming from and how cellular technology shaped the world we live in today:
- 1979: the first commercial cellular network was launched in Japan
- 1991: the first commercial 2nd Generation (2G) network launched in Finland
- 2002: the first commercial 3rd Generation (3G) network launched in South Korea
- 2009: the first commercial 4th Generation (4G) network launched in Sweden and Norway
- 2019: the first commercial 5th Generation (5G) network launched in South Korea
All these generations of cellular networks made the mobile experience better, with higher bandwidths, higher reliability and lower latency. Starting with 1G it was possible to communicate instantly via voice while being on the road, 2G networks allowed sending text messages, 3G brought the internet from desktops into the mobile devices in our hands and 4G did the same for music and video streaming.
These are all examples of what cellular communication did for us consumers in the public, but did it bring change to the industry as well? Yes, it did! With 1G the use cases for industry were almost non-existent, mainly due to the high costs, the limitation to analog voice and limited overage. 2G brought us text messaging and later even simple data transfer for industrial remote control applications. 3G brought semi-live tele-control and remote access where users could interact with remotely installed applications. And 4G brought full and live remote access, and this is not the end. The focus of 5G will be on higher bandwidths, more connected devices, higher reliability and lower latency.
Potential of 5G
If you follow the news around 5G closely you’ll probably get the feeling that it is the best communication technology developed, as it solves every single issue while being wireless. Most likely, every potential benefit of 5G you read about is true, but what is often forgotten is that not all features of 5G are available right from the start and that in most cases they can’t be combined.
The 3GPP is responsible for the global standardization of cellular networks including the 5th generation. Early in the development of the latest generation a vision for 5G was created. The vision included 3 main scenarios:
- Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB)
- Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC)
- Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC)
The first main scenario eMBB includes enhancements to 4G with the main objective of fulfilling data-driven use cases, which require high data transfer rates and global coverage. A typical example is the growing need for high quality, high definition streaming of music and video to mobile devices like smartphones, virtual reality glasses, etc.
Massive Machine Type Communications as the second scenario focuses on having more devices in a smaller area. An example for a use case are IoT-applications (Industry of Things) where large numbers of connected sensors/devices, which don’t need to send and/or receive data continuously, are deployed in a small area
As most demanding uRLLC is the 3rd scenario with high reliability and low-latency requirements for mission-critical applications. Typical examples include mobile robots, autonomous logistics, automated-guided-vehicles (AGVs), safety applications in industrial control environments, etc.
To keep the promises and maintain a pre-defined timeline 5G is divided in multiple releases. Release 15 was issued in December 2019 and is focused on the eMBB scenario. Release 16 (June 2020) and Release 17 (January 2022) will add support for the remaining two scenarios mMTC and URLLC including industrial applications.
Public vs. Private
As with the main scenarios described earlier there are more variables to deploying a 5G network, probably the most important one will be public vs. private. The first public networks are already available, but private networks for the industry will come only in a couple of years when Release 16 is available and the features for industry are supported.
Private networks will be the key for industry as users own and control their network and are able to “customize” it depending on the use cases it needs to serve. For the different industries URLLC and mMTC could be more beneficial than eMBB. With a private deployment the end-user can determine what parameters are set and run the network in its most optimal way. For such private networks the industry needs to have spectrum available.
In Germany the Bundesnetzagentur (BNetzA) has decided to reserve 100 MHz from 3,7 GHz – 3,8 GHz for local use in industry environments. This gives companies in Germany the possibility to rent spectrum for a reasonable yearly fee. They can use it within their premises and can use the networks by themselves and keep optimal data privacy. Other countries, such as United Kingdom, are looking at the German example, as the ability to use licensed spectrum without having anyone else access it within your campus offers a real benefit for industry and opens the way to the flexible factory of the future.
For 5G to become truly fit for the industry we first need Release 16 now scheduled for June 2020. After that its up to the silicon providers to deliver the first industry-ready chips, which industrial suppliers can use to build industry-grade product portfolios.
Besides the hardware another important factor is the support of solutions for private networks. Such private networks provide optimal security keeping data on premises as well as the most robust and reliable wireless network by leveraging global standards in a self-owned environment. This is important in the industry as reliability equals uptime; a less reliable industrial network potentially results in more interruption of manufacturing processes resulting in production loss. And besides all of that we should not forget the necessary support for industrial protocols like OPC UA or Profinet.
Meanwhile, we are testing the current 5G version in industrial environments to ensure correct functionality no matter how challenging the environment. But all-in-all and looking at all the promises of 5G – low-latency communication, ultra-reliability, more end-devices in a smaller area, public and/or private networks – this new wireless communication standards looks very promising. Especially the private networks based on local use/industry spectrum will pave the way for solutions which weren’t possible before like robots working together instead of side by side or fully autonomous intra-logistic solutions.
5G on its own is well-prepared for implementation in industrial applications but before the green light for the wireless smart factory of the future can be given, we need a trurly Industrial 5G solution fulfilling all requirements for mission-critical applications.
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