Published in Manufacturing

As West Michigan manufacturers begin 5G adoption, widespread use could be decades off

BY Sunday, February 02, 2020 06:45pm

In the coming decade, the connectivity of smart factories will rely on next-generation 5G wireless technology. 

As the upcoming standard in digital connectivity, 5G has the power to “radically transform” the manufacturing sector, according to the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, which recently named 5G one of the trends to watch in 2020. Manufacturers will be some of the first adopters to take 5G beyond the personal device through applications in Industry 4.0, according to the report. 

Future smart factories will rely on 5G for connectivity technologies like automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT). 

“Long term, 5G will have a significant impact on manufacturing and the flexibility to connect devices on the factory floor,” said Aaron Kamphuis, data analytics and IoT practice manager at Open Systems Technologies Inc., a Grand Rapids-based tech consulting firm. 

However, it’s going to take at least a few years for 5G networks to have a measurable impact on high-tech manufacturing, Kamphuis told MiBiz

“The infrastructure needs to be deployed, the people who are building connected industrial equipment are going to have to adopt that technology before it’s really going to get into the field, and people have to buy into it,” he said. “These are long cycles.”

5G networks can be built in different ways from multiple bands of the low-, mid- and high-band wavelength spectrum. High-band frequencies on 5G have greater bandwidth and will increase speed and data limits to be capable of collecting data from hundreds of connected devices. 

However, the transition to 5G technology will take more time than people may expect, even though cell phone companies seem to be in a race to cover the globe in the next-gen network, Kamphuis said. 

The four leading U.S. wireless companies — Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — began wide deployment of 5G last year, starting with major metropolitan areas. Each of the four companies reported increases in capital spending toward delivering 5G to the nation. Combined, the companies recorded total capital expenditures of $55.71 billion during 2018, up from $53.72 billion in 2017, according to financial and analytics company S&P Global Inc. 

In July 2019, Atlanta became the first city to have 5G available from all four carriers. Following Verizon Wireless’ rollout of 5G in Detroit, also in July 2019, the company expanded the new technology to Grand Rapids in December — making it the second 5G-connected city in Michigan. Some industry watchers expect that all of the carriers will have some form of coast-to-coast 5G coverage by the end of this year. 

Even so, that coverage may still be too unreliable for manufacturers to reasonably bite the bullet and invest in upgrading to the new technology, according to Kamphuis. 

“Rolling out 5G is going to take a long time,” he said. “If you’re a very large company, you might not be able to rely on it as a universal solution across your footprint. It might take a decade or longer.” 

In particular, that timeframe could pose problems for companies that must invest in 5G infrastructure in buildings that they lease or may not continue to occupy over the long term. 

As with previous standards, like 4G, 3G and LTE, the covered areas of 5G are divided into cells. High-band frequencies are able to carry more data but require cell sites to be in close proximity. They also have limited penetration in buildings. 

5G could also pose an increased cybersecurity risk because it is a software-driven network, according to a recent report from the Brookings Institution. Still, it may also be the “last physical network overhaul” for the foreseeable future, because upgrades will be only a matter of updating or replacing software and low-cost, commodity components, according to the report. 

Making moves

Some manufacturers are speeding up the adoption process by partnering with specific U.S. wireless companies to create private 5G networks within individual facilities. 

“If you’re a large buyer, you could get early traction with a provider to influence how much coverage you have,” Kamphuis said.

Representatives from Grand Rapids-based furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc. (NYSE: SCS) said the company is partnering with Sprint to study how 5G will affect the way their office customers work, as well as how the new networks can advance safety and predictive maintenance in the company’s factories. 

“We have a long history of experimenting on ourselves before deploying solutions to our customers,” Steve Miller, chief information officer at Steelcase, said in a statement. “By working with industry leaders … we can develop and test prototypes of future solutions for the office and our factories that have the potential to change the way we support our customers.”

Benton Harbor-based Whirlpool Corp. (NYSE: WHR) confirmed to MiBiz that the company is deploying 5G at a factory in Ohio — with the help of AT&T — as a solution to driverless vehicles that were backing up production due to spotty Wi-Fi connectivity. The project is still in development, with the first phase covering a reported 200,000 square feet in the center of the plant and connecting up to 100 vehicles. 

Global tech market advisory firm ABI Research predicts that by 2026 there will be 5.3 million 5G connections on factory floors that will generate more than $184 million in revenue globally. 

IoT product manufacturers and developers also will be keeping an eye on the rollout of 5G this year, said OST’s Kamphuis. While service availability and coverage will limit factory floor adoption of 5G to small-scale projects in the coming year, smart product manufacturers will be looking for ways to add 5G value onto the products that they will be making in the years to come, he said. 

“Right now, transmitting data is one of the biggest limiters in IoT,” Kamphuis said. “(5G) will start opening up all these use cases around things like real-time control, new types of data including live video streams, high-density machine-generated data. Whereas today we would have to super economize what you can do to make it affordable across the networks, the amount of data that you can transmit across a fully realized 5G network is absolutely amazing.” 

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