Every week, I get a new press release discussing a pilot project that’s bringing 5G connectivity to manufacturing plants. Maybe it’s Ericsson making its own gear, or Intel and several partners, or even Qualcomm and ASE. This cavalcade of announcements does not jibe with my experience, however. In my discussions with actual plant operators, I haven’t heard any of them say they’re rushing to adopt 5G.
When I spoke with a representative from John Deere in November of 2020 about its plans to use the newly purchased CBRS spectrum to modernize its factory, I was told the agricultural giant was going to use 5G, but that it was waiting at least a year before figuring out any details. This week, when I had Mary Beth Hall, director of wireless strategy and marketing with Panasonic, on the podcast, she said Panasonic’s factory needs — and the needs of most of its clients — were covered by the current 4G networks.
Even Dave Nowoswiat, head of marketing for manufacturing and logistics at Nokia, admitted that while manufacturing is going to be one of the most compelling use cases for 5G, customers aren’t asking for it yet. Part of the reason is that the earliest versions of the standard that were implemented were focused on delivering enhanced speeds to smartphones and tablets.
Manufacturing plants are more interested in features that will be finalized as part of Releases 17 and 18 of the 5G standard at the end of 2021 and 2022, respectively. These features include time-sensitive communication, precise positioning, unlicensed 5G, and most importantly, massive machine-type communication. And once finalized, the manufacturing plants will still have to wait for chip vendors to get these features into modems, and for networking companies such as Nokia and Ericsson to build the equipment.
Even Qualcomm’s celebrated 315 modem, which launched a few weeks back to support 5G for industrial IoT, only covers features from Release 16 of the standard. It will have to develop new chips for the later 17 and 18 releases, and those chips aren’t likely to come out until the standards are finalized.
Add to the wait for certain features the general fact that manufacturers are generally conservative when it comes to embracing technology, and 5G factories won’t make it into full-scale production for several more years. There’s also the question of who will sell 5G technology to these companies.
“Industrial automation companies are not in a rush to expose their hitherto ‘captured’ industrial customers — who are using their somewhat proprietary machine/equipment communications protocols — to something that is an open standard,” Nowoswiat said via email.
He added that because the standards are yet to be completed and software upgrades of older chipsets to the upcoming features aren’t guaranteed, many manufacturing equipment vendors will wait for software-upgradable chipsets before embedding them in their products.
“These suppliers will of course implement 5G into their machinery and automation systems, but when it’s demanded from their customer base and not sooner,” he wrote. In other words, the 5G manufacturing revolution is coming, but not yet.