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COVID-19 pandemic impacts supply chain, Industry 4.0 and 5G

Jan. 25, 2021
Network deployment creates new needs, survey says

Nermin Mohamed is head of telecommunications solutions at Wind River. Contact her at ­­­510/748-4100.

2020 was a challenging year for manufacturers with several disruptions to supply chains and operations caused by the global pandemic. The year was expected to feature Industry 4.0, a term that represents the fourth industrial revolution, and technologies, including 5G.

But very suddenly manufacturers were simply struggling to keep factories and plants open to maintain whatever production they could in an unprecedented pandemic environment. But how would this new climate impact the adoption of 5G?

Impact on deployment

The transition to 5G cellular networks offers a new dimension in cellular data services, especially to manufacturers. The 5G standards enable communications service providers (CSPs) to deliver entirely new sets of services to manufacturers and also enable manufacturers to deploy their own private 5G infrastructures, if they wish.

Despite the slowdown to supply chains and operations, many manufacturers still expect to be using 5G in the near future, according to a recent survey by ARC Advisory Group in collaboration with Wind River. The survey found that, while very few of the manufacturers that responded had experience with 5G, 60% expect to adopt 5G in the next two years, and fully 81% expect to adopt 5G within the next five years. Surprisingly, the North American respondents were even more bullish about future 5G deployments than Europeans. 

Many companies are also working on next-generation process improvement initiatives in this new pandemic climate. Supply chain improvement had the highest attention among respondents, which is not surprising given that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted so many supply chains and exposed many vulnerabilities that still need to be evaluated and addressed. Other process improvement areas, in order of priority, included:

  • innovations,
  • enhanced time-critical control
  • remote control/operations
  • optimizing non-time-critical control.

5G is the preferred connectivity solution for industry 4.0, beating out:

  • wireless networks
  • in-plant networks
  • WAN solutions
  • wireless sensing
  • private LTE
  • Wi-Fi 6.

5G is a wireless solution and viewed as the key innovation to empower a full scope of use cases. Businesses will be empowered through the vast benefits of 5G, such as faster speeds, wider coverage areas and improved security. 

Another area of technology innovation can be seen in virtualization. Virtualization has been used extensively in IT and as the technology evolves, it is now possible to deploy highly distributed edge cloud technology and operate it as a single centralized cloud. The ability to achieve high levels of software automation at the edge ensures ease of deployment and lower operational cost. Advanced virtualization solutions that provide the same workload performance but require less overhead result in a significantly lower-cost hardware environment for the same services, often as much as two or three times less.

Also read: What will 5G do for you?

Barriers to deployment

Confidence, cost and complexity are perceived barriers to industrial 5G deployment, with confidence being the most frequently cited by survey respondents.

Confidence: Plants today either use or own and operate several distinct types of network infrastructures. These serve a huge variety of applications. While all these applications are important, some are highly critical, in that even a brief service interruption can cost millions of dollars or jeopardize personnel safety or environmental protection. That is why confidence is required for infrastructures that support critical or safety-related applications.

Cost: Cost of coverage plays an important role in investment decisions for manufacturers. Very large sites, especially outdoor sites—for example a surface mine or a bulk chemical plant—are expensive and/or very difficult to cover, especially with short-range PANs and WLANs. In addition to the technical difficulty, such sites will have equipment requirements for operation in hazardous environments, which compounds the already high installed cost. Besides installed cost, any infrastructure requires some ongoing support. Private or semi-private 5G installations may require additional support investments for organizations that have little or no experience with them. 

Complexity: This consideration is really a component of the support area. Operational problems with network infrastructure are usually escalated from OT groups to corporate IT and finally to suppliers such as OEMs and CSPs. The more complex the infrastructure, the more likely that resolving operational issues will require supplier support and the additional time this takes.

While COVID made the year 2020 challenging for manufacturers, the disruptions have done little to derail their Industry 4.0 programs. With respect to 5G adoption, manufacturers seem aware that 5G represents a sea change not just in raw network performance but also in the capabilities and qualities of services that can be delivered through cellular infrastructure. 

Industry 4.0 is underway, and success will depend on how well companies utilize a cloud native intelligent edge that is enabled by 5G. But to turn enthusiasm into adoption, CSPs will play a major role and need to understand and appreciate the requirements new and more critical applications within the factory or plant impose on their networks and on their business relationships with manufacturing customers.

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