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Did the pandemic just underpin 5G for Industry 4.0?

Looking at modern communication protocols and how 5G is set to give industry even great capabilities to spread its wings wider, run significantly faster and control even more discrete and connected devices.


It’s clear to those in the process of a digital transformation that this current industrial revolution is all about data. Although this is certainly true, when you look at the bigger picture, it’s obvious that it goes a lot deeper than simple ones and zeros.

You could argue that the operational data we are all leveraging more than ever has always been there. It has been to a certain degree, but we’ve only recently developed the capabilities to locate it, extract it, analyse it, format it, and then disburse it in a meaningful way – especially in the types of volumes we are seeing.

It is for this reason that the unsung hero of this revolution is connectivity. Without this digital backbone, we would not have access to the large amounts of data and information upon which we are now all making vital, real-time operational decisions.

Fieldbus choice

From an industrial standpoint, the ‘fieldbus wars’ of the 1990s and early 2000s created interesting developmental and operational landscapes, where engineers were spoilt for choice, with a multitude of industrial comms protocols linked using wires of just about every colour in the spectrum. But as the clamour died down and parity started to appear, a front runner emerged in the shape of an existing and well-established protocol – Ethernet.

Invented in 1973, Ethernet has seen multiple iterations that have culminated recently in power over Ethernet (PoE) and – coming very soon – a new ATEX-accredited version, which could replace 4-20mA, bringing smart capabilities to explosive atmospheres.

However, one of Ethernet’s biggest capabilities was Wi-Fi. No cables equal far more installation and operational freedom, and high-speed access in more places, as long as you are in the proximity of an appropriate router. Indeed, it is very hard to imagine a world without Wi-Fi.

Now imagine a lack of wireless connectivity in modern industry – especially during the pandemic.

New communication demands, did the pandemic just reinvigorate Industry 4.0?

5g and the pandemic

The pandemic not only rewrote the rulebooks on how we communicated, but it also promoted the tech on medium-term wish lists, giving engineers new immersive tools, as companies rushed to adapt to isolation and the ‘new normal’. Suddenly, tools such as augmented reality (AR), and processes involving virtual interactions leapt from tradeshow novelty to front-line necessity

Industry 4.0 certainly arrived in a timely manner and many companies had already started on their digital transformation, so there was less of a shock to the system. But something else that appeared on time was the 5G cellular standard. What this did was add an extra dimension to isolation, giving us Wi-Fi speeds on a more pervasive cellular network. Even without the pandemic, 5G was set to underpin some massive changes.

AR, VR, and high-definition remote video all need speed and bandwidth, something that Wi-Fi can deliver. But if you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, or cybersecurity prevents you from piggy backing on a local network, 5G is your saviour.

The 5G revolution

Up to ten times faster than 4G, 5G is FM to 4G’s medium wave. Its use of the gigahertz range means it can transfer exponentially more data at faster speeds with lower latency. It can also support far more devices per unit area, and can even use targeted beams to ensure better connectivity.

It is this capability to support more devices at faster speeds that interests power users in industry. Localised 5G networks and secure IIoT connectivity will revolutionise how factories and sites can be linked up, giving every single facet of the supply chain – both internally and externally – access to data and value-add tools and capabilities.

Heading back to Industry 4.0, any digital transformation specialist will tell you that you need to extract all the data, not just some of it. In fact, research suggests that we are only tapping into 20% of the available operational data. This is fine for the time being, in fact, we are already investigating data-volume-mitigation strategies, so having too much this early on may not be all that useful anyway.

But with an eye on the future, data is going to be the single most important asset and tool we can possess, so we will need a more pervasive network that can handle bigger bandwidths and speeds, and this will be 5G. Industry 4.0 is all about putting actionable data in the right hands at the right time, so the right decisions can be made. And this is where it gets interesting because it’s not always going to be us that makes these decisions.

Data-driven artificial intelligence

Machine learning and big data have created a virtual playground for artificial intelligence (AI) systems. Typically, these will rely on terabytes of data before they even start to form the basis of an algorithm or a learning path. You really cannot give too much, as the more you give them the better and more precise they will become. And when they start making better (read: good) decisions, we will start trusting them more, and steadily we will see a migration of human capabilities to areas that will thrive on our creativity and subjectivity.

AI is likely to form a core element of Industry 5.0 and 5G will be a major data funnel for these new capabilities. Decision-making will become decentralised, and more and more capabilities will spread to the edge and even down to commodity device levels. But to make and action decisions, these devices will need a connection to a higher power, fed with BIG data and some hugely impressive AI engines. And these interactions will need to be very broad and very fast to create the real-time benefits that Industry 4.0 promised us.

It is hard to predict what 5G-fed AI, or indeed, other data-driven systems, will deliver, but connectivity will be pivotal, and geography will no longer be a mitigating factor. What is almost certain is that initially AI will be based on a centralised subscription model, where companies will lease capabilities from the big-data companies, so broader communication capabilities to and from local or remote operations will be key, and this is where 5G will carve a very solid and widely adopted niche.

Looking even further into the future, scientists have already developed chips for terahertz waves, which will almost certainly underpin 6G. And 6G is expected to deliver the same sea change in terms of performance as 5G. But it’s fair to say that we have only really scratched the surface of 5G’s capabilities. We have created the data highway, just not the means to fully exploit it yet. The next few years are going to be very interesting!

Favourite things are Family, Music and Judo. Also, I have the ability to retain and quote useless facts, something that pleases me but can annoy others. My engineering hero - Isambard Kingdom Brunel
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