Commentators explained how 5G was not a simple upgrade from 4G but would rather herald a new era in turbocharged connectivity. Faster data transfer speeds and the ability to connect an untold number of devices to one another would allow us to re-imagine the possible, from remote robotic surgery to autonomous cars.
Within manufacturing, too, a similar transformation was promised. Industry 4.0 has yet to reach its full potential. To connect devices and machines, manufacturers typically use wi-fi, Ethernet, and 4G LTE (long-term evolution).
The expectation was that 5G would have the ability to handle the ever-expanding number of connected devices and data traffic, reduce energy costs, and improve connectivity performance. Production would become more flexible, efficient and safer. Barriers to implementing many of the innovations promised by Industry 4.0 would be overcome.
“Fast forward two-and-a-half years and we’re not quite there,” said Vishal Patel, a director at Essentra Components. “Indeed we are still perhaps a good few years off turning the 5G dream into reality.
“That’s not to say that a transition isn’t happening, but rather it has not been as fast and as dramatic as it was originally envisioned. Partly, of course, this has been down to Covid-19, although to some extent the pandemic has also acted as a catalyst for change, rather than an inhibitor.”
In a 2018 survey the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with consultancy McKinsey, found that just 29% of respondents actively deployed Industry 4.0 technologies at scale. This is a problem that could be addressed by 5G, but rollout has been slow.
“The US is well ahead of the UK in 5G adoption, with something in the region of 75% coverage, whereas the UK has scarcely 30%,” said Patel. “The UK and most of Europe lag behind their North American counterparts, though they in turn are behind businesses in the Far East.”
Benefits for engineers
Within the business environment, Patel said there are two sets of principal beneficiaries. The first are the design engineers themselves, being able to add 5G capability to the products they are designing which will redefine the art of what’s possible.
“That’s not to say there aren’t challenges,” said Patel. “5G technology is highly integrated, requiring radio frequency (RF), antenna, digital signal processing, hardware, control logic and software, all conforming to industry standards.
“Baseband, RF front end and antenna design are therefore now having to be considered as a whole when designing new products, and not seen as single items, designed in isolation. Design engineers are already recognising this shift and rethinking their workflows and processes accordingly.”
The other big winners in the 5G revolution are the manufacturers. 5G supports a ‘smart’ manufacturing facility, end to end, from design and production through to warehousing and distribution.
“The success of Industry 4.0 has largely depended on connectivity, and speed of access to realtime data,” said Patel. “What 5G achieves is accelerating that connectivity, enabling manufacturers to implement the full advantages of Industry 4.0, dramatically improving efficiencies and reducing costs and time to market. Decisions will be better informed based on realtime insight, leading to more efficient processes and supporting a better and safer working environment.”
Patel thinks there is a real appetite for 5G: “We are seeing it in smart manufacturing as well as more consumer-facing innovations such as 5G-enabled cars bringing car-to-car communication and alerts. Already there is talk of 6G with even greater speeds being envisaged, but for now the 5G playbook still has quite a way to run, and for the hype over 5G to be realised in real-world designs.”
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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.