IIoT: Removing the barriers to smart factories


With recent reports highlighting that 5G-enabled factories could deliver a productivity boost to UK manufacturing of between £2.6 billion (€3.03 billion) and £6.3 billion (€7.34 billion), it is perhaps surprising that smart factory technology simply wasn’t on the radar of 27% of respondents to the Annual Manufacturing Report in 2019.

Two years after the DCMS 5G Testbed and Trials (5GTT) programmes launched in the UK, things seem to be looking up though, with 80% of respondents to a 2020 MAKE UK survey reporting they would be ready to introduce Industry 4.0 by 2025. This is up from just 20% three years earlier.

What are the barriers?

So, with potential gains on offer from Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) now quantified, what are the barriers real and perceived to wide-scale adoption across the manufacturing sector, says Ste Ashton, business lead at nexGworx, the 5G Testbed as a Service. And how can we remove these to effectively unleash the power of smart, connected manufacturing more widely?

Lack of awareness of potential real-life applications, security concerns, funding challenges and simple management time constraints in the face of day-to-day operational pressures accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic are all frequently cited as reasons many management teams have yet to actively embark on their smart factory journey. These are all issues that are amplified for smaller, supply-chain companies which have typically fewer resources to dedicate to operations beyond the here and now.

That’s why, when the UK’s first live 5G factory trials took place at the Worcestershire 5G Testbed through 2018-2020, crystallising real-life use cases and developing an understanding of the practical challenges involved with setting up reliable and secure 5G networks in demanding industrial environments was central to the programme.

Live 5G factory trials

Working with locally-based Worcester Bosch, Yamakazi Mazak and security partner QinetiQ, among others, the trials covered everything from changes to factory floor production processes; exploring preventative maintenance using IoT sensors and data analytics to predict failure; real-time analysis; remote machine operation and maintenance; and designing security into 5G networks and applications.

In pioneering work for the small to medium sized enterprise (SME) sector, aerospace manufacturer AE Aerospace has also been developing its ‘glass factory’ concept, looking at how private 5G networks can be used to plan production, collecting and monitoring performance data in real time to optimise production and create a new ‘capacity availability’ model; using sensors to locate and ensure gauges are correctly calibrated; and testing artificial intelligence (AI) to improve the inspection process.

Real IIoT and smart factory use cases

All of these are real, tangible use cases that bring the potential of IIoT and smart factories to life in a way that perhaps just talking about networks, connectivity and bandwidth cannot.

Crucially, these trials have demonstrated that while some individual use cases will require 5G networks on their own merit, there isn’t one killer application or use case that will drive 5G adoption more likely, the installation of private 5G networks will be best justified where several applications operating together require the benefits that 5G offers.

Ste Ashton

Applications are likely to arise from existing continuous improvement programmes and, as such, Industry 4.0 readiness may well be led by a combination of continuous improvement, operational and research & development (R&D) teams. However, while productivity gains, quality control, health and safety, customer experience and a greener agenda are all demonstrably achievable through smart factories on a site-specific basis, these gains are significantly amplified by driving collaboration across project teams, in-house departments, manufacturing sites, supply chains and customer operations.

Ensuring manufacturers up and down the supply chain have access to testbeds, indoor and outdoor 5G networks, both public and private, to develop and hone their IIoT ideas is, therefore, crucial to the realisation of full potential gains. Centres of excellence such as the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry and independent Testbed as a Service providers can play a big part here. 

With so many potential applications and technologies to choose from, knowing where to start can be overwhelming. However, working in conjunction with expert teams who are living and breathing IIoT technology every day means manufacturers can cut huge amounts of time and waste from the process.

Support available

There is a wealth of support now available for manufacturers of all sizes to explore the potential 5G offers. This may come in the form of access to testbeds, funding streams to support manufacturing based 5G trials, use case demonstrators, evidential data to support business case development, and accessing experienced networking teams that understand the installation and security challenges. 

With Governments across Europe investing heavily in networks and trials to drive adoption within their own sectors, there has never been a better time to identify the right IIoT opportunity for your business and lead the charge into this smart new age.

The author is Ste Ashton, business lead at nexGworx, the 5G Testbed as a Service.

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