How will 5G improve industrial automation?

  • Technical Articles
  • Nov 17,20
As part of Industry 4.0, more automated systems are relying on the IoT than ever. Since 5G will bring network improvements, it will improve the IoT and consequently improve automation, says Megan Ray Nichols.
How will 5G improve industrial automation?

Few manufacturing trends have been as revolutionary as automation. Factory automation hasn’t been around long in the grand scheme of things, yet facilities without some level of automation are an anomaly today. 5G technologies should take this trend even further.

A lot of companies have made bold claims about the potential of 5G. While some of these predictions may be overoptimistic, 5G for manufacturing is still promising. Even if these networks don’t live up to all expectations, they’ll still represent a considerable improvement.

As part of Industry 4.0, more automated systems are relying on the IoT than ever. Since 5G will bring network improvements, it’ll improve the IoT and consequently improve automation. Here’s a closer look at how these new networks could bring about these changes.

Edge computing
Cloud computing has skyrocketed in recent years, with 66% of manufacturing enterprises using the cloud as of 2017. As these manufacturers adopt more complex automated machinery, traditional cloud computing may not be enough to sustain growth. Companies will move away from data centers in favor of edge computing, and 5G will enable that transition.

Edge computing brings the cloud closer to the devices that rely on it. Computing at the edge instead of far-away data centers improves latency, but it also comes with some obstacles. Edge computing requires high bandwidth, reliability and speed, all of which 5G provides.

5G networks have enabled one robot to mimic the movements of another, 1.5 kilometers away, in real-time. That kind of instant response is precisely what edge computing needs. With these new networks, manufacturers can compute on the edge, enabling far more complicated machinery.

Interoperability and flexibility
5G for manufacturing will also improve the interoperability of factory automation, which increases efficiency and flexibility. Today’s networks and their limited bandwidth are often a barrier to more device interconnectivity in factories. Since 5G networks can support far more traffic in the same area, factories could take interconnectivity to a facility-wide scale.

These networks would enable manufacturers to bring IoT technologies to virtually every machine in a facility. When everything can communicate, workflows will be far more efficient. If there’s a disruption at one point in the process, all the other machines could recognize this and adapt to it.

Technology has already caused a 40% increase in manufacturing productivity, and this level of interoperability will advance that trend. With all machines communicating, quickly, automated processes will be far more efficient and reliable. They could adapt to any changes almost instantaneously, giving manufacturers needed flexibility.

Predictive maintenance
Any automated system represents a significant investment, and unplanned maintenance can make these machines cost even more. Not only does repairing machinery cost money, but manufacturers also suffer losses from unproductive downtime. 5G for manufacturing can enable better predictive maintenance systems to avoid these costs.

With predictive maintenance, machines recognise when they might need attention and alert users. That way, manufacturers can address relatively straightforward maintenance issues before they turn into disruptive breakdowns. Since repair can cost 10-times more than effective maintenance, the cost savings are considerable.

While preventive maintenance doesn’t necessarily need 5G, it relies on the IoT, which 5G improves. With faster speeds, lower latency and edge computing, these devices could recognize flaws more accurately and report them faster. Predictive maintenance would become an even more significant return on investment than before.

Automation itself will grow
All of these benefits make factory automation a more worthwhile investment. As a result, automation itself will see higher adoption rates, reaching unprecedented levels of deployment. Not only will more manufacturers automate, but they’ll also automate more processes than they were previously able to.

Today, only 48% of manufacturing hours rely primarily on physical or manual labor. That’s a considerable amount of automation, but with 5G’s benefits, that number will only increase. Improved flexibility, interconnectivity and functionality will drive automation adoption rates skyward.

These networks won’t just improve current automation, but will also make further automation possible. Factories will be able to support more systems on one network and have the bandwidth to relay more information. Facilities that were previously unable to add more automated systems can automate further.

5G could push industrial automation to new heights
While 5G networks are starting to roll out, it will be a while before they offer widespread coverage. These networks are still new, so most of their most disruptive benefits won’t come for another few years. Still, when 5G technology does reach its height, it could make factory automation more advantageous than it’s ever been.

Automation is nothing new, but as it keeps improving, it brings new benefits to manufacturers. 5G networks are just the latest advancement to push the possibilities of what automated systems can do. If its current rate of progress continues, we’ve likely only scratched the surface of cellular networks and automation’s potential.

About the author:
Megan Ray Nichols is a STEM (Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) writer and regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights & IoT Evolution. She can be reached on

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