By Babu Unnikrishnan and Sankaranarayanan Viswanathan
Businesses in every sector are braced for the monumental changes being unleashed by AI, automation and other aspects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. One of the most significant enablers of these changes is 5G.
Unlike previous generations of mobile technology, that brought huge advances in consumer-facing applications, the biggest impact of 5G will be in the business world – enabling machine-to-machine and machine-to-cloud communications, and intelligent edge analysis on an unprecedented scale.
Freeing up devices to share data that can be used for real-time and near-real-time decision-making will, in turn, set the stage for the development of smart factories, connected and intelligent products, smart logistics and much more.
Data can be transferred at higher speeds via 5G. It can also handle greater volumes of data. Everything from huge amounts of drone-supplied video data to the ability for a machine to self-diagnose its own performance degradation will become eminently possible.
For telcos, understanding why this makes 5G more than just another milestone in the evolution of mobile technology is key to getting to grips with how to monetize the opportunities it brings.
Smarter than the average factory
While every iterative improvement in technology offers advances in efficiency or productivity, 5G promises so much more. This includes increased speeds, greater capacity and lower latency – but it’s the innovative solutions it will enable that will have a transformative impact. This is demonstrated in the evolution of the smart factory.
Rather than automate discrete processes, the smart factory will function as a single, connected entity able to flex and adapt on the fly thanks to real-time data-based decision-making. This consistent flow of data across every aspect of the operation will empower the factory itself to determine the most effective blend of human, machine and materials.
It will also mean machines can, autonomously, transport materials from one part of the production line to another. It will even make it possible for them to monitor their own performance and, in the event of problems, self-diagnose and arrange maintenance. This reduces the chances of costly unplanned downtime, which can bring production to a halt.
In cases where further intervention is needed, 5G will also support the use of AI-based, high-quality visual inspection. Video and images from production lines will be analysed and problems rapidly identified. This approach can be used to set and reinforce quality thresholds as part of a zero-defect operations model.
The ability for machines to communicate with one another, and just as importantly with cloud-based operations platforms, puts a great demand on the data network. Smart devices, forming part of the internet of things, connections to the cloud and so on – all made possible by 5G – will produce a volume of data that would have been hard to comprehend just a few years ago.
Existing technology – such as fibre-enabled Wi-Fi – alone is unlikely to be able to offer the flexibility that 5G devices will provide, allowing machines to be relocated or even fully mobile while remaining connected.
A smart factory will not exist as an island, either. It will be connected to all the other operations of the business – all of which will be feeding data, in real time, into a digital operations core.
That may include other manufacturing facilities in different parts of the world, it will certainly include logistics functions, sales operations, business intelligence platforms and the supply chain. This will open the door to enhanced research and development, improved production planning, more efficient consumption of materials, optimized inventory stock levels, and better customer engagement based on mass personalization.
These are all possibilities that can only be realized through the effective deployment of next-generation digital technologies, with 5G acting as the glue that binds it all together, adding vital end-to-end security to accelerate the convergence of IT and operations functionality.
Telco businesses that work collaboratively with a wider ecosystem to develop a complete end-to-end solution for various vertical market scenarios could be the big winners in the 5G economy.
By 2034, 5G may have generated an additional $565 billion in global GDP, according to figures from the GSMA. And in the UK alone, almost two-thirds of manufacturing companies plan to implement 5G within two years of availability – making the potential benefits of collaboration clear.
We’re only scratching the surface of the abundance of opportunities opened up by 5G. It’s more than just technological infrastructure, it’s a portal that can leapfrog us into the future of business and industry – and it will require a new mindset to leverage its promise.