Factory of the Future 2021

Production – 5G

More than fast streaming

There is more to 5G than being able to stream Netflix at 4K. Illya Verpraet takes a closer look at how automotive manufacturers benefit.

To the casual observer, 5G may seem like a needless upgrade to mobile phones, but for automotive manufacturers, private 5G networks in factories will soon become an essential tool in enabling the next generation of smart robotics, logistics and analytics.

In the automotive industry, 5G is particularly a hot topic in the area of autonomous vehicles. Having different vehicles communicate their exact position and their intentions to each other, with no latency (i.e. delay), is often seen as key to safe driverless cars. Although true, intelligent autonomous vehicles on the road are still some way off, they are much closer to being a reality within factories.

Life on the edge

As manufacturing facilities look to replace automated guided vehicles (AGV) that depend on lines on the floor with more intelligent alternatives that can avoid obstacles and take more flexible routes so that they can cater to increasingly flexible production systems, many are starting 5G trials to take full advantage of the potential flexibility.

One of the main benefits of 5G and one that is very relevant in the context of transport robots, is that it enables faster edge computing. Very simply put, edge computing means moving computing tasks (such as processing the artificial vision of an autonomous transport robot) away from the cloud, and back to the device itself (e.g. the transport robot), to other edge devices (such as a computing centre on the factory floor), or to a combination of both. 

This means large amounts of data do not need to be sent to faraway data centres, something that introduces latency. Data travelling around the world may seem instant in the context of home computers, but it does still take time – time which may not be available when an AGV is heading for an obstacle or when VR/AR needs to respond in real time. Processing the data more locally also avoids bandwidth and data centres being overloaded. 

5G is used at Ford’s Valencia factory to improve the guidance of the AGVs

According to Nokia, a major developer of 5G and other telecom technology, wi-fi is not fit for purpose, as it can’t be scaled like 4G and 5G, it lacks the coverage and isn’t reliable enough, particularly in difficult radio environments. As more and more equipment within factories has complex computing needs, there is a need for more speed and more bandwidth, an issue to which 5G provides an answer. While cables will continue to have a place in the factory of the future, they are quite obviously unsuitable for mobile equipment.

Industry trials 5G for logistics robots

Ford has started a trial at its Valencia engine plant, where Ericsson will install a 5G network to the navigation both indoors and outdoors the AGV fleet using simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM), which allows them to find their way while simultaneously creating a map of the facility. The AGVs will also be able to respond to human gestures, and operators can connect to them and use VR to control the vehicles remotely

Where 5G and its superior speed, reliability and low latency come in is the edge computing to process the SLAM and VR. The trial is conducted with a number of partners, including two universities, mobile robotics company ASTI, and a number of technology companies, for them to also learn from the project. 

The trial is part of the 5G-INDUCE project, which is supported by the European Commission and the European ICT sector to investigate the introduction of 5G in industry. Manuel Lorenzo, head of technology and innovation, Ericsson Spain, said: “The 5G-INDUCE project is a great example of the momentum [of digitalisation] – gathering world-class innovation in Industry 4.0, robotics, 5G, edge computing, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and [we can] count on the support of the EU 5G-PPP programme. Ericsson is glad to contribute with our technology and expertise in 5G solutions to the success of this initiative.”

BMW, too, is looking seriously into the use of 5G. A spokesperson said that the BMW Group is currently testing the use of private 5G networks in production settings in several pilots around the world, and it has applied for 5G licenses in Germany in 2020. Further applications will follow in 2021, depending on the load of other projects. The spokesperson added that BMW sees considerable potential for production applications, especially through the use of a private 5G network.

BMW is also using 5G to make its AGVs smarter at its Dingolfing plant

Its pilot plant for 5G rollout in Europe is Dingolfing, where it plans to use 5G to connect its logistics robots, contributing €3.23m to a project supported by the Bavarian ministry of economic affairs, regional development and energy. The project in Dingolfing was planned to start last year, but was delayed by the covid crisis.

