This article was originally published in my Oct. 7, 2022 newsletter.
Last week, I made a trip out to Moline, Ill., to tour the more-than 3 million-square-foot factory where John Deere makes its X9 1100 combine, among other equipment, and which it built after spending half a million dollars in 2020 on 50 megahertz of wireless spectrum in five counties in the Midwest.
Until you visit a manufacturing facility, it’s hard to imagine how sheets of metal get cut, folded, welded, and screwed together to make giant harvesting machines that weigh roughly 25 tons each and start at $916,000 brand-new. Seeing shelves of stacked sheet metal at one end and a completed combine at the other is humbling in a way that we often don’t get to think about in the world of IT. But IT is increasingly involved in factory operations.
John Deere purchased the spectrum as part of an overall plan to modernize its factories. The company has had wired Ethernet in its factories for years; it even built its own manufacturing plant software. And the Moline plant has Wi-Fi networks in use today. It also has tested using Bluetooth and other wireless technologies, for location services. It is, in other words, a company with sophisticated IT and OT convergence.
So let’s talk wireless, since that’s why I was there. Tracy Schrauben, a manufacturing emerging technologies manager at John Deere, told me the goal is to make factories wireless so it’s easier to reconfigure work stations whenever products or plans change. Doing so will save time and money in the form of extra cabling and Ethernet drops. The factories also have thousands of devices — among them handheld drills, loaders, and more — that can wander from station to station (either intentionally or not), and using wireless technologies to track that equipment saves time and money, too.
A reliable wireless network also enables machinists to get more data off of the company’s equipment. For example, John Deere has attached sensors to welding equipment in the hopes of getting data that can be used to train an algorithm on the best welds. Other examples of the benefits of attaching wireless sensors to equipment include getting vibration or sound data from machines to feed back into a predictive maintenance algorithm. Wiring up some of this gear would be prohibitively expensive or impossible.
One project that Schrauben has implemented with the help of Jason Wallin, principal architect at John Deere, is measuring exactly how much torque is behind every bolt that holds the pieces of the X9 1100 combine together. Sensors on handheld power drills and sensors on robot arms track torque to ensure every bolt is optimally tightened.
The handheld equipment currently uses Wi-Fi chips inside the power drills to send data. But Wi-Fi is power-hungry. It also uses unlicensed spectrum that can get congested and become unreliable, especially in factory settings with huge metal equipment in the way and a lot of interference from nearby devices including microwaves.
The end goal for John Deere is to move as much equipment as possible to cellular and, eventually, to a custom 5G network built on the company’s Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum. Wallin told me that Deere expects the number of sensors in the factory to grow 20 times from where it is today, and that it will need the density provided by 5G networks. Schrauben, meanwhile, is looking forward to the location-tracking options available in 5G networks that are still to come in the wake of Release 17 being approved this past June. They’re both still waiting for the appropriate end nodes and equipment that can support 5G and the CBRS spectrum. Dongles plugged into machines in the Deere test lab provide connectivity in the meantime.
Both Wallin and Schrauben are also hoping to see vendors support 5G in the CBRS band on laptops, handheld devices, and industrial gateways. Wallin was especially excited to show me a Dell laptop that worked in the CBRS band without requiring a dongle.
And to get a sense of how much they want to put on the cellular network and how much they trust it, Jason Ryan, a technologist focused on manufacturing and emerging tech at Deere, told me he’d like the programmable logic controllers, which are currently wired, to support eventual 5G over CBRS. That’s a bold ask. I’ve heard nothing from Siemens, Rockwell, Schneider Electric, or any other programmable logic controller (PLC) vendors about wireless PLCs.
I found the call for wireless PLCs surprising because they are the brains of very expensive and often dangerous machines. They need to respond reliably and quickly while also staying secure. And wireless is rarely perceived as being any of those things. But the Deere team believes that it can make most of its operations wireless using its own cellular network, which it controls, and future 5G with sub10-millisecond latency.
Today it is running 14 LTE microcells in the Moline Harvester plant, which provide coverage for about a third of the facility. Those 14 microcells offer the same density as 100 Wi-Fi access points, Wallin told me, and even that’s overkill for the plant’s current needs. There are some 200 devices on each microcell, which deliver 100 Mbps and latencies of about 10 milliseconds, according to Wallin, who added that the current cellular network cost about 75% of the wired infrastructure it replaced.
To build this network, John Deere grew its wireless department by 20% and worked with its cellular equipment vendor (the name of which it did not share) to spec out and do the initial build. The result is that it now has the experience and airwaves to essentially operate its own telco network inside the Moline plant. Going forward, it plans to expand those efforts to its other plants in the U.S. and to investigate spectrum deals in Mexico, Germany, and India, where it has other manufacturing facilities.
For John Deere, the decision to become a network operator has already saved it money and opened up new use cases to improve its factory operations. Other companies will likely operate 5G networks inside their plants too, but they will likely rely on a mobile operator for the airwaves and infrastructure. Or they might outsource all operations to Nokia or Ericsson, which are trying to provide 5G networks as a service for factory customers.
It’s clear that the hype around factory 5G is finally becoming real. I expect that over the next year or two John Deere will host many tours for other plant managers interested in how to use 5G in their own factories.
Note: John Deere paid for my hotel room as part of my trip to Moline.