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An interconnected industrial environment in which data is transferred in near real-time requires a reliable communications network that can withstand the disruptive environment of the factory floor. For the first time, a wireless network has been developed with the capacity to provide reliable wireless communication to the factory floor. 5G and deterministic Wi-Fi was developed specifically for the industrial sector.
5G, Industrie 4.0 and the industrial factory
The interconnectivity, data transfer, and automation that Industrie 4.0 defines is reliant on the transfer of large data sets from machine-to-device, machine-to-machine, and machine-to-cloud. While wired connections – and to some extent 4G networks – have filled the gap, they’ve come with specific limitations.
Setting up wired networks is no longer an expensive venture. In small factories, the amount spent in designing and integrating wiring for individual pieces of equipment and a centralized platform is rather affordable but comes with multiple challenges. One of these challenges is the lack of mobility that comes with wired networks. Installing new devices or equipment means running new cables to plug the new item into existing frameworks. In larger factories, this increases operational cost.
Wired networks are also dependent on location due to the architecture behind their deployment. Factories in remote regions will struggle to make use of wired networks or spend an enormous amount of time and money setting cables to reroute the network from a central mast to a remote location. The challenges that location-wired networks face introduces some of the issues associated with 4G networks. 4G also relies on centralized masts to function. The farther away a location is from any 4G mast, the less reliable is the network within that location. Private 4G networks also exist, but the relatively high cost of setting up the infrastructure required for a private network makes it less attractive to small and medium-sized businesses.
Another challenge includes dealing with the inherent disruptions that occur on the average factory floor. These disruptions refer to the electromagnetic waves produced by factory operational processes and equipment. The constant need for real-time communication within an Industrie 4.0-enabled factory means any connectivity delays will lead to downtime and other inefficiencies. It is also worth noting that the 4G network was developed primarily for cellular use which is why many factories still rely on wired connections to this day.
5G and deterministic Wi-Fi is expected to change all the above limitations. 5G networks are designed with an industry-first outlook which can be seen in their architecture. Unlike wired and 4G networks, 5G architecture is decentralized. The large mast that beams a network across its location has been replaced by a portable box and an extensible method which allows the user to carry a 5G network to wherever a factory is located, regardless of how remote the location is.
Although you probably know this, it’s worth mentioning that communication giants such as Ericsson believe 5G networks will be 100 times faster and more reliable than both wired and 4G networks. This means data transfers will happen at unprecedented speeds and it is this important feature which is key to understanding the benefits of Industrie 4.0.
Key considerations when introducing 5G and deterministic Wi-Fi to your factory floor
As expected, cost is one of the most important factors that factory owners consider when implementing new technology solutions within the factory. The most expensive aspect of rolling out 5G lies in purchasing and setting up the required infrastructure. Factory owners will need to set up the macro or small cellular boxes that are IP-enabled to take advantage of 5G. Although a few types of private 4G infrastructure can be used to support 5G networks, the base infrastructure will need to be updated, and this comes at a cost. The need for an update is due to the data packet transfer limitations associated with 4G infrastructure. 5G is expected to be 100 times faster and, to achieve this, high-speed routers and switches, and some internal fiber roll-out will be required.
The second challenge relates to the configuration or placement of network intelligence within the factory floor to optimize the speed that 5G networks enable. Factory owners must develop an actionable road map that takes into consideration the available edge frameworks, cloud frameworks, on-premise computing platforms, and how these entities interact with one another. An optimal deployment strategy will also reduce the effects of interference on 5G networks from sources that produce electromagnetic waves.
The security of 5G networks is a consideration that factory owners must plan for because of the increased and complex cyber threat landscape that the industrial sector currently faces. The threat landscape includes the security challenges legacy equipment poses due to technical limitations such as systems with programmable logic controllers, remote terminal units, the anomalies caused by operator negligence or human error, and the activity of cybercriminals looking to take advantage of network vulnerabilities.
Successful breaches of factory networks can lead to extensive downtime, loss of sensitive data, and, in extreme cases, facility-wide shutdowns. In order to combat security challenges, 5G vendors play an important role in developing security licenses and standards that protect 5G networks.
Private 5G and deterministic Wi-Fi provides the best option in terms of security because it supports the user’s ability to integrate layered security protocols at varying levels of the manufacturing process. Thus, enquiring about the security features a 5G vendor provides is recommended.
The smart factory of the future is one that will be powered by 5G and deterministic Wi-Fi. 5G offers the reliability, mobility, and affordability that factory owners will require to successfully implement Industrie 4.0 business models. As the transition to 5G continues to accelerate diverse security features and strategies will also be developed to deal with the real security threats that come together with communication networks.