The latest upgrade to mobile broadband networks, 5G, is now available in much of the United States. The speed and reliability provide significant utility for businesses that have adopted internet-dependent Industry 4.0 technology.
Private 5G networks, which are owned and operated by private businesses, can provide companies with even more control and utility.
This is how businesses are using private 5G networks to support Industry 4.0 technology — and how they could be an essential part of the future for smart industrial tech.
The initial rollout of 5G networks was intended to provide connectivity for consumers — primarily smartphone users. However, as the availability grew, it became clear that the technology was also a great fit for businesses. This was especially true for users of networked Industry 4.0 technology like IoT devices and smart factory equipment.
5G offers several advantages over 4G that make it a powerful tool for supporting Industry 4.0 devices and platforms. It has significantly higher connection speeds, more reliable connectivity and features that support many devices connecting to the same base station.
Public 5G networks are the most common type. They are owned and maintained by a mobile network operator (MNO), like cell carriers AT&T Inc. or Verizon Wireless. These networks are intended for use by the public, and they provide services to tens of millions of MNO subscribers.
Private 5G networks use the same technology as public networks but are dedicated for use by employees of a single enterprise or organization. In many cases, they may be highly localized and only provide coverage to a single area, like a business campus, hospital or factory.
Only devices with network access can use the base stations associated with a private 5G network. This guarantees a certain amount of bandwidth will be reserved for items belonging to the organization that runs the private network.
Private 5G networks support the digital enablement of physical industries and use-cases like IoT sensors for remote monitoring and smart robotics. They offer many of the same benefits as public networks — better speeds and improved connectivity for large, localized device fleets — but provide a few additional advantages not available to business users of public networks.
Companies that own and operate their own 5G networks will also have a great deal of control over how and where base stations are deployed. They can configure antennas and locations for maximum coverage and connection strength, further guaranteeing devices using 5G will have a strong and reliable internet connection.
The business will also have direct control over cybersecurity, ensuring it can securely transmit confidential information over a non-public network.
Public users will not be able to connect to the private 5G network, so businesses won’t have to worry about connection reliability in densely populated areas. In that case, several consumer 5G devices connecting to local base stations may make industrial device connections less reliable.
Private 5G network owners also won’t have to work with or rely on an MNO for service. If a base station fails or a misconfiguration prevents a device from connecting to the network, they can leverage their own IT resources to solve the problem.
Stable internet connections have become much more important as businesses rely more heavily on Industry 4.0 technology. For example, some companies have started to use AI-powered thermal management systems that rely on IoT devices. They collect performance information and adjust management system configurations.
These devices need a stable and fast internet connection to continuously report and receive information from the cloud. Private 5G ensures this connection is always available, making the system more reliable.
Businesses and 5G hardware providers have already begun experimenting with the use of private 5G for business and industry applications.
In 2021, Xiaoxia Zhang, senior director of technology at Qualcomm, the leading manufacturer of 5G modems, delivered a presentation on precise indoor positioning for autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs). These machines provide 5G over an unlicensed 6.225 GHz spectrum. The presentation leveraged five transmission and reception points (TRPs) equipped with 4×4 multiple-input/multiple-output (MIMO)-capable directional antennas.
Zhang demonstrated how 5G could be used to support extremely accurate navigation by an autonomous, self-piloting robot, like those already used in Amazon warehouses. Businesses can use these robots for many tasks — including picking and packing, transporting goods, or remote site inspection and surveying.
Similar applications of 5G hardware could support most existing use-cases of Industry 4.0 technology. For example, a dedicated private 5G network could lay the foundation for a networked IoT equipment monitoring solution that continuously reports data to the cloud.
The same network could also provide connectivity for a predictive maintenance algorithm or other autonomous robots, like cobots that support employee activities.
5G is an excellent tool for users of Industry 4.0 devices. However, public 5G networks may not give end-users enough control over the systems they depend on. Private 5G is emerging as one solution for businesses wanting to support Industry 4.0 technology without relying on public networks.
5G experts have already demonstrated how these networks support technology like AGVs. Soon, they may become a standard tool for businesses wanting 5G connectivity.
Emily Newton is a technology journalist with over five years in the industry. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the latest innovations