Factory of the
future: How 5G
and MEC can help
transform factory

Author: Keith Shaw

Global supply chain disruptions—whether caused by health pandemics or geopolitical events—are causing manufacturers to consider new technology innovations to transform their operations, according to Deloitte. Enterprises looking to create the factory of the future can benefit from deploying a combination of private 5G and MEC (mobile edge computing).

The smart factory of the future

Many manufacturers already deploy automation within their factories, but the next generation of manufacturing, sometimes referred to as Industry 4.0, includes a wealth of new innovations to help optimize factory operations. Here are a few examples of these technologies:

  • Industrial Internet of Things, or IIoT, uses a multitude of sensors to monitor factory equipment, scan for gas leaks, moisture or temperature extremes, provide quality assurance and monitor for security and safety violations. Data captured through IIoT sensors can then be used in predictive maintenance and other performance optimization tasks, improving factory equipment and preventing downtime.
  • Advanced and intelligent robotics offer a variety of implementations, such as using industrial arms with computer vision to collaborate more safely with human workers or automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to safely deliver materials within ever-changing environments.
  • Digital twins can create a virtual environment, duplicating existing factory floor environments. The technology can leverage the twin environment to confirm finished products with the original designs for quality control or to test equipment upgrades before they are deployed. For example, simulations can be run within a digital twin environment that showcase how a production line change will affect the rest of the factory.
  • Additive manufacturing is the customized 3D printing of parts. This allows manufacturers to improve the design of products and reduce waste materials. This can potentially create lighter, better and greener products while also improving flexibility and reducing time to market.
  • Augmented and virtual reality systems, or AR/VR, can complement front-line worker training scenarios and technical support issues—for example, allowing a technical expert to look "over the shoulder" virtually to assist a repair technician.

5G and MEC in manufacturing vs. the alternatives

A large majority of these new innovations also demand lower latency, greater bandwidth and higher network speed requirements than traditional computing environments. When deploying these technologies, it can be beneficial to have a 5G and MEC environment that can provide low latency, higher bandwidth capacity and optimized edge computing processing.

For example, many industrial robots and AMRs deployed on a factory floor use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) algorithms to detect human workers that are in their path. These algorithms require split-second decision-making capabilities. Data processed in a centralized cloud environment, or a path that requires multiple hops from the device to the cloud data center, may not be fast enough.

When asked to compare 5G with wired, Wi-Fi or 4G options, manufacturers consistently told the Manufacturing Institute that 5G made operations easier.1

Benefits of 5G and MEC for manufacturers

In a MEC scenario, computing resources are moved closer to end users and devices where the data is being generated. Companies can leverage private MEC along with private wireless networks to support 5G in the smart factory. Alternatively, manufacturers can use public MEC, which uses the public cellular network for device connectivity.

Enabling a 5G and MEC strategy can unlock several benefits for manufacturers:

  • Lower latency: Traditional cloud computing resources are located in regional or centralized clouds where performance may suffer due to longer distances between the device to the data center. With MEC, compute resources are located at the edge of the network, closer to devices and the data being generated. This reduces the distance data needs to travel greatly improving end-to-end performance.
  • Reduced jitter: By reducing the number of hops and devices that packets must travel, connectivity to edge sites is more reliable, suffering less jitter.
  • Higher bandwidth: Heavy mobile traffic can often create bottlenecks over backhaul network connections. Data traveling between edge devices and an on-site MEC system can avoid these bottlenecks. In addition, MEC systems could cache data both ways, optimizing the edge-to-device transmission and also scheduling data transfers to a centralized cloud data center during off-peak times, reducing costs for data transfer.
  • Creating on-demand cloud services: Working with a cloud provider, manufacturers could quickly activate edge computing resources on demand, reducing the time to deploy at new sites compared with traditional network installation processes.

Use cases: 5G and MEC in the smart factory

By deploying a factory with 5G and MEC, manufacturers can quickly optimize new technologies to advance their digital transformations. According to the results of a Manufacturing Institute survey, manufacturers expect 5G to have a strong impact on factory operations.2 This may include:

  • Equipment monitoring and control
  • Remote analytics to support near-real-time decision-making
  • Asset and inventory tracking
  • Employee safety

Better use of onsite monitoring and controls

For production equipment such as programmable logic controllers and computerized numerical control machines, a private MEC can host control applications, while a private 5G network links the controls to equipment on the factory floor. By centralizing controls within the factory, manufacturers can benefit from a simplified infrastructure, lower operational expenses and greater innovations. Private MEC installations can host compute-heavy AI and ML engines that take near-real-time input from sensors to provide automation assistance to the control system.

Near real-time decision-making and robotics improvements

For AGVs and AMRs, 5G coupled with MEC offers two distinct benefits. First, near real-time sensor data processing can be moved to a cloud environment onsite, speeding AI and ML decision-making processes, especially those critical for safety situations. Second, with robots, storing and processing data could take place at the edge, thereby reducing latency and potentially increasing data security.

Real-time asset and inventory tracking

Edge systems can be used to track parts and finished goods across multiple locations within a manufacturing environment. As products are moved between a factory and warehouse facility, 5G-enabled IIoT devices (such as trackers attached to products or pallets) could provide near-real-time tracking during transport. This could reduce theft and improve management of warehouse space for many operations.

Health and safety improvements 

Computer vision applications using video cameras can help track staff compliance with healthcare mandates or safety rules. For example, when a system detects a worker entering an unsafe area, the system can alert the smart factory to immediately halt production to address the safety violation. In security settings, near-real-time camera feeds can be used to monitor areas for potential physical security threats, with analysis undertaken on-site instead of being analyzed at a centralized cloud data center, helping to reduce bandwidth needs and the associated expense.

Many of these new technologies are ready to be deployed. The time is now for manufacturers to put the right network and edge computing environment in place. Don't just connect your factory. Make it even smarter. Verizon's network and advanced technology solutions can help you build the connected factory of the future. Learn what Enterprise Intelligence means for you.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.

1 The Manufacturing Institute, How 5G is Transforming the Manufacturing Landscape, page 33.

2 The Manufacturing Institute, page 5.