The research consortium is made up of three further Bavarian companies. m3connect is working to set up a private 5G network at the BMW plant; Stäubli WFT develops and produces transport solutions that can manoeuvre autonomously through logistics areas; and scientific monitoring for the project is provided by the Institute for Engineering Design of Mechatronic Systems & MPLM e.V.

Peter Kiermaier, head of logistics planning at the Dingolfing plant said: “We also want to use new technologies to increase transparency in conventional processes and enable smooth coupling of manual and autonomous technologies.”

Man and machine

Making it possible for robots and humans to work together safely and efficiently is another challenge where 5G is a great help in finding a solution. Audi is currently in the final phase of a joint pilot project of a human-robot interaction, again together with Ericsson. In the trial, an industrial robot installs an airbag module in a steering wheel. The robot’s workspace is protected by safety sensors and as soon as a human hand breaks through the cell's light curtain, the robot stops automatically.

The trial is not yet part of series production – it is conducted in the smart factory of Audi’s ‘Production Lab’. “These projects will teach us more about how wireless networks can be used optimally in a smart factory,” said Dr Henning Löser, head of the Audi Production Lab.

While the specific application is hardly revolutionary, it is just a test case for making systems communicate over 5G, and Audi says that with the explosive growth of networked devices, 5G will be a necessary complement to wi-fi.

The robot arm will shut down when it detects a human hand nearby

Like with BMW, there is still some work to be done on the infrastructure. A spokesperson told AMS: “Currently, the use of 5G applications in the series production depends – among other things – on the availability of devices that comply with the industrial standard, which according to the current state of development are only available in small numbers.

“An exclusive frequency spectrum, for example an in-house 5G campus network, is an important requirement for the successful use of wireless communication between industrial devices in production. Audi already has built its own 5G campus network in the immediate vicinity of the main plant in Ingolstadt. Due to our own and exclusive 5G campus network we assure that we have enough network resources the whole time.”

Mercedes-Benz also opted to start its 5G journey on a relatively small scale, though it already chose to use an actual production facility in the form of Factory 56 in Sindelfingen. This plant produces the brand’s flagship S-Class limousine and is used as the testbed for innovative production technology, such as the TecLines discussed in another article in this edition. Telefónica and Ericsson installed the private 5G infrastructure, but it is run by Mercedes-Benz, ensuring sensitive production data is not shared with third parties.

Low latency, lower latency, lowest latency

5G-connected factories are not only something OEMs working on. Telefónica also installed a 5G network in one of Gestamp’s plants in Barcelona. In this case, the low-latency transfer of massive amounts of data makes it possible to use the data collected from the different industrial devices and create a digital twin of the plant that is updated in real time. The ultimate benefit is that it becomes possible to carry out very accurate simulations to aid decision making.

Gestamp is using 5G for its massive data collection

The key, as before, is edge computing. The computing power, memory and storage capacity are offered by what Gestamp calls its ‘Virtual Data Center in Edge’, a virtualised environment that Telefónica is deploying in a number of locations. The project employs physical infrastructure located in Barcelona, very close to the Gestamp factory. Both the 5G client equipment at Gestamp and the mobile network have been set up so that the traffic generated in the factory reaches the central data processing directly, without making unnecessary jumps and therefore maintaining low latency with the digital twin.

Even though 5G is only in its trial stages in many automotive manufacturing facilities, researchers are already on the case of 6G, which may become a reality in about ten years. 6G development is likely to be driven by the push for autonomous vehicles on the road, which will be able to make full use of the anticipated data rate of one terabit per second (5G is expected to reach 20 gigabits per second at its peak) and latency that will drop below 5G’s 1 millisecond.

The Technical University of Munich is working on 6G and focusses on the absolute highest fail-safe standards, the shortest possible latency times and maximum energy efficiency to make applications where humans and robots work in close proximity completely safe. “For the 6G network, we are aiming for 99.999999999% fail-safe reliability,” said Dr Wolfgang Kellerer, project leader of the 6G Future Lab Bavaria at the TU Munich. “After all, a wrong reaction could lead to the robot injuring someone or destroying something within a fraction of a second.”