4 May, 2022


Jonny Williamson, UK5G website



In the third of his series, Jonny Williamson discusses 5G interoperability and compatibility with Rab Scott, Professor of Industrial Digitalisation at the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and spokesperson for the 5G Factory of the Future project.

How does 5G technology underpin the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0?

Industry 4.0 is about the removal of non-value-added activity. Anytime a worker or a business has got to go to the data, that is non-value-added activity. Instead, bring the data to the worker and enable them to make better decisions more quickly by centralising the information. The heart of Industry 4.0 is connecting currently isolated equipment and departments together. The enabler for that is the communications layer, of which 5G is one option. It's as fundamental as that. Except 5G overcomes some of the constraints that previous communication layers have provided.

5G provides you with mobility because it's a wireless protocol and it provides mass connectivity. As the number of devices on the shop floor dramatically increases, from smart tools or devices worn by workers to large-scale equipment and AGVs, we’ll start to hit the limits of existing connectivity solutions. They certainly can't handle the bandwidth or the latency that will soon be required.

These limitations are all overcome by 5G while also providing previously unattainable levels of security and configurability.

For now, 5G will predominantly be used as a traditional communication layer until the demand for its additional capabilities arises. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s national 5G Testbeds & Trials Programme is helping to build that demand by showing the art of the possible and that the benefits outweigh any risks.

It appears that 5G is not currently a priority for most small and medium-sized businesses. How do we change that?

Most SMEs we talk to are still just looking to survive the pandemic and its fallout. They're not exploring what I’d call next-generation activities.

In a way, it’s good that large players have seen the opportunity and are starting to undertake implementations. As demand rises, the prices should come down, the skills should become more common, and the capabilities and benefits will become more known.

That will all help bring 5G to a price and availability point for the SME base. But we can only do that through investment and demonstration.

How much of the 5G opportunity is about better connectivity within your own factory versus creating stronger connections between your operation and those of your partners?

The place to start is in the factory. But, remember, your factory is someone else's customer point. Their products sit on your shop floor. If they're connected to that piece of equipment, then so should you because you can be looking at the data slightly differently.

The equipment manufacturer will want to aggregate data from their entire install base and use it to drive next-generation products and possibly to introduce new services around product optimisation and predictive maintenance.

As the equipment user, you’re only interested in improving your own productivity and in doing so, reducing your energy consumption, reducing waste, etc. That makes it quite hard to put a solid boundary around the potential impact that this connectivity layer can have.

Most production environments contain equipment from multiple manufacturers, all of which will be drawing data from their machines for the reasons you describe. Is there a way for a factory manager to see everything that’s happening in one master overview via a single portal?

That sort of interoperability is one of the largest barriers that we see in Industry 4.0; getting different systems to talk to each other because every OEM wants their system or standard to be the global standard.

This is where the cloud comes into play because we can use it as the aggregating area and start dashboarding things from the cloud. Doing so circumvents the challenge of having propriety systems talk to each other.

The Catapults, alongside organisations such as the BSI, have a key role to play in this. We've got to show end-customers the value of being able to access the data from their different vendors and protocols all in one place. Because it's the buyers and users who have the leverage over the equipment providers.

The other issue, particularly in the UK, is that most modern equipment is 5G-enabled or soon will be. That’s great if you're in the market for some new equipment but we’re very proud of keeping 100-year-old machines running. Compare that to Germany, where businesses are proud of having new machinery.

The UK’s productivity challenge stems from this ‘make do and mend’ mentality. This is why we need to start engaging with financial institutions because, in a lot of cases, it would make more sense to take out a loan and invest in new machines that do exactly what old equipment does but so much more effectively and efficiently.

It sounds like industrial IT architectures are going to become increasingly more complex with wired and wireless connections, 4G and 5G networks, all stacked on top of each other.

I think so. Architectures will have multiple communication layers, depending on what the purpose is, and this is where we're beginning to see real challenges around where the boundary lies between IoT and OT.

Who is responsible for managing that boundary? Who is responsible for managing the embedded IT systems in the OT environment? Who is responsible for patching a particular piece of software? IT views it as being vulnerable to cyberattack but doesn’t want to risk interrupting production, and OT doesn’t want any work to be carried out because it’s currently operating perfectly.

There needs to be a much better understanding of the ecosystem as a whole and greater integration of IT and OT teams.

The issue is made more difficult because of legacy IT systems and a lack of modern enterprise architectures within manufacturing facilities. Changing one piece of equipment can often cause a knock-on effect and require multiple other machines to be recalibrated. So, changes aren’t made and we’re back to this ‘make do and mend’ mentality.

Modern enterprise architecture has almost an information bus that runs across the whole organisation which you just hook into. An Amazon webpage has multiple different microservices running on it such as dynamic pricing, real-time delivery schedules and personalised recommendations. Any one of which can be reconfigured individually without having a dependency on anything else. That’s one of the key benefits of a modern IT system.

Untangling your legacy IT system to get data from the shop floor to the top floor more effectively will only benefit your business in the long term. This could be achieved using existing connectivity layers and solutions not necessarily 5G.

How long will it take for 5G adoption to become mainstream and what can a manufacturing business do today to prepare for that?

Within the next five years, definitely. The pandemic has both helped and hindered adoption. Working remotely and the need to socially distance have driven the uptake of digitalisation and helped to emphasise the importance of connectivity. On the other hand, factory closures, supplier bottlenecks and an international shortage of semiconductor chips have slowed the development of various 5G devices.

Today, businesses should be identifying the challenges they want to overcome and the capabilities they want access to, and then work to determine whether 5G is the best solution to achieving that. It might not be. 5G isn’t a silver bullet, it's just part of the armoury at our disposal.

If 5G is the right solution, then engage with UK5G and speak to other businesses already making use of it. They will have already done a lot of the heavy lifting and de-risking for you in terms of building the business case, integrating the technology and testing its capabilities.

Don’t be afraid to admit that you don't know what you don't know. But also look outside your normal field of view. What’s crucial is that if you’re going to invest, do so with future-proofing in mind. Don’t just think about this month or this year, consider what’s coming down the road in the next five, 10, 20 years and how your business will respond.

This article was written for the UK5G website.

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