Hannover Messe, the world’s premier tradeshow for the manufacturing industry returned this year from April 12-16, but in a digital format due to the continuing impacts of the Covid19 pandemic. Our focus was to try to zoom in on the manufacturing industry's journey towards digital transformation and to identify the impact of cellular and wireless technologies on this journey. It is, of course, important to note that the entire world is still struggling with the pandemic and the impact, while significant to severe, is not uniform across countries.
That said, manufacturers around the world are increasingly pulling in the same direction towards digital. The emergence of new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML), augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), advanced robotics, drones, autonomous vehicles, digital twins, and others have pushed enterprises to radically reimagine their businesses, their underlying processes, and future operations, as well as grapple with new requirements for their IT and operational technology (OT) networks. It is not just a simple case of adding more computing power or adoption of cloud-based services but rather a wider look at the technologies that will impact operations and drive efficiency. There are a few key themes that seemed to emerge from this year’s event with this point of reference.
The Factory of the Future is coming into clear view with 5G as a key enabler
The Factory of the Future is coming into a much clearer view. One of the key objectives for manufacturers is to achieve flexibility on their production lines to meet rapidly shifting business objectives. Traditional factories typically have miles of cables crisscrossing the shop floor to connect the various machinery and production lines. Changes made in the service of shifting business objectives could typically take several weeks if not months to reset the line, leading to delays and opportunity costs. In their search for solutions to the flexibility problem, one of the key insights for manufacturers is the need for high-capacity connectivity networks that are optimized locally for their use cases. Many factories already have an installed base of legacy Wi-Fi access points, but these have been found wanting, prompting a shift to cellular. A shift to 4G/5G cellular technologies can help eliminate the cabling bottleneck and convert the factory floor into a modular, flexible setup.
5G’s ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC) standards can help replace cables, both in latency and reliability aspects. For manufacturers seeking the convergence of the IT and operational technology (OT) environments, latency is increasingly critical. Technology vendor INTEL, in partnership with EXOR International, was showcasing their edge platforms and endpoints based on INTEL silicon that supports Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN) over 5G in a use case that did inspections on tablet screens. There were also several demos to showcase the benefits of lower latency on the shop floor. One from Nokia showed an autonomous guided vehicle (AGV) that was attempting to turn a corner but stopped dead in its tracks due to the presence of another object in its path. Similarly, a demo from Ericsson showcases a laser curtain surrounding a robotic arm that would freeze instantly if a human or a foreign object came into the defined area.
The Factory of the Future will need an Intelligent Edge
There are already several use cases that have been commercialized with the deployment of private wireless networks using 4G and 5G cellular technologies. But while dedicated networks are necessary, they are not sufficient for the overall objectives of the manufacturing sector. For the enterprises in this vertical, one of the key objectives is that all data, especially from the OT environment, should be processed and stored on-premises to allow the enterprise to retain control. There remains the possibility that certain workloads can be sent to the cloud for advanced analytics that will need greater computing power.
Edge computing is one of the biggest trends in Industry 4.0, as the focal point for the convergence of IT and OT technologies. Enterprises want to track, collect, and analyze huge amounts of data from machines, sensors, and endpoints around the factory shop floor. These need to be collected using PLCs and SCADA in “real-time” and processed using AI/ML and other IT technologies in the edge network that is deployed on-premises. This edge network can take different shapes depending on the size of the factory, the number and complexity of use cases, and other factors. Besides the compute resources, the mobile core network will also need to be on-premises to cater to the most mission-critical use cases on the shop floor. Ultimately, the biggest change for the Factory of the Future is the offloading of the control logic that governs the various machinery and processes on the shop floor to the Edge platform. So, control of the PLCs, the various IoT endpoints, the machine learning from all these components will increasingly be pushed to the Edge platform and governed by an Edge controller and requisite software.
AI/ML, Robotics and Autonomous Vehicles are value drivers for the Factory of the Future
The Factory of the Future will be driven by a combination of several emerging technologies that are being integrated onto the shop floor. While it is not an exhaustive list, the first of these is the rising importance of AI/ML for the industrial sector. The Factory of the Future will have a dizzying array of endpoints, legacy networks, and platforms that must be integrated with newer, digital platforms. While 5G has the potential to become the central nervous system of the factory floor, connecting many endpoints and enabling IT/OT convergence, AI/ML will increasingly provide the “brainpower” keeping production lines running smoothly. Use cases range from anomaly and defect detection, preventive maintenance, facial recognition for access control, and more.
Several of the new use cases involve robotics. Robots are sorting inventory, doing inspections and quality checks, packing materials, tighten bolts, and a range of other functions. Robots can scale from collaborative human-robot scenarios to full automation. One of the demos we saw belonged to Bosch Rexroth, featuring their APAS robot which helps to complete inspections. The robot is placed at the center of “modules” with different processes. These modules are fixed to a surface, but each has a position sensor embedded for signals to be looped back to the inspection software. The robot will know the exact position of each module to complete the relevant inspection processes. Another interesting demo from Bosch Rexroth was for a palletizing use case. Robots are used to help pack materials onto pallets. However, the robot works at two speeds, a slower collaborative speed to account for interactions with humans and another setting for a fully automated scenario.
Autonomous vehicles are also rapidly maturing and becoming a staple feature of the shop floor. Early versions of autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) operated in limited areas with the help of Wi-Fi connectivity but soon ran into issues of reliability, coverage, and handovers. AGVs are being used to transport materials across the factory, from the production lines to the warehouses for inventory, taking spare parts to specific stations on the production lines, and a host of other use cases. However, many of these AGVs only operate on pre-defined paths. Newer generations of autonomous vehicles are now able to incorporate maps of the facilities to navigate their way around the facility on their own. Autonomous, connected mobility can also be scaled up all the way to cars and automobiles, not in the highway driving cellular V2X world but in more limited areas. For example, Ericsson showcased a demo of an automated factory parking use case with their partner Unikie. Using a dedicated 5G network, automobiles coming off a production line can be “guided” to autonomously find a parking spot. In this use case, there are several cameras, sensors, Lidar units, all of which generate continuous data that is processed on an Edge platform and fed back to the automobile to enable autonomous driving.
The manufacturing sector is one of the lead verticals that are embracing digital transformation, with a view to closing the productivity gap. At a large event like Hannover Messe, it is not easy to delve deeper into all the numerous aspects related to manufacturing. Rather, we have tried to focus on the key technology and network developments that are enabling the transformation of these shop floors. This is a fast-evolving space with plenty of innovations to come.
One of the themes that we believe is fast rising in importance is machine vision. More and more endpoints around the factory floor are dependent on machine vision, with increasingly high-definition cameras capturing a near endless stream of images of components, parts, products, and people and relaying these in “real-time” to the edge platform for analysis and further actions. Use cases for machine vision range from inspection and quality control, access control around the facility to worker safety, and more.
Another theme that deserves closer attention is sustainability in manufacturing. With the UN Global Compact as the backdrop, several manufacturers are keenly looking at the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. Sustainability has not just entered the conversation for manufacturing, but it is increasingly becoming a business outcome that drives value for the manufacturing enterprise. Large multinational manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson already have a factory in Helsingborg, Sweden, that is carbon neutral. ABB has announced a “Mission to Zero”, with an objective of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. These sustainability initiatives will all benefit from the raft of emerging technologies that are being deployed on the factory floor.