Industrial automation

Is 5G Ready for Manufacturing?

July 22, 2019
5G has been in the news recently, but for all the wrong reasons. Beyond the media controversy, the technology could bring about a fundamental change in how manufacturers operate.

High-profile scandals aren’t typically good for the technology sector. Whether it’s diesel emissions, large data breaches, or cyber-attacks on mission-critical infrastructure, scandals can cripple a technology before it’s gotten even off the ground. Despite what recent headlines may have you thinking, 5G could be a hugely positive force in the world of manufacturing, heralding in a new era of technological innovation. Although 3G and 4G offered incremental improvements in speed and bandwidth, 5G will be the first cellular, wireless platform to offer reliable machine-to-machine and Industrial IoT systems.

It will do this in three ways. The first is enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB). 5G offers peak data rates of 10 Gbps and can handle 10,000 times more traffic than its predecessors.

Secondly, it offers ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC). This means it has a radio latency of less than 1 msec and an availability greater than 99.9%, making it ideal for industrial use where uptime is always critical.

Thirdly, it offers massive machine-type communication (eMTC), which lets it to handle a density of one million devices per 247 acres (one square kilometer). It can also deliver ultra-low-cost machine-to-machine communications and last up to 10 years on battery power (which is great for battery-operated low-power devices).

So, what does this mean for industry? Well, not only will 5G open the door for real-time wireless sensor networks and location and asset tracking, it will also let plant managers in smart factories rely on seamless communication with a fleet of autonomous guided vehicles without worrying about network dropouts.

What’s more, manufacturers who may have been skeptical of adopting the likes of augmented and virtual reality technologies will be able to take full advantage of them for real-time simulations and predictive maintenance.

In industrial automation, 5G networks will eventually be able to replace wired connections in even the most demanding applications, such as motion control and high throughput vision systems. Ethernet protocols are still being standardized by organizations such as 3GPP and IEEE to accommodate time sensitive networks in 5G architectures, which will let 5G achieve the low latency and high availability of its ethernet counterparts.

Making the switch to 5G is not an inexpensive proposition, with significant investment needed to upgrading infrastructure so it will accommodate it. Because 5G operates on the less crowded higher frequency spectrum, around 6 GHz—or by using millimeter waves on new radio frequencies anywhere between 30 and 300 GHz—it can easily be blocked by obstacles and absorbed by rain, and even humidity.

This will require installing small-cell networks with smaller antennas placed closer together. As a result, one question we hear all the time is: Will 5G be worth all the investment in upgrading technology and equipment to handle it?

At this point, I’d like to describe a relatively recent experiment carried out by Ericsson, one of the world’s largest 5G equipment suppliers. Ericsson, along with Germany’s the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology, conducted a test in a factory that makes bladed disks for jet engines. The large components are milled in a process that can take 20 hours to complete and involves extremely precise machining.

The procedure has a defect rate of up to 25% because of faults caused by small vibrations. However, mistakes are not usually detected until the end of the process, leading to a significant amount of wasted time and money. By adding 5G sensors to the machines, Ericsson reduced defects to 15%.

Because 5G can transmit data in under a millisecond, adding it to high-value manufacturing processes will let errors be detected and prevented on a scale not possible with other wireless communication methods.

“With one millisecond latency, you can sense whether there is a deviation in the process before the tool even hits the blade and you can stop the machine before the error happens,” explains Asa Tamsons, a senior vice president at Ericsson.

Using 5G to reduce the error rate from 25 to 15% lowered the overall production cost of each blade by about $4,040. Ericsson’s test results were certainly impressive, but it is important to remember that 5G alone will not solve all the problems with inefficiency in our factories.

Manufacturers need to be prepared to invest in infrastructure upgrades, and early adopters will face the technical-support challenge of retrofitting 5G with existing legacy equipment and networks. This will require work to manage obsolescence and ensure plants continue to make productivity gains without overhauling their entire plant machinery and equipment.

There is no doubt that 5G will revolutionize manufacturing as we know it, but it’s important that manufacturers understand that it’s not a magic pill to solve their productivity woes. That will still require careful obsolescence management, selective infrastructure upgrades, and a willingness to explore the new technology’s features in a diverse range of applications. So, despite the scandals, manufacturers should give 5G serious consideration.

Jonathan Wilkins is director of EU Automation, a global company that supplies companies with new, reconditioned, and obsolete automation parts and equipment. For information on upgrading factories and managing obsolescence, visit

About the Author

Jonathan Wilkins | Marketing Director

Jonathan Wilkins is marketing director at EU Automation.

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