Broaderband: 5G trials point the way to future of industrial connectivity27 May 2021 - gkm_photo

Trials of wireless data networks aim to prove out that its promised data rates live up to expectations in the real world. By extension, they explore how, if they do, industry will change as a result. By Toby Clark

5G is the new standard for wireless data on your mobile phone — allowing you to stream Line of Duty or Strictly Come Dancing more reliably than ever before. But is it more than that?

According to some of the statements coming from research groups and telecoms firms, 5G is a massive step change in communication, which will bring about a transformation in industry. For instance:

“5G is the underpinning connectivity technology that helps converge Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) to enable the benefits of the fourth Industrial Revolution.”

This quote is from a government-backed ‘Factory of the Future 5G’ project, which is establishing a set of case studies mainly focused on aerospace manufacturing, based at the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) North West in Preston.

Project leader Dr Aparajithan Sivanathan says: “Unlike a typical research project, one of our key objectives is to establish a testbed; this will be a sandbox environment to experiment with the 5G technology in a manufacturing context”. The intention is to test some of the most significant challenges for 5G in manufacturing: “increasing bandwidth, decreasing latency, ensuring security across a robust network and augmenting supply chain transparency, ensuring future industrial sustainability”. The project will also aim to demystify the technology.

There are many trials around the world looking at the potential of 5G in an industrial setting — often coupling it to the idea of ‘Industry 4.0’. But if previous generations of mobile technology haven’t prompted such excitement, what’s so different about 5G?

The ‘Factory of the Future 5G’ project (or ‘5G-FoF’) is based around five use cases, each of which could be applied to a variety of high-technology manufacturing systems. Each involves a technical challenge and aims for a specific result. For example, one use case is real-time monitoring and adaptive closed-loop control. Here the challenge is to reduce the cost and time associated with defects and quality issues, and to move toward a ‘no-fault’ manufacturing system. The specific aim is a reduction of 15-25% in the number of defects, amount of waste generated and machine downtime — coming from improved process precision and predictive maintenance strategies.

The other four use cases are: digital twin track and trace; factory ecosystem monitoring; chain of custody system; hybrid reality spaces.

According to the project leaders, “5G is the only connectivity technology that can enable all five use cases, with different technical requirements, equipment and data”. Competing technologies are seen as inadequate in one way or another. Wi-Fi is criticised for having limited coverage, and being unreliable and insecure; ethernet is large and inflexible; 4G offers only regional connectivity and insufficient bandwidth; while short-range wireless tools such as Bluetooth offer only limited devices and range.


So what exactly are 5G’s capabilities? Well, it’s fast: average 5G download speeds in the UK are typically 100-200Mbps at the moment — that’s around 5 to 10 times faster than a 4G network, and comparable with a standard ADSL broadband link (upload speeds are rather lower in both cases). But as more spectrum becomes available in the next few years, speeds could get much higher: OFCOM suggests that 10-50Gbps is likely — that’s faster than a fibre broadband setup, and quick enough to download a 4K film in a few seconds.

In comparison, the latest 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) standard offers speeds of just 1-2Gbps, and 10GbE Ethernet runs at 10Gbps; only fibre Ethernet is likely to outpace 5G.

Speed is not the only factor: latency — the network’s response time after a request for data — can be critical. Online gamers are familiar with this issue, but it really matters for fast-changing cases such as high-speed machine monitoring. A public 4G network typically has a latency of 35ms, and the first 5G networks showed about half this figure, but theoretically a 5G networks can get down to around 1ms.

For industrial use, a private 5G network must not interfere with public 5G systems, so it needs to operate at a designated frequency. In the UK, OFCOM has dedicated the 3.8-4.2GHz band for local networks.

Sometimes there needs to be a tradeoff between raw upload/download speed and latency, and this is where network slicing comes in. Network slicing allows a single physical 5G network to be subdivided into separate virtual networks — each only accessible by designated users — which can be optimised for particular functions: high bandwidth/high latency for video capture, for instance, or low latency/low bandwidth for monitoring critical sensors.

5G is potentially extremely robust, too: devices can connect to multiple base stations simultaneously, eliminating dead spots. And the network is said to meet the ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC) standards required for critical applications like autonomous cars and remote surgery: this demands latency of 1ms and 99.999% reliability.

However, security issues are more contentious. While 5G is designed to allow sophisticated control of access to devices — particularly on a private network — and its high bandwidth allows for sophisticated encryption, some commentators have suggested that having a large number of connected IIoT devices makes a system vulnerable.

Chris White, project lead of Ford’s 5GEM project (see sidebar) says: “Connecting today’s shopfloor requires significant time and investment. The technology used is inflexible and bespoke. It can often be viewed as the limiting factor in reconfiguring and deploying reliable manufacturing systems. 5G presents the opportunity to transform the speed of launch and flexibility of present manufacturing facilities”.


Ford’s 5G-Enabled Manufacture (5GEM) research project focuses on ‘the use of 5G in manufacturing to connect machines allowing real-time feedback, control, analysis and remote expert support’. Two private 5G networks will be installed at Ford’s Dunton facility and at TWI in Cambridge. Ford will focus on the connectivity of welding processes used to build electric vehicles, with welding specialists TWI potentially offering simultaneous help via 5G.

Like the ‘Factory of the Future 5G’ project, this project is supported by the UK5G national innovation network, which has the role of promoting ‘research, collaboration and the industrial application of 5G in the UK’. This is funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), but is said to be an impartial body, with an independent advisory board.


Industry 4.0 (or, more grandly, the Fourth Industrial Revolution) is a term devised in Germany around ten years ago to describe the transition of manufacturing and other industry to a fully, constantly connected model. It encompasses the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and large-scale machine-to-machine communication (M2M). Some of the systems commonly associated with Industry 4.0 include:

  • Machine vision systems to monitor industrial processes
  • Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and 3-D bin picking to improve logistics within factories
  • Augmented reality (AR) glasses to help workers perform more effectively
  • Real-time process analysis and control, using many connected sensors.


HMS Networks has released one of the first commercially-available industrial 5G routers optimized for industrial private networks — it is initially compatible with Ericsson’s Industry Connect platform. The Wireless Router 5G allows users to get started with 5G-connected devices in their own location, and is available as part of a ‘starter kit’ for testing and evaluating industrial use cases. The router is said to ‘enable users to create a robust cellular connection in an industrial production environment’. The starter kit also includes two industrial IO-Link sensors sending data across the 5G network.

William Dalrymple

Related Companies
Ford Motor Co

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