By Tim Hornyak

Imagine a manufacturing plant in which all the production equipment is continually changing in response to market needs. Robots churning out widgets, for instance, would reconfigure themselves based on data coming in from all points of the widget supply chain, as well as sensors monitoring the factory itself. The result is a smart factory that’s more agile and autonomous than previous generations of automation.

Also known as Industry 4.0, the smart factory runs on data and artificial intelligence, but connectivity forms the backbone of operations. The new fifth generation of mobile networks (5G) is a catalyst for this new industrial revolution because it offers much greater speed and bandwidth than previous networks, as well as low latency, or time required for data to travel between two points. 5G will work with and in some cases replace existing fixed, wired connections, making manufacturing more flexible and ready to implement innovations.  

The connected factory

5G could replace wired Ethernet as well as Wi-Fi and 4G LTE networks that connect devices in factories, but one 5G supplier is starting with the basics: powering mobile devices and robots. At a new factory in Lewisville, Texas, Swedish telecom Ericsson has been turning out 5G infrastructure equipment with the aid of a 5G network in the plant itself. Ericsson, which is supplying 5G equipment to telecoms in the U.S. such as AT&TVerizonSprint and T-Mobile, has forecast 190 million 5G subscribers by the end of 2020 and 2.8 billion by the end of 2025.   

Earlier this year, the first millimeter-wave Street Macro base stations were assembled at the factory. Though the plant is still in partial production, staff are using 5G connectivity to boost production efficiency. For instance, workers are using the 5G network to get augmented reality support from remote experts by sharing video and annotated notes. The network will also be used to guide automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and drones around the facility.  

“Our fast and secure 5G connectivity enables the smart factory with agile operations and flexible production, utilizing industrial solutions such as automated warehouses, automated assembly, packing, product handling and autonomous carts,” says Erik Simonsson, head of the Ericsson USA 5G Smart Factory. “The palette of what can be put in action to support business will be endless using 5G. A more efficient production through technology and automation with full throughput and zero downtime.”

Those kinds of benefits should propel the growth of smart factories. The Ericsson USA 5G Smart Factory is part of a new wave of manufacturing plants including Stanley Black & Decker’s Manufactory in Hartford, Connecticut, that has the potential to add between $1.5 trillion to $2.2 trillion to the global economy annually by 2023, according to a Capgemini Research Institute report issued last year. Connectivity, intelligent automation and cloud-scale data management and analytics are key technologies, according to the report. It describes 5G as “a key enabler of smart factory initiatives as its features would provide manufacturers the opportunity to introduce or enhance a variety of real-time and highly reliable applications… 5G is also unique in that it offers ‘network slicing,’ allowing the physical spectrum to be split and to be allocated to specific applications.”

When it comes to smart factory adoption, China, Germany and Japan lead the way with South Korea, the U.S. and France following on behind, according to Capgemini.

It’s unclear how many factories in the U.S. are now smart, but based on an international survey of 912 manufacturers, Capgemini estimates 28% were made smart from 2017 to 2018, just below the global average of 30%.

Read the rest of the article at CNBC.

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