5G Digital Factory

A solution to the UK’s productivity woes is closer than we think

Image credit: Phuttaphat Tipsana/Dreamstime

Futuristic, high-tech factories are within touching distance: 5G will make them possible.

Snap lockdowns, Covid-induced factory shutdowns, fluctuating freight costs and tremors across supply chains. There’s no doubt about it – manufacturers have had more than their fair share of grievances lately.

What’s more, recent statistics from the UK Office for National Statistics show that UK manufacturers’ profitability has dropped to its lowest level for a decade – which could be seen as indicative of the impact of both Brexit and the pandemic on the sector.

We certainly hope this will change. Technology has long been touted as one of the answers to the UK’s industrial productivity woes, and will be more important than ever as we look at strengthening our economy following the pandemic. Yet, in industrial settings, the UK lags behind in implementing advanced digital technologies in comparison with some of its counterparts on the continent.

Could the solution to this puzzle be closer than the industry thinks?

From advanced product tracking to autonomous warehouse transportation, advanced digital technology can help industry drive down production costs – while boosting market productivity levels and competitiveness.

How does 5G fit into this picture? 5G infrastructure functions first and foremost as an enabler. By facilitating the implementation and integration of other advanced digital technologies, it can augment the wider digital fabric in factory environments. It is a secure infrastructure and provides some excellent mechanisms for closer integration of edge computing and communications to support better outcomes in the factory.

Offering improved bandwidth, superfast speeds and secure networks, 5G can supercharge the performance of other technologies – from artificial intelligence for predictive monitoring to the Internet of Things – meaning manufacturers get more bang for their buck. After all, these digital tools are only as good as the communication infrastructure powering them.

Establishing a web of complementary technologies in factory environments sounds complex, but a high-tech factory can actually help us simplify decision making – slashing costs, boosting efficiencies and reducing our carbon footprint along the way.

5G in this context is all about getting the most out of the ‘DNA’ of digital manufacturing, where the DNA stands for data, networks and artificial intelligence. Fundamentally, digital manufacturing is about better interfaces with data, and decision making powered by artificial intelligence. Right in the middle of this sits the networking system, which has very specific requirements to support a demanding, high-availability and cost-sensitive factory environment.

Powered by 5G, manufacturers can more easily collect invaluable data and streamline real-time feedback from their assets – for example, using Internet of Things sensors that collect information and communicate at high speeds.

Crucially, 5G connectivity could also help industry reap the benefits of digital twins – systems that aggregate and present data from a remote system. Through the digital coupling of physical assets or processes to a virtual representation, with a functional output, we can pinpoint waste, identify faults and increase the lifespan of our assets.

Unfortunately, many businesses still hold concerns around 5G installation costs, complexity and security – hindering its meaningful adoption in industrial settings.

But while businesses are right to be cautious, they should explore how new advanced digital infrastructure, underpinned by purposefully designed communication networks, can enable a faster and better digital transformation of their processes.

This is certainly not untrodden ground, and by working with experts, businesses can look at adopting 5G in the safest and most cost-effective way. The right partners can help to de-risk technology adoption and help manufacturers get 5G-ready in practical and tangible ways, to support Industry 4.0 ambitions.

An example of this is the UK’s industry-leading 5G Factory of the Future project, which will provide key learnings on how manufacturing operations and supply chains can be transformed in real settings.

At Digital Catapult, we are delivering the technical 5G integration work in typical operational processes, enabling real manufacturers to build the business case for 5G adoption. By demonstrating how well advanced digital technologies perform with a 5G connection, we – along with partners across the UK – are creating the route for 5G adoption at scale in factories for the very first time.

A full program of work in the UK has several large-scale test and trial projects, funded by the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport, to explore the technical and business concerns of adopting 5G as a digital factory technology.

Projects of this kind can offer tangible evidence for manufacturers on the exact benefits they can reap from 5G, the challenges, and how they could be addressed. We’re currently working closely with logistics company Miralis, for example, on a use-case looking at how 5G-connected sensors can provide real-time condition monitoring, helping to prevent lost and late supply-chain production items – which can cause significant loss in productivity.

The route to bouncing back from this economic slump won’t be simple, and with tools like 5G at our fingertips – enabling better digital infrastructure – those ignoring the opportunity would be missing a trick.

And, whatever technology is prioritised as we set our sights on recovery from the pandemic, it’s imperative we adopt a ‘connected first’ approach.

If adopted meaningfully, 5G will be transformative for industries across the UK – allowing us to push boundaries, boost efficiencies and realise the huge economic and environmental benefits industry needs to recover, and thrive.

Dritan Kaleshi is director of technology – 5G at Digital Catapult, the UK agency promoting adoption of advanced digital technologies.

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