What Your Factory Needs to Know About Leveraging 5G Connectivity

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With the launch of each new generation of cellular connectivity, it was almost impossible to predict what the killer application would be. With the launch of 2G it was the ability to make reliable wireless phone calls and send text messages; 3G connectivity saw accessing the Internet on your phone as the crucial application even if load times were slow; 4G, the current cellular network, has enabled modern smartphones to become turbo-charged pocket-sized web-connected computers. Looking back at the past decade, video has been one of the largest beneficiaries of 4G technology. Just imagine telling the 2005 version of you that one day soon you’d be able to stream NBA playoff games while waiting in line at the grocery store.

Each generation of cellular technology is characterized by new frequency bands, higher data rates and non–backward-compatible transmission technology. The first 3G networks were introduced in 1998 and fourth generation 4G networks in 2008. And now, the fifth generation, or 5G, is beginning to rollout and it’s anyone’s guess what 5G will enable people to do from a communications perspective.

Some think that augmented reality, virtual reality, or artificial intelligence will become 5G’s killer application. Maybe it’ll be all those things or something entirely new. Maybe it’ll be burrito deliveries via autonomous drones. These things are often hard and pointless to predict without the obvious benefit of hindsight. That said, the anticipation of enabling smart cities, farms, and logistic networks, autonomous vehicles, Industry 4.0, IoT, and other technologies that require huge amounts of data and ubiquitous connectivity for mobile devices and sensors should excite many. Even first responders like police and fire departments are chomping at the bit to get 5G.

It's important for the U.S. to adopt this technology early. It is going to form the basis for innovations in a variety of areas, like smart connected automobiles, and factories of the future, thinks Jeffrey Reed, a Virginia Tech professor of electrical and computer engineering and founding director of Wireless@Virginia Tech.

How is 5G different from existing cellular technology?

The expectations for 5G networks are huge because they promise both significantly faster data transfer speeds—roughly the same speeds as existing wired gigabit broadband whereas 4G tops out around 20 Mbps on a good day—and lower network latency (more responsive), higher reliability (better coverage), and larger network capacity (more devices to connect to it).

5G networks will run on two airwave spectrums: below and above 6GHz. Spectrum below 6GHz provide greater range from existing cellular stations and towers. Most experts believe rural networks where many factories and logistics centers reside will take advantage of this spectrum.

In places with greater population density, most networks will leverage the higher frequencies known as millimeter wave. Those frequencies are where the speed differences will truly come into play; however, because the wavelengths are short these cellular signals drop faster and have a harder time penetrating buildings and other urban obstacles. Networks will need to be denser by using more cellular stations much more frequently throughout a coverage area.

When will 5G be available?

Some companies are beginning to build pilot 5G coverage areas, however, it’ll still take a few years before 5G is ubiquitous in the United States and other parts of the world. Not only do the networks still need to be built out but then mobile device makers such as Apple or Samsung need to build phones that can connect to them. Experts think it’ll be a few years at least until that happens. But, by 2021 the infrastructure should be built out to leverage 5G.

If you’re a company that uses mobile device technology—and at this point what business or industry doesn’t—then your strategy planning and technology investments must be with an eye toward 5G. Does it make sense to invest in 4G-only hardware devices right now when the promise of 5G is just two years away?

5G Mobile devices and Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 refers to a set of emerging innovations in advanced automation, machine vision, Big Data, cloud computing and machine learning which will revolutionize manufacturing. Crucial to all this will be the emergence of mobile devices as the primary end-user computing device and interface for all these changes.

Industry 4.0 demonstrates tremendous potential to bolster productivity, reduce waste, refine product quality, enhance manufacturing flexibility, decrease operating costs and deliver myriad other benefits to the factory floor. Combined with 5G cellular technology it promises to crank that potential up to 11.

But manufacturing factories will need mobile devices capable of leveraging all these technologies. Purpose-built mobile computers are made with specific technology and components that make upgrades and repairs a lengthy and costly process. Investing CapEx dollars on purpose-built 4G devices when 5G is just around the corner isn’t a wise strategy.

With a modular smartphone-based design, companies can keep the rugged base and simply exchange the top cover kit—all existing chargers and accessories stay the same. As Apple and Samsung make devices that incorporate massive technology changes, factories just need to upgrade to these latest devices to take advantage of anything from 5G to augmented reality.

Companies will need to remain flexible and adaptable in order to quickly leverage new technology. Investing in modular mobile technology can help prevent lagging behind the technology adoption curve caused by purpose-built devices.

James Furbush

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