5G in IoT Starts to Crystallize in Industrial IoT Market

5G in IoT will improve network speed and reduce latency, which will be a boon for the industrial IoT market. But 5G technology isn’t here yet.

Jack Vaughan

February 19, 2020

7 Min Read
Image shows an industrial technology concept of factory automation and a smart factory.
Getty Images

Much of the attention on 5G technology centers on a future of smarter phones, drones and self-driving cars. But 5G’s role in next-generation industrial IoT applications bears watching as well. While 5G may be one among many evolutionary steps, it is important in the development of new industrial IoT use cases.

5G connectivity, is the fifth generation of cellular technology. It is designed to increase network speed, reduce latency, and improve flexibility of wireless services. 5G technology has a theoretical peak speed of 20 Gbps, while the peak speed of 4G is only 1 Gbps. 5G improve the performance of business applications in various context, such as factories, self-driving cars and in handheld devices for field technicians.

5G has piqued interest in new IoT use cases. Viewers suggest that IoT sensors in the field have yet to be truly tapped, and that 5G communications speed will create new possibilities in industrial settings.

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Capacity to handle additional network nodes is in store with 5G for industrial IoT too. This may pave the way for next-generation applications that achieve the following:

  • Capitalize on video data processing to drive real-time quality testing of, for example, output from industrial lathes or mills;

  • Create manufacturing that is more distributed, in turn permitting long-distance checking of machine work done by individuals far removed from central factories; 

  • Lay the foundation for more precise positioning for industrial robots, widely expanding their use cases; or

  • Enable use of edge computing architecture for predictive maintenance of wind farms, gas and oil, process manufacturing and other equipment.   

In recent years, advances in microprocessors, data storage and cell phone technology drove Industrial IoT updates, according to by Daniel Elizalde, vice president and head of IoT for information and communications technology provider Ericsson N.A. But as data proliferates, the missing link is the network.

The Need for IoT Speed 

“The network part has been lagging,” Elizalde said. “Even 4G doesn’t have enough bandwidth for AI, cloud computing, or supporting a massive numbers of sensor devices.”

If a network can’t handle potential millions of devices, hopes for a new era of apps won’t come to fruition. With 5G, industrial IoT applications will be able to move a lot more data to and from IoT devices, for processing on the cloud or at the edge, Elizalde said. 

In short, “5G is much bigger than just another ‘G’,” he argued.

5G technology enables massive IoT deployments because it reduces latency to near real time and network capacity can support more connections, he said. 

In his view, improvements in manufacturing plants or wind farms are among key beneficiaries. These are examples, he continued, of areas where “wired approaches” such as fiber-optics have met roadblocks.

Can 5G Connectivity Change the Game?

Considerably faster data transfer (bandwidth) and quicker round trips for signals (latency) signify real change for industrial IoT, according to Jonathan Oakley, high-tech industry director for Dassault Systèmes’ SIMULIA, a simulation platform that enables developers to prototype networks and components.  

“With 5G, there is almost no latency. It can really make a difference in manufacturing,” he said.

High speed and low latency will be transformational, Oakley continued. He noted they could address present-day production inefficiencies for expensive aeronautical components, such as jet engine turbine blades. 

“In such setups, you often find 15% to 25% rework rates. Sometimes one piece may take a full day of work. There are vibrations as the milling happens that distort the final product,” he said. 

With more powerful 5G networking, IoT vibration sensors and top-notch antennas, the feedback data from milling operations on blades could allow real-time corrections to compensate for vibration, Oakley said. That could save the manufacturer money, of course – but it could also fuel new generations of jet engine designs, powering planes far different than those familiar today.

Slice up the Bandwidth

Users of 5G networking will gain more say on how network services are divvied up. That is because 5G enables users to control the bandwidth and latency for different applications. This network slicing—where a physical network is split into multiple virtual networks, enabling optimal support for for different kinds of services and user groups—is 5G’s major advantage over 4G, according to Gareth Owen, associate research director at Counterpoint Research

“Network slicing . . . allows users to customize operations for different applications in the same factory,” he said.

Overall, Owens noted, both 4G and 5G provide wireless connections that tend to replace “hardwired” connections of the past. These proved to severely limit the flexibility of application planners, in Owen’s and others’ view, and presented obstacles to new industrial approaches.

Edge Evolution

Despite its potential, 5G should be viewed as a part of ongoing improvement in bandwidth and latency, according to Simon Wardley, researcher at the Leading Edge Forum

Wardley said greater 5G bandwidth will benefit advanced analytics, among other uses. But he cautioned that 5G architecture will evolve as system designers address a common challenge: how to balance centralized and decentralized computing approaches. 

Neither will “win” out over the other, he said.

“Will there be a reworking of the equation to place more intelligence at the center as the transfer of huge amounts of data becomes possible, or a move to more intelligence at the edge as the network becomes swamped by new possibilities and new sources of data?” Wardley asked.

“It’ll be a bit of both,” he said, answering the question. “And before we can finally settle, then 6G will be upon us, and the equation will change again, with newfound constraints and limits.”

Wireless Age Redux

A brave new world on new industrial IoT use cases won’t appear overnight. “Although 5G is rolling out quickly, it is still early days,” Counterpoints’ Owen emphasized.

He is not alone. Other viewers caution that as 5G IoT technology rolls out, tests, and–ultimately –performs on the industrial stage in specific applications, the outcome is still to be learned. 

So, important performance updates to existing wireless standards like Wi-Fi 6 and 4G LTE will continue to have roles to play in the near-term and longer. 

A 2019 analyst group Gartner forecast suggests it will take five years or more for most regions to have 5G coverage on par with today’s 4G, and that less than 45% of communications service providers (CSPs) will have launched a commercial 5G network by 2025. In the meantime, some end-users are setting up their own networks, not relying entirely on CSPs.

5G Mileage May Vary

For her part, Michelle Pelino, analyst at Forrester Research, advises that 5G networks won’t be available on a wide scale for many years. 

“What is possible is one thing. What is available is another,” she said. “It varies.”

For business leaders contemplating IoT futures, how they think about the actual deployment environment is key, she said.

“How a 5G network is architected must be based on use cases. For example, 5G [signals] may not move through some concrete and materials.”  Business leaders also may often rely on IoT service providers that work in a unique ecosystem composed of various infrastructure, she said.  

Moreover, for people leading industrial IoT efforts at global companies, finding out what is available becomes more complicated as they span country boundaries with different approaches to spectrum allocation, Pelino said.

A common tech meme holds that the future may have already arrived, but is just not evenly distributed. As 5G enabled networks go online, that meme has special relevance. Business and IT leaders will need to keenly follow new IoT use cases in order to ensure their organization avoid future surprises.

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