In many ways, the future of the factory is already here. People and machines share data and information constantly. Digital tools, AI, robotics, automation and cloud are becoming essential for efficient, flexible and adaptive operations. But this technology shift is also putting networks under tremendous pressure. Demands for bandwidth, performance and security will inevitably become even greater as more connectivity is required.

By Pascal Brosset and Maikel van Verseveld

And that demand could lead to the network becoming the bottleneck, constricting the ability to roll out flexible manufacturing, achieve higher performance, greater efficiency and higher levels of safety. Our research suggests that bandwidth demands are rising annually by approximately 30%-40% – a rate that’s challenging for networks to accommodate cost effectively.

Fast forward to 2025

Enter 5G. Its qualities make it highly suited to accelerate the future factory agenda, supporting smarter workers, flexible manufacturing and fluid plant logistics. And it’s not a matter of ‘if’ all this will happen, but ‘when’. Most projections suggest that 5G will be fully in force for manufacturers by 2025. It’s also estimated that, by then, there will be in the region of 55.7 billion connected devices worldwide. And with the explosive growth of the IIoT, many of these will be in industrial settings. Research predicts that by 2025 some 60% of all global IIoT connections will be in smart manufacturing. So how should manufacturers start preparing now for the arrival of that mass connectivity of smart devices at scale?

The future here and now

Developing the right use cases is key, especially use cases geared toward driving more flexible automation in either single operations or plant logistics, and those centered on ‘smarter’ workers in receipt of real-time data that will enable better decision making and safety on the factory floor. Some are already doing this. For example, a leading office furniture manufacturer is using 5G, plus edge computing and video analytics, to monitor potential safety breaches and respond faster than any manual system ever could. Or take shopfloor mobility. Accenture’s Garching Lab is harnessing 5G’s low-latency so that autonomous guided vehicles can navigate safely through a complex shopfloor environment. And a chemicals business is enabling all its existing sites with 5G. This is to ensure the safety of plant workers performing complex, highly regulated and often dangerous processes.

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Evolution or revolution?

Those are just a few examples. But they all point to the increasingly central role that 5G will play in the way that manufacturers develop their network strategies. These will look different depending on the sites in question. For brownfield plants, the evolution to 5G will be necessarily slower, with an incremental approach built on a case-by-case basis according to the business value that can be delivered. On the other hand, manufacturers planning new greenfield sites should certainly consider putting 5G at the heart of those plans to take advantage of the radical simplicity (i.e., no wires) and flexibility that 5G can support.

The chance to harness powerful wireless connectivity to autonomously reconfigure production lines in response to sudden changes in demand is one key use case here. One leading manufacturer and distributor is doing exactly that, with plans to launch 5G modular factories around the world.

(Hype)r-vigilance

There’s no question that 5G will deliver key benefits. There’ll be more flexibility as a world without wires enables rapid reconfiguration of machinery and production lines. Latency that delivers data faster than the blink of an eye means millions of transactions between machines and humans can enhance intelligence and create real-time automated capabilities at the edge. And crucially, 5G offers lower networking costs and higher security as multiple limited-purpose networks can be consolidated.

But there are challenges, too. For example, new 5G-enabled machinery, robots, vehicles and other assets will require significant investment. The business case for these has to be rock solid. What’s more, our research found that the lack of 5G-enabled devices was the second most cited barrier to developing the network of the future. There’s still some catching up to do. And that means manufacturers can afford to take their time.

Get ready

Like any new technology, there’s a huge amount of noise accompanying 5G’s arrival. While to some extent the clamour may be justified, manufacturers should take a steady approach to 5G’s implementation. They should find a use case and experiment and not rush to rip out all wires just yet. But 5G is coming. It will accelerate the flexible manufacturing agenda. And manufacturers should start to plan for its arrival sooner rather than later.

About the authors

 

Pascal Brosset and Maikel van Verseveld

Pascal Brosset is the Global lead for Accenture's Production and Operations unit within Industry X. Connect with him on LinkedIn

Maikel van Verseveld leads Accenture’s Engineering & Manufacturing group within Industry X in Europe. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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