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Research

Next-Generation Connectivity

5G’s Role in Advancing Manufacturing

5G

Executive Summary

5G, the next generation of cellular communications, has been heralded as the next big thing. It will be the key to driverless cars. It will enable holographic phone calls. It will transform cities. And its ultra-reliable low latency connections will enable the proliferation of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and sensors too numerous to count. It has the potential to become the core communication platform for many manufacturing companies.

Is it all hype? Or is it real? In short, the answer is yes. It’s both, depending on one’s timeframe. And manufacturers need to be paying attention and planning now. But perhaps, in many cases, not investing in 5G just yet.

“5G disrupts every industry you can think of, from health care to energy distribution, retail to the factory floor.”
Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf

5G will (eventually) bring a great many benefits that can be used broadly, more effectively, and on a greater scale than ever before. But solutions will take time to mature and roll out. Unlike narrow specifications of previous versions of cellular technologies, the 5G specifications are expansive, accounting for a wide variety of wireless communications needs. As a result, the ways that 5G is used will likely vary greatly from company to company.

For many manufacturers, the path to 5G isn’t very clear at the moment.

When manufacturing information and technology executives were asked in a Manufacturers Alliance Next Generation Connectivity survey to identify the smart manufacturing processes with the greatest potential for improved performance from 5G solutions, there was no single standout answer. Instead, organizations selected a mix of possible uses for 5G, from smart connected products to autonomous vehicles to quality sensing, with relatively equal weights. This suggests two realities of 5G today: a breadth of possible opportunities, as well as relative immaturity of the business case.

Over time, 5G will reshape how most manufacturing companies connect equipment, sensors, processes, and products, as well as communicate with employees. Up to 100x faster than 4G (depending on the version), 5G brings lower latency, greater reliability, increased security, edge computing capabilities, greater agility, and more.

It will drive these outcomes by enabling a range of new possibilities for manufacturers. 5G can enable innovative technologies like artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and cobots, digital twins, and massive Internet of Things (IoT) deployments. It will power smart factory initiatives and accelerate more agile digital transformation.

With a technology as broad as 5G, manufacturers are likely to use it for very different reasons and applications. The key findings in this study start our recommendations for the next steps in your 5G journey.

Key Findings

  1. You’re not behind the curve. Few U.S. companies have deployed 5G. Limited general deployment of public 5G networks, the COVID-19 pandemic, and important 5G standards and supporting technologies for manufacturing applications (such as time-sensitive networking) that are not commercially available, have constrained corporate investments in 5G industrial deployments.
  2. Connectivity is the next big thing, but not necessarily 5G. Although 5G will be a key part of connectivity for both people and businesses, it is smart connectivity itself where manufacturers should be focusing efforts, whether it is through 5G, WiFi 6, 4G LTE, wired ethernet, or something else. What matters is generating actionable information from a web of connected things—people, systems, sensors, partners, or anything else.
  3. There are viable alternatives. Private 4G LTE deployments remain a viable alternative for 5G at a basic wireless connectivity level. Some companies are building in optionality with existing 4G LTE solutions that can be upgraded in the future to 5G. Sixty percent of MAPI executives surveyed also see a next generation of WiFi solutions, including future iterations such as WiFi 6, as other alternatives to deliver faster speeds and better performance in the next few years.
  4. The use cases that drive 5G deployments vary. Any use case that requires mobility, such as communication with drones, mobile robots, or autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) is a prime candidate for 5G consideration. Other leading use cases include asset tracking, augmented reality, condition-based monitoring, and product and services enablement. Applications involving extensive data and sensors, and situations where workers need to be connected including in warehousing, are also compelling cases.
  5. The complexity of 5G implementations vary. 5G capabilities are much broader than earlier cellular technologies that simply enabled voice or basic data communications. For some, 5G may only end up being the cellular network their personal cell phones run on. For others, it will replace hardwired connections or WiFi networks. For others still, it will be an opportunity to enable IoT, smart factories, and Industry 4.0 with thousands of sensors that monitor equipment, processes, and more, communicating through edge devices to cloud-based services for analysis or connectivity to partners.
  6. Private 5G deployments will initially outpace public ones. The major U.S. wireless companies are deploying 5G networks based on different types of 5G spectrum. Areas of coverage, bandwidth, and speed will all likely vary significantly, even within extremely limited geographic areas. The upshot is that initial 5G industry deployments will likely be based more on private 5G networks than on public 5G networks. (Just as companies started investing in private branch exchanges [PBXs] for telephony in the 1970s instead of relying on public telephone networks, initial 5G manufacturing deployments will most likely rely on private 5G deployments.)
  7. 5G is evolving. With future releases every 1-2 years, there are plenty of new 5G standards and technologies that will continue to be rolled out over time. For manufacturing organizations, the next two-to-five years will be critical as 5G Release 16 technology becomes available (estimated for mid-2021), with its support for industrial capabilities. Forty-four percent of the respondents to MAPI’s survey also noted that within three years they expect they will have at least one 5G application deployed, while another 28% said they would be piloting or testing.
  8. 5G will be an accelerant for smart factory initiatives (and vice versa). Digitalization will define the factory of the future. More sensors, more automation, more visuals, more data. Lots more data. As companies start or continue on their digital manufacturing journeys, 5G will (eventually) be a key enabler for the movement of all the data that enables smart factories and Industry 4.0 initiatives, from production planning to predictive maintenance to AGVs.

Download the full report

Acknowledgements

The MAPI Foundation again extends its gratitude to our underwriters for their generous support of this initiative. We are deeply appreciative of MAPI member executives for sharing their time and insight in the research process, and thank you to David A. Kelly of Upside Research, Inc. for coauthoring this report.