Few manufacturing trends in recent years are as buzzworthy or as promising as Industry 4.0. This data-driven industrial revolution promises to make factories a safer and more efficient place, but today’s technology can’t see it through. While currently connected factories are a marked improvement, manufacturing needs better cellular connectivity to experience Industry 4.0 in full.

With more than 50 billion IoT devices in the world, today’s connections will soon be insufficient. Manufacturers can already integrate many IoT technologies into their facilities, but modern connections may not support bigger busier networks. That’s where 5G IoT comes in.

5G will take the IoT to the next level. This upgrade is particularly beneficial for manufacturers. Here’s a closer look at how these new networks will revolutionize Industry 4.0.

Shortcomings of Hard-Wired Connections

Some people may push back against the onset of 5G networks. After all, the U.S. needs eight times the infrastructure to support these new connections, which may seem too substantial an inconvenience. Why switch to cellular networks for Industry 4.0 when hard-wired connections already provide such speed and reliability?

While fixed connections do present some advantages of wireless ones, they come with their fair share of shortcomings. In a factory, where people and machines are continually moving, physical wires present a problem. Someone could easily unplug an ethernet cable, jeopardizing any mission-critical operation relying on it.

Hard-wired connectivity also limits flexibility, which is a problem many facilities already have in excess. If a factory needed to reorganize or adjust its operations, it would take time to cost money. Since many new technologies only support wireless connections, sticking to a hard-wired system could restrict facilities to legacy tools.

Physical connections, although reliable, aren’t suitable for manufacturers. Wireless connectivity is a necessity, and 5G provides the kind of wireless network the industrial IoT needs.

How 5G Improves Cellular Connectivity

The advantages of wireless over ethernet connections are evident, but why is 5G necessary? The fifth generation of cellular networks benefits IIoT in three primary ways: speed, latency, and bandwidth. Each of these improves with 5G, and each is essential for the IIoT to work.

Experts expect 5G to be at least 10 times faster than today’s 4G LTE connections. Some have even predicted it will be as much as 100 times faster. Such a tremendous increase in speed would make it possible to run virtually any operation online.

With near-zero latency, these connections would also be far more reliable for handling mission-critical workloads. Many companies may be hesitant to move some functions onto the cloud in fear of disruption on current networks. They wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore with 5G.

Finally, an abundance of IoT devices requires a considerable amount of bandwidth. That’s one of the most significant barriers to IIoT adoption today, but it wouldn’t be an issue with a 5G-powered IoT. 

The Internet of Everything

That bandwidth upgrade is one of the immediately noticeable advantages of 5G in manufacturing. Since it can support more devices in the same area, manufacturers can implement IoT devices on a massive scale. The industry could move beyond the IoT into the internet of everything (IoE).

In the IoE, everything including processes and sometimes people is online instead of a few physical devices. Imagine a factory where every machine, product, utility, and function can communicate on a single network. This level of connectivity would be impossible without the bandwidth improvements of 5G.

If the IoT makes manufacturing more efficient, then the IoE will revolutionize it. In a sense, everything in a factory is already connected since a mistake at one point can disrupt the entire process. The IoE would give facilities the ability to see and react to these mistakes before disruptions happen.

Predictive Maintenance

One of the most promising benefits of the IIoT is being able to perform predictive maintenance. Instead of repairing machinery as it breaks, sensors communicate when it might need attention. This practice is possible with today’s networks, but 5G can enable it on virtually every machine in a facility.

Even a regular maintenance schedule isn’t always optimal for machines’ health. Too many factors can affect a system’s condition, and maintenance needs, even if frequent, rarely occur on a schedule. Constant monitoring and analysis is the best solution, but running these sensors on several pieces of equipment takes a lot of bandwidth.

On a 5G network, bandwidth wouldn’t be an issue so that manufacturers could use widespread predictive maintenance without worry. Since this gives machines 10 to 15 more days of availability a year, this would lead to a considerable boost in productivity. The savings from this application alone would make up for the cost of 5G infrastructure.

Remote Monitoring and Service

The sensors within a machine aren’t the only part of monitoring and maintenance that would improve with 5G. On a cellular network, workers could look at monitoring data no matter where they are. This accessibility isn’t only convenient but would also save time workers would otherwise spend walking to each machine to check on it.

Remote monitoring doesn’t just apply to machine maintenance, either. Data analysis is a cornerstone for many business practices today, and being able to do so remotely makes data-driven processes far more flexible. Companies could show real-time data to investors, share information with analysts while out of the building, and more.

Not only would workers be able to look at data remotely, but they could also act on it. 5G IoT devices could run troubleshooting and even basic repairs without workers needing to be physically present. With these advantages, manufacturers could make service a far more efficient process, reducing downtime and saving money.

Automated Guided Vehicles

5G networks in cities could finally make self-driving cars a reality, thanks to its speed, bandwidth, and low latency. Manufacturers can take advantage of this benefit before municipalities, enabling more automated guided vehicles (AGVs) in their facilities. Some factories already use AGVs, but Wi-Fi can’t support too many of them, limiting their usefulness.

With 5G in manufacturing facilities, it would be possible to run an entire fleet of AGVs. Numbers aside, the lower latency these vehicles have, the better since any network disruptions could hinder their navigation. If these are to work safely alongside people, they need a reliable network.

Despite their efficiency and safety benefits, AGVs haven’t seen high adoption rates in manufacturing. Nonmanufacturing environments have deployed more than 12 times as many AGVs as manufacturers as of 2018. The onset of 5G networks could make these technologies viable for more facilities.

Operational Flexibility

Flexibility is becoming increasingly critical for manufacturers, but the industry is historically inflexible. Today’s market expects on-demand, personalized service, and products, which requires manufacturers to adapt quickly to changes. Since cellular connectivity enables further automation, it leads to greater flexibility, thanks to higher efficiency.

Automation predates 5G by decades, but 5G makes it more reliable and efficient. Its benefits in maintenance, communication, and accessibility enable manufacturers to use more robots and efficiently. As a result, facilities can move toward a more on-demand model, cutting down on in-house inventory, enabling flexibility.

Without sitting inventory, facilities could adjust their operations without much disruption, which is crucial in today’s digital world. Since 5G would also allow manufacturers to run all machinery on a wireless network, they could issue updates far faster. Today, automated machinery is notoriously inflexible, but the connectivity benefits of 5G could change that.

New Cellular Networks Enable and Improve Industry 4.0

The shift toward Industry 4.0 is already taking place, despite the lack of 5G networks. Without these new cellular connections, though, manufacturers won’t be able to push Industry 4.0 to its fullest potential. Today’s systems are too slow, unreliable, and limited to handle the scale of IoT devices that manufacturers need.

5G in manufacturing will help the industry move past the IoT and into the IoE. When everything in a facility can run on a single network and do so reliably, manufacturers will become safer, more efficient, and more profitable. The 5G IoT will help the industry become what it needs to be to meet the modern world’s demands.

Widespread 5G networks are still several years off from becoming a reality. When they do become available, they could revolutionize the manufacturing industry.

Image Credit: panumas nikhomk; pexels

Megan Ray Nichols

Technical Writer & Blogger

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance technical writer and blogger. She enjoys writing easy to understand science and technology articles on her blog, Schooled By Science. When she isn't writing, Megan enjoys watching movies and hiking with friends.