The world is rapidly moving from human-directed manufacturing using computerized assembly lines to largely automated smart factories that manufacture more efficiently using real-time data. Considered by many to be the fourth industrial revolution, or “Industry 4.0,” this transformation requires a bevy of technologies to deliver on its promise of ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC). From smart devices to machine-learning systems to pervasive communications, the need for ultra-high speeds and reliability requires technologies that can connect in a variety of situations while remaining compliant with regional regulations. Technology and telecommunications providers have created a solution—5G private networks—to address the challenge.
The manufacturing industry is exploring 5G technology at an accelerated pace, largely to enable AI-driven use cases such as closed-loop manufacturing, adaptive manufacturing, predictive analytics for maintenance, and extended reality (XR)-based worker training and safety, says Jagadeesh Dantuluri, general manager for private and dedicated networks at Keysight Technologies. “It’s not about a static assembly line performing the same action time and time again, but one that can change based on their needs,” he says. “Private networks essentially enable new business models in manufacturing.”
Yet, the benefits of 5G private networks extend beyond manufacturing. Because the technology offers more reliable connectivity, faster data rates and lower latency, and greater scalability, security, and network control than previous communications technologies, 5G private networks will drive innovations in many industrial and enterprise sectors.
The benefits of 5G private networks
A private cellular network is built on 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP)-defined standards (such as LTE or 5G), but it offers dedicated on-premise coverage. This is important for remote facilities where public networks do not exist, or where indoor coverage is not robust. A private network also makes exclusive use of the available capacity; there is no contention from other network users, as on a public network. Private operators can also deploy their own security policies to authorize users, prioritize traffic, and, most importantly, to ensure that sensitive data does not leave the premises without authorization.
The dedicated nature of 5G private networks coupled with a customized service, intrinsic control, and URLLC capabilities provides more reliable industrial wireless communication for a wide variety of use cases, Dantuluri says “Applications include wireless, real-time, closed-loop control and process automation, and AI-based production and AR/VR-based design for onsite and remote workers,” he explains. “In addition, low-cost connectivity allows sensors to become easily deployed in a wider variety of scenarios, allowing businesses to create innovative applications and collect real-time data.”
The industrial sector is driving toward a massive digital transformation, and the integration of information-technology (IT) systems with operational-technology (OT) systems will speed up this process. Digital technologies will also enable many new use cases, such as automated manufacturing.
A 5G private network enables a facility to synchronize and integrate tracking data into its workflow, allowing production lines to be configured in real time, says Dantuluri. “Since the factory’s assembly lines and infrastructure, such as robotic arms, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs), and sensors, are wirelessly connected, configuring or moving assembly elements on demand is much easier. This use case demands highly reliable, low-latency wireless connectivity and coverage, and potentially high data rates in both the uplink and downlink, and maybe support for Time Sensitive Networks (TSN) in the future. This use case application can only be achieved with 5G private networks.”
Outside the industrial sector, 5G private networks enable mobile augmented-reality (AR) and virtual-reality (VR) applications, allowing, for example, engineers to view superimposed blueprints, soldiers to have heads-up displays, and businesses to have virtual meetings in the field or working remotely. “If a machine has to be repaired, and a technician or a factory worker has AR goggles, they can have technical information superimposed on the real-world device to see what is wrong,” says Dantuluri. “And the data center can send instructions about how to do the repairs, step by step.”
As enterprises realize the benefits of pervasive, low-latency, high-bandwidth, and secure connectivity, the applications of 5G private networks will expand. By the end of 2024, analysts expect investment in 5G private networks will add up to tens of billions of dollars. A separate analysis by the research arm of investment firm JP Morgan predicts that the global enterprise opportunity for 5G will exceed $700 billion by 2030.
5G private networks have improved upon previous 4G standalone network security and are better able to address several existing security threats. Like most new technology, 5G private networks will likely have security issues that need to be addressed, but security has become a primary consideration in both developing the standards for 5G and in the implementation approaches. In addition, companies can further augment those security features with novel technologies, such as more robust encryption schemes and zero trust architecture, as private networks afford complete control to its owner—a benefit not possible on public networks.
The focus on improving security will drive new and innovative applications, especially in high-security areas such as seaports and airports, says Dantuluri. “Private networks provide the flexibility of movement that seaports require,” he says. “In airports, after a plane lands, engine data can begin downloading before the plane even docks to the gate, which saves a lot of time and helps airlines stay on schedule.”
Most manufacturing robots are tethered to wired networks, but improved connectivity and better security means that connected devices can more easily move around and stay connected to necessary systems and data. In addition, 5G networks are built to allow devices to remain connected when moving between cells, whereas many Wi-Fi networks require devices to reconnect after moving.
This advantage pays off in scenarios where a large area needs to be covered by a wireless network, Dantuluri says. “Facilities like mines, airports, and seaports require significant geographic coverage in the order of several square kilometers,” he says. “Other wireless technologies have very limited range, making them unsuitable for these use cases.”
In addition, there are benefits for remote applications as well. Today, most offshore oil rigs, for example, rely on separate satellite communications and local networks. Not only are 5G private network connections more secure and interoperable, but they reduce the cost of hybrid communications, combining local area, cellular, and satellite networks.
A revolution in connectivity
Industry has quickly evolved over the past two decades, from steam-powered machines automating manufacturing, to assembly lines simplifying production, to computerized systems creating more precise products. Machine learning and fast, reliable connectivity promise to make the next industrial revolution, Industry 4.0, possible.
Every industry will apply Industry 4.0 advances to help improve their operations. 5G private networks will be crucial to that effort. “Today, automation is significant, but is all done with wires, so systems—industries, robotics, sensors—are difficult to quickly customize,” says Dantuluri. “As 5G private network adoption increases, all systems will be automated and connected with low-latency wireless, which will enable adaptive business models.”
This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.