Unlocking Industry 4.0: Understanding IoT In The Age Of 5G

The Internet of Things (IoT) will impact virtually all industries but none more so than manufacturing. In fact, IoT—with its potential to transform traditionally linear systems into dynamic and interconnected ones—may be the biggest driver of change in factories and other facilities.

As in other sectors, IoT and industrial IoT (IIoT) endeavors in manufacturing are made possible by wireless connectivity and the technologies that support it. Today, IoT depends on low power and long range, which the Narrowband (NB) standard addresses. NB connections can support a host of IoT use cases, including event detectors, smart garbage bins, and smart metering. Industrial applications include asset tracking, logistics tracking, machine monitoring, and many others.

Man working at industrial robot in modern factory

But as nationwide 5G connectivity continues to be built out, an entirely new level of speed, efficiency, and performance will help unlock new IoT use cases.

5G will be needed for higher data rate transmissions and ultra-low latency needs. In fact, a 2020 report from Bloor Research notes that the future of 5G, edge computing, and IoT together are key enablers for Industry 4.0.

The IIoT market, for instance, is forecasted to grow from $68.8 billion in 2019 to $98.2 billion by 2024, according to a report from Markets and Markets. Among the major factors expected to drive the IIoT market? More advanced semiconductor and electronic devices, and higher use of cloud computing platforms—both of which the 5G era is slated to drive.

On the other hand, according to the Bloor Research report, without 5G there will be significant network gaps to enabling Industry 4.0—not only in providing connectivity for the billions of IoT devices, but also in transferring and processing the huge volumes of data that will be generated.

The challenge is not just about bandwidth. Different IoT systems will have different network requirements. Some devices will demand absolute reliability where low latency will be critical, while other use cases will see networks having to cope with a much higher density of connected devices than we’ve previously seen.

For example, within a production plant, one day simple sensors might collect and store data and communicate to a gateway device that contains application logic. In other scenarios, IoT sensor data might need to be collected in real-time from sensors, RFID tags, tracking devices, even mobile phones across a wider area via 5G protocols.

Bottom line: Future 5G networks could help enable a number of IoT and IIoT use cases and benefits in the manufacturing industry. Looking ahead, don’t be surprised if you see these five use cases transform with strong, reliable connectivity from multi-spectrum 5G networks currently being built and the introduction of compatible devices.

Visibility of Production Assets

With IoT/IIoT, manufacturers could connect production equipment and other machines, tools, and assets in factories and warehouses, providing managers and engineers with more visibility into production operations and any issues that might arise.

Asset tracking—the ability to easily locate and monitor key components of a production facility—is a key capability of IoT. On the horizon, companies would be able to automatically track parts as they move through the assembly process using smart sensors. Plant managers could gain a real-time view of production output by connecting tools used by operators with any machines used in production.

Manufacturers could leverage these greater levels of visibility within plants to quickly identify and resolve bottlenecks through the use of dashboards with the latest IoT-generated data, helping to lead to faster and higher quality production.

Predictive Maintenance

Ensuring that factory equipment and other assets are in good working order is a major priority for manufacturers. A malfunction can lead to significant delays in production, which can in turn result in heavy losses for unexpected equipment repair or replacement as well as  unhappy customers due to delayed or even canceled orders. Keeping machines running can mean significant reductions in operating expenses and smoother production processes.

By deploying wireless sensors on machines throughout a factory and then connecting those to the Internet, managers would be able to detect when a certain piece of equipment is beginning to malfunction well before it actually does.

Emerging IoT systems supported by wireless technology could sense warning signs in equipment and send data to maintenance staff so they could proactively repair equipment—thus avoiding major delays and costs. In addition, manufacturers could realize benefits such as potentially safer plant environments and increased equipment lifetime.

Improved Product Quality

Imagine the continuous monitoring of products through the building cycle, made possible by having environmental sensors send back data about conditions critical for high quality, could help manufacturers build better quality goods.

Sensors could alert shop supervisors whenever quality thresholds are reached or when conditions such as air temperature or humidity are not optimal for production of products such as foods or pharmaceuticals.

Supply Chain Management and Optimization

Supply chains are getting increasingly complex for manufacturers, especially when they begin to expand operations globally. Emerging IoT allows companies to monitor events across their supply chains, delivering access to real-time data through the tracking of assets such as trucks, shipping containers, and even individual products.

Manufacturers could use sensors to track and monitor inventories as they move from location to location in the chain. That includes shipments of supplies needed to make products, and the delivery of finished goods. Manufacturers could gain increased visibility into product inventories to provide more accurate schedules for the availability of materials and the shipment of products to customers. Analysis of the data could also help companies make improvements in logistics by finding problem areas.

Digital Twins

Emerging IoT will make it possible for manufacturers to create digital twins—virtual replicas of physical devices or products that manufacturers could use to run simulations before they actually build and deploy the devices. Because of the continuous streams of real-time data provided by IoT, manufacturers could potentially create a digital twin of essentially any type of product, which would allow them to detect flaws sooner and predict outcomes more accurately.

That could lead to higher-quality products, as well as reduced costs in not having to recall products once they have been shipped. Data collected from the digital replicas would let managers analyze how well systems are working under various conditions in the field.

With a range of potential applications, each of these five prospective use cases could revolutionize much of the manufacturing sector. In order to realize the full promise of Industry 4.0, technology leaders within manufacturing will need to understand the key challenges IoT will bring and how the future of 5G can address them.

September 21, 2020

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