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Putting 5G Into Practice for the Industrial IoT

When considering which market sector would be first to generate significant 5G revenues, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) comes a close second, only behind consumer devices. Why then is the IoT seen as such a good fit for 5G, particularly for industrial applications? Which applications are likely to be the most important? And what challenges need to be overcome?

To answer these questions first let’s define IIoT and look more closely at what it means in practice. The IoT, in broad terms, can mean anything connected to the internet that’s not a cellphone, tablet, or computer. For industrial IoT, we’d narrow that down to equipment within a factory, process industry or other industrial context.

That’s still a fairly wide definition of industrial IoT. To understand 5G usage, we need to get more specific. Within the IIoT segment, we can see important use cases for 5G will include condition monitoring, robotics, augmented reality/virtual reality and process control.

In a recent survey conducted by Molex with research firm Dimensional Research, we asked what respondents saw as the most likely “killer app,” or primary use case, for 5G in industrial and IoT markets. Robotics was the top answer, named by 45 percent of respondents.

Additionally, there was a broad range of answers, however, with other likely applications (that were all named by at least 30 percent of survey participants) including logistics, factory automation, process control and smart power grid.

As it relates to the timing of 5G rollouts, condition monitoring and robotics may well be the “gateways” that blaze a trail for increased future spending. Condition monitoring, and its use in predictive maintenance, is an example of an application where the financial benefits of IoT can be easily quantified, making it more straightforward to justify for manufacturers. Robotics can spur investment by requiring private 5G wireless infrastructure, since existing wired connections cannot enable mobility needed by applications like connected and autonomous factory robots.

Industrial 5G

We’ve looked at some applications, but we’ve not yet addressed the question of why 5G is likely to be so useful in IIoT applications.

Discussion of 5G has often focussed on its increases in bandwidth compared to 4G and 3G, offering faster data rates of up to 10 Gbps, and the ability to support more devices from one base station. In an industrial setting, this may be useful for applications such as technicians using augmented reality to remotely diagnose equipment problems.

The required bandwidth can be reduced by AI implemented locally at or near an IoT device, monitoring sensor data and only sending it over the network when a problem or required action is identified.

Low latency is also significant in many industrial use cases. In ideal conditions, the time between sending and receiving a 5G signal could be as low as 1 millisecond, compared to about 200 milliseconds for 4G. This is critical for process control as 5G is used to control equipment in real time, and for mobile factory robots sending and receiving data across networks. For example, a pick-and-place robot may use cameras and other sensors to scan a shelf, then send raw data to the network, where an algorithm processes and relays back instructions to the robot – all in the blink of an eye.

Another benefit of 5G is power efficiency. The 5G standard includes multiple features to reduce power consumption, such as extensive use of sleep modes when there is little or no data transmission. In terms of watts-per-bit of data, 5G is up to 90 percent more efficient than 4G networks. For battery-powered IoT devices, this can make a big difference in how long the devices can operate between charges.

While 5G networks provided by big carriers will be the best choice in some cases, for many industrial applications, a better option is private networks in which a separate 5G network is created specifically for devices and data transmission of a particular location and implementation. This means the network can be customized for a company’s particular needs, with security and service levels ensured.

Frequency matters

Another technology area to consider is the frequency band used by 5G. Going back to high school physics, you may remember that higher frequencies can carry more data. Hence, 5G can use millimeter-wave (mmWave) frequency bands above 6 GHz to achieve its high bandwidth.

However, these high frequencies also mean that the signals are absorbed more easily by objects, walls or other obstructions. Thus, more base stations or “small cells” are needed to fill gaps in today’s network coverage.

The mmWave signals also require technologies such as beam forming and steering to cope with signal degradation due to high frequencies, adding cost and complexity. To support these technologies, 5G networks will require more complex antennas when compared to 4G, both on base stations and connected devices. These antennas must be re-designed and optimized to provide the right features and performance.

In addition to the networks themselves, IoT devices will clearly need to be optimized for 5G connections. We’ve just mentioned antennas, but with faster data rates, other aspects will require re-design to keep up – from connectors to microcontrollers.

The shift to 5G offers alternative frequency bands, operating in the spectrum below 6 GHz, down to 450 MHz. This longer-range band can make deployment simpler and still provide many of 5G benefits, while sacrificing the super-fast speeds achievable with mmWave. In practice, these sub-6 GHz frequencies may well be ideal for use as a transitional technology, rolling out more quickly by reducing the investment required.

Revenue and complexity

In our survey, 89 percent of respondents agreed that 5G will be bigger than 4G, and 88 percent expect 5G to generate new revenue streams. As discussed above, industrial IoT is an ideal fit for 5G in many applications.

And this will happen soon, with 35 percent of survey participants saying they have already achieved their business goal for 5G, or will within a year. Indeed, 92 percent expect the timeframe to be within five years. Similarly, 91 percent said they expect 5G specifically in IIoT to deliver significant new business revenue in the next five years.

To achieve this timescale, 5G carriers and OEM’s must rapidly develop and implement complex systems. Working with new RF standards brings new challenges, and for industrial applications, everything must work in an electrically noisy and physically harsh environment.

As a provider of 5G components, we see plenty of relevant IIoT use cases,. Each use cases may benefit from 5G in different ways. Understanding the application – and recognizing it will be different every time – is vital to ensuring success in specifying, selecting and implementing a solution.

There is a big opportunity for 5G in the industrial IoT market, but making the most of its benefits will require careful evaluation and planning aligned directly to the specific use cases and technical and business goals.

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