5G can underpin the next revolution in Scotland’s manufacturing base, with the development of a first-of-its-kind, private testbed at a pioneering R&D facility acting as the initial step, according to industry experts.
Although still in its formative stages, 5G is expected to be a critical part of a range of new concepts in manufacturing, such as the live streaming of engineering instructions to machines, machine-to-machine communication, and the implementation of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) – also known as the fourth industrial revolution.
In July 2019 Ofcom decided to open up ‘shared spectrum’, allowing individuals and organisations to create their own private mobile networks. Access to state-of-the-art infrastructure will allow manufacturers to trial new business models, technologies and concepts, by connecting equipment, monitoring data in real-time, and supporting the application of machine learning algorithms.
5G experts said that, in practice, this should enable factories to operate more efficiently, safely, and with greater autonomy.
Malcolm Brew, 5G senior research fellow at the University of Strathclyde, said: “5G means different things to different people, but in an industrial context is much more than just another number – it is going to be very different to its predecessors. While it is not yet fully baked, 5G will help manufacturers break the mould and create a lot of opportunities for new applications and even business models. The use of Ofcom’s ‘shared spectrum framework’ policy will be a major enabler in building new private 5G networks, and also bring opportunities for featuring shared radio access with other mobile operators and vendors, using neutral hosting strategies.
“Through a network of networks – whether they are Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or LoRaWan – next-generation connectivity can help manufacturers securely integrate their existing technologies to link millions of devices, which will give them much better visibility of their processes and equipment. Access to regular information, without relying on third parties, will help them be much nimbler, tracking assets to drive efficiencies in the production cycle, supporting health and safety for staff, and securely store data on site.
“The potential benefits extend far beyond individual factories. With interaction between public and private networks, manufacturers could understand the provenance of all the parts and materials they use, supporting efficient methods of production such as just-in-time manufacturing and having a much closer understanding of their supply chains. Ultimately, our aim is to find out whether these new ways of working are feasible and whether 5G’s potential is worth the hype.”
Paul Coffey, CEO of the Scotland 5G Centre, added: “The use of 5G in this way underlines how very different it will be to 4G and its previous iterations, and Scotland has the opportunity to be at the forefront of the seismic changes that it will sweep through manufacturing and other sectors in the years ahead. The Scotland 5G Centre is here to accelerate the deployment and adoption of 5G infrastructure and services, realising its economic and societal potential for Scotland and enabling all types of businesses to reap the benefits of this new technology.”
As a first step, a consortium of partners – comprising of the Scotland 5G Centre, University of Strathclyde, and the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS), which is operated by Strathclyde – is developing a next generation network at the NMIS specialist technology centres, the Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) and Lightweight Manufacturing Centre (LMC), in Renfrewshire.
Planned to be deployed in six months’ time, it will trial the use of 5G in a manufacturing context and is expected to be the UK’s first industrial application of 5G. Acting as an exemplar for others to follow, once use cases are proven, it is anticipated they will be adopted by manufacturers across the country, creating their own pop-up private networks.
Paul Coffey said: “The development of a private 5G network at NMIS facilities is an important first step towards the wider adoption of the next generation of connectivity in Scottish manufacturing. Ultra-low latency, high-bandwidth telecommunications will underpin many of the technologies which will define the next industrial revolution – but we need an appropriate environment to test, develop and prove use cases and this initiative will serve exactly that purpose.”
Danny McMahon, metrology and digital team lead at the AFRC, added: “The application of 5G to manufacturing is still very new – the full benefits haven’t yet been realised and there is little understanding of what the return on investment might be. With the creation of this new private network we’re aiming to see what value can be unlocked with state-of-the-art connectivity and prove the use cases that many people have talked about, but are still to be delivered. We will then be able to advise industry what is and is not possible and practical for them to adopt.
“Manufacturing sites have huge amounts of data; but, to get the most out of it, you need to have access to the data as close to real-time as possible. 5G enables that through ultra-low latency and rapid data transfer, in theory, helping you to understand what has happened as soon as an instruction is processed or a piece of equipment breaks down, for example. While the network will initially be hosted at the AFRC and LMC, it will go on to form a key part of NMIS’s offering in supporting the adoption of advanced manufacturing techniques across Scotland.”