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Industry 4.0 leveraging on 5G

Robots at work as a team in the factory. In Industry 4.0 robots will be more autonomous and will use AI to organise cooperation among themselves and will share data with the supply, delivery chains and with users creating ad hoc networks as need arise. The flexibility of 5G will be an enabling factor. Image credit: IoT solutions World Congress, Barcelona, October 2017

I have heard quite a few times, often from Operators, that the Industry 4.0 absolutely needs 5G and I saw them explaining that it needs higher speed (capacity) and lower latency.  Now I do not say that this is wrong but I do not see it as a real driver … Industry 4.0 is happening now and 5G won’t be year for a few more years … hence …

Let me share my thoughts on this. Happy to kick off a debate.

In many areas and in many part of the world industry has begun a transformation path, sometimes called Industry 4.0, where hardware and software are decoupled and at the same time integrated along the whole value chain, starting with the supply chain on to the manufacturing, to the delivery chain to reach and permeate the usage phase. Besides, the boundaries between supply/manufacturing/delivery/usage are becoming fuzzy with overlapping and change of flow that are taking the supply chain and the manufacturing to the hands of the user. At the same time the user gets to interact with manufacturing and sometimes he becomes part of a supply chain:

  • The user of a product links into the supply chain to acquire new components the product he is using (services here falls under the broader category of products), or to change some of the ones he is already using, leading to an evolution of his product in terms of functionalities or the way they are used. It is important to notice that for a few products the supply chains linked to the user might be different from the ones linked to the manufacturing of the original product. A digital camera, as an example, might be improved by the user uploading a new software obtained from third parties, a car might improve its performances, and functionality, using a different software for some of its components.
  • The availability of 3D printers at retail and mass market level fosters a creation and integration of adds on to an existing product, a real home-made production, made easier by exploiting an industrial manufactured product. Users communities, partly involving developers, are now taking a major role in several areas, like flight simulators, making available a myriad of software modules that can be integrated by the final user. This latter in some situations becomes a real producer even though he just takes care of the integration of components (partly hardware and partly software). As anyone who tried knows well, this requires some skill (sometimes quite a significant skill) so it is not for everybody but we can imagine some easier ways to do this in the future broadening the set of the last mile manufacturing.
  • The presence of software in many products is exploited by the industry to collect data both on the proper working of the product in the field and on the ways it is being used. These data are sent to the producer (sometimes asking the user’s permission, sometimes forgetting to ask…) and allows the producer to conduct a continuous testing of the product, getting a clear view on what the users actually use and how they use the various functionalities. At this point the producer can plan amelioration for subsequent product releases, take the information into account for the design of new products and, sometimes, provide almost real time amelioration to the existing products. In this sense we can say that the users become an integral part in the manufacturing process.

If we consider today’s available communications infrastructure we ca say that 90%, probably more, of the needs of the whole production value chain are met, either by fixed lines or by 3-4G. If we look at the 5G just in terms of a new system offering higher capacity and low latency it gets difficult to justify its roll out in terms of Industry 4.0 needs.

However, if we look at those elements that are in a way differentiating Industry 4.0 from today’s manufacturing, as outlined before, we can try to look at 5G to see if it can support these change better than current systems:

  • The integration of the supply chain at the user site is already happening (think about the automatic updates of Apps) but the possibility to manage in real time an update or the inclusion of a new software module or the integration of a system that is available in the product ambient may require the management of several communications channels in parallel. Think about a digital camera shooting a photo and in parallel communicating locally with other cameras within a network dynamically created, “ad-hoc”, sharing photos taken from different viewpoints to generate stereoscopic images. This evolutionpath is now clear, think about the iPhone latest models using two cameras to create a photo in software or to the Light L16, a camera equipped with 16 photo sensors that uses multiple parallel shots to create the final image. The sharing of information among systems, like smartphones and robots, is just round the corner and 5G will act as an enabler. Notice that in Industry 4.0 robots will play a major role and likely they will leverage the multiplicity of sensors available in the “pack” sharing the data across data networks dynamically created, thus exploiting 5G functionality.
    Sometimes these local networks will be used to create very low latency connection, a fraction of the latency that will be involved if the communication is handled by the Operator’s network.
  • The possibility to manufacture at the “edge of the network” and share with a local or worldwide community leverages on the existence of “digital twins” that in turns require seamless communication among Clouds and Edges, objects and terminals (imagine robots connected to products through a digital twin in the cloud). We can also imagine production communities, both at factory level and at user level, that are kept seamlessly on line sharing information to ameliorate products. 5G can be that communications fabric, since it is able to connect seamlessly a variety of networks within a single session.
  • The capability of objects to communicate with one another through embedded communications chips is fostered, also in economic terms, by the 5G architecture where the edges can create semi-autonomous networks. A fridge manufacturer will no longer need to package big-internet connectivity support, it will be sufficient to provide a local communications capability, cheaper, knowing that it will be possible to leverage on ambient connectivity, where that fridge will operate. Again, the 5G architecture, with its multi channel, multi network management capability, operating both at local and global networks level, is much suited in these situations than today’s networks.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently Head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital, co-chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until Aprile 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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