When industrial automation evolves, the whole sector evolves with it. Innovations like the assembly line in the early 1900s, and large-scale automation in the 1980s and 1990s, revolutionized how the global economy produces and consumes goods. Now, the industrial sector is on the cusp of another transformative moment: the advent of 5G automation.

While the consumer side of 5G receives more media coverage, there’s no doubt that 5G will be a crucial technological leap for manufacturing as well. Industrial automation has a lot to gain from the widespread adoption of 5G, particularly when it comes to the industrial internet of things (IIoT). Here, we’ll give you a brief overview of why. 

The Wireless Future of Industrial Automation

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is now a key element of many industrial facilities, from factory floors to logistics centers. IIoT can take many forms, from an individual sensor inside an electrical enclosure to a fully Wi-Fi-enabled piece of heavy machinery. Thanks to this flexibility, businesses can automate and streamline a huge (and ever-increasing) range of functions. 

Just as importantly, IIoT makes it possible to automatically gather data on key business functions and automation processes. At every stage of an industrial process, IIoT devices collect data that businesses can store, analyze, and use for functions such as predictive maintenance and supply chain analytics. 

As a result of these evolutions, wireless connectivity has become an increasingly important feature for industrial automation. To take industrial wireless connectivity to the next level, however, we’ll need a little boost from 5G. 

Current Options for Wireless Automation

Several wireless technology options currently exist for wireless industrial automation networking. All have positive aspects that make them good choices for certain applications, but they also fall short in some important ways. 

  • Well-known wireless technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are already widely used in industrial settings. Both wireless standards have received updates making them more suitable for industrial use. But they still can’t offer the low latency speeds that 5G is capable of; and they can be unreliable depending on physical obstructions.
  • Sub-GHz RF signals are useful for sensors and machines that send data infrequently and don’t require much power to do it. However, they’re not as suitable for large and frequent packet transmissions.
  • Private 4G cellular networks are powerful and can provide exceptionally reliable service. The downside is that they’re expensive to run and install, and their available speeds may not justify their expense for many businesses. 

What wireless automation still lacks is true ultra-reliable low latency communication (URLLC), in which the system guarantees a certain network response time to inputs. This is particularly important in developing advanced capabilities such as wireless motion control and real-time communication between equipment operators. 

5G promises to provide URLLC capabilities that will bring huge changes to how IIoT systems are designed. Next, let’s examine the features of 5G that will make it a standard element of IIoT for decades to come. 

What 5G Brings to Industrial Applications?

How does 5G improve on existing options for industrial wireless automation? It starts with differences built into the 5G standard. In the simplest terms, the 5G wireless protocol is designed with features that allow lightning-fast and ultra-reliable communication with all kinds of equipment and devices.

  1. 5G has much speedier and more reliable communication protocols powering its connections. Some industrial 5G standards will have a latency of less than 1 ms. That’s why 5G networks can power specialized machinery that other technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can’t handle. 
  1. 5G allows for the creation of non-public networks (NPNs), private 5G networks that businesses own and operate themselves. These networks are an ideal choice for businesses in search of a reliable, secure, and high-speed wireless LAN solution for connecting multiple automated devices. 
  1. 5G NPNs also allow network slicing, meaning network administrators can create multiple virtual networks within the same physical network architecture. This creates new possibilities for businesses to use their network spectrum more efficiently.
  1. 5G includes protocols for massive machine type communication (MMTC), which allows continuous control and communication with thousands of lower-energy devices. This feature will allow more flexible implementation of IIoT sensors and devices at scale in environments with many wireless automation inputs. 

Challenges of Implementing 5G in Industrial Settings

No new technology comes without its potential pitfalls. These are four of the major challenges that businesses can face in effectively deploying 5G in industrial settings: 

  1. Industrial 5G can be pricey to deploy and maintain, meaning that it may remain out of reach for many smaller businesses. Prices will fall over time, but it’s still a complex and demanding technology that requires specialized expertise. 
  1. 3GPP, the standards organization that maintains the 5G standard, has experienced repeated pandemic-related delays in putting out the upcoming Release 17 for 5G. Since Release 17 is expected to contain numerous important IIoT automation features, it’s an unpleasant reminder of how dependent 5G technologies are on the continuing ability of standards organizations to push the standard forward. 
  1. New classes of 5G enabled devices will need to be developed for use in industrial environments. It’s especially important that new 5G IIoT devices are designed to survive the rigors of an industrial environment with features like reinforced construction and NEMA 4X enclosures
  1. 5G isn’t a magic bullet or a plug-and-play performance improvement solution. It’s a new and potentially very useful technology, but it also demands careful attention to implementation. Like any other technology, it’s a tool for achieving business goals, and those goals have to form the foundation of how the technology is used. 

There are very few guarantees in the emerging and ever-changing world of wireless automation. Only time and the market will tell exactly what role 5G will play in industrial automation, but whatever form it takes, it’s almost certain to be a transformative one.