Mobile operators rolling out 5G have long had their eye on the industrial sector as a hot new market opportunity, with 5G serving as a key enabling technology for smart factories and Industry 4.0. The challenge is that industrial 5G has to be tightly integrated into factory operations to offer any value.
Just ask China Unicom, which has actually done it. And Huang Xuan, General Manager of the Smart Manufacturing Business Department at China Unicom Shanghai, will tell you it’s even harder than it sounds.
Speaking at the keynotes on Day 1 of the Huawei Connect 5G2B Summit last week, Huang walked the audience through Unicom’s experience with developing industrial 5G offerings. Huang said a key challenge from the get-go was integrating into industrial processes, which was mainly the result of Unicom and the customer approaching the project from decidedly different perspectives.
“The client had little understanding of the potential value that 5G could offer their business, and we in turn had little understanding of why their processes and pace of manufacturing are set up the way they are, and how 5G might improve it,” Huang said. “So we set out to find the common points of understanding between us and work from there to see where 5G would add the most value.”
Testing, testing, testing
Part of this process involved explaining to client executives what 5G can offer that existing technologies like Wi-Fi can’t – and that they should think of it in terms of future needs.
“While it’s true many technologies could do the job, once you plan and design a scenario, you will see the number of connections will no longer be supported by the current technologies given enough time,” Huang said. “The current technologies might meet your needs this year, but what about next year, or in three years, or ten?”
For example, as manufacturers adopt industrial apps that rely on low latency – such as AR, VR and MR – existing technologies will eventually be unable to meet their latency requirements, while 5G not only offers better efficiency and quality, but also future-proofs their needs.
In one case, Unicom identified four scenarios where 5G could potentially add value to the industrial client’s operations: collection and awareness for production data; remote control for critical equipment; AR/VR/MR reality enhancement; and AI-assisted vision. But integrating them into the company’s processes took several months of constant testing and trials.
One example is a VR app that Unicom tested many times over two months. The tests found that the VR app kept freezing, despite the fact that the 5G network provided 1 Gbps of capacity and the four channels used by VR glasses were averaging between 140-330 Mbps.
Eventually they found the problem: Unicom was using a static bitrate to distribute content, but VR traffic was subject to spikes that exceeded the 1 Gbps ceiling. Unicom fixed the problem with dynamic code rates for the app servers, allowing the data rates to adjust and adapt to network conditions.
Towards a 5G industrial ecosystem
Huang offered other several examples that illustrated the same basic point: 5G networks alone won’t solve the problems that industrial companies need solving, and there is no such thing as a catch-all solution. “Industrial networks tend to be proprietary, customized and exclusive. You need to design different categories of each business, and the applications must be able to quickly respond.”
The reality is that different industries have different legacy networks, different requirements, and different apps. This requires operators to work closely with enterprises, figure out where 5G adds value, then find ways to optimize it, Huang said.
However, that doesn’t mean the experience with one enterprise won’t cross over to others. Unicom’s strategy is to stockpile the 5G industrial apps it is developing with customers, aggregate them into different categories and work out the commonalities that can be applied in different kinds of scenarios.
Huang said that the ultimate goal is to not only develop more industrial standardized solutions that other telecoms players can leverage to serve industrial customers, but also to build up an ecosystem of technical partners, hardware providers, chipset vendors, module vendors, software providers and smart terminals that can help put together the right solution for the right industrial scenario.
“We need to take stock of our experience and explore how 5G can co-prosper with the industrial sector and develop a system for different industrial scenarios and applications,” Huang said. “This is a long and arduous journey, but as long as we walk on it continuously, we can reach the destination.”