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How to build 5G Private Networks that deliver valuable use cases in manufacturing

26 Sep 2022

5G could finally unlock digital transformation in manufacturing. It will enable industrial environments to interconnect thousands of physical devices, from sensors to robotic arms, all seamlessly sharing large data streams with each other. This opens up transformational use cases in automation and safety, from computer vision quality inspection, to inventory management with swarms of AI drones, to AR maintenance support.

Excitement is unsurprising. Despite its newness, recent Capgemini research found 40% of industrial organizations expect to roll out 5G at a site within two years. But that same survey showed 55% reported difficulties defining 5G use cases, and 69% cited challenges adapting business operations with 5G use cases.[1]

Much 5G talk focuses on getting the network infrastructure in place. This is the intuitive answer, but probably the wrong one.

This is reminiscent of a decade ago, when the de facto approach to digital transformation was to get all the company’s data into a data lake then work out what to do with it. That created long-running, expensive projects, most of which were not fit-for-purpose.

Like many elements of digital transformation, a 5G Private Network is an ongoing project which should deliver real world value. As data leaders eventually learned, rather than ‘get technology in and see what we can do with it’, it is better to take build and evolve technology around the business need. Those about to embark on 5G projects should take heed.

Start with business use cases, then microservices

Before you jump into 5G networking tech, start by defining 5G use cases that meet your business goals. That could be an AR system that offers contextual maintenance advice to engineers as they arrive at a job, or a system that visually maps how people move through a factory to assist fire escape planning, or a real-time Asset Track and Trace system.

Then, to rapidly deploy and scale these use cases, embrace microservices.

Microservices are reusable components – such as object recognition, 3D object rendering in AR, voice and video communications, and so on. Like Lego bricks, each microservice block can be put together with others to create a use case, with just a small amount of additional code to stitch them together, and into your network environment.

For example, an assisted maintenance use case may combine microservices for sensor data analytics to define the problem, natural language processing to process maintenance manuals, and AR overlays to show the engineer what goes where.

Many microservices already exist as modules ready for integration with a 5G network with all the important bits – authentication, compatibility, analytics, APIs – built in. They can be acquired from libraries, hosted in your cloud, and used to quickly build a proof-of-concept use case that is ready to rapidly scale into your private network.

The tech stack

Once you have identified your initial use cases, you do eventually need to build the technology architecture and software frameworks of the private network to deploy them into.

A 5G private network architecture is the sum of the convergence of three things: (1) Operational Technology (your connected devices eg robot arms, production machines etc); (2) Information Technology (software, data management, analytics), and (3) Network Technology (radio access technology that connects you into 5G network providers). Your 5G private network essentially ringfences radio coverage over a defined area, which you can use to connect up your IT and OT.

The initial network setup will define the network for the long term. Although tweaks will be needed as new use cases arrive, it always makes sense to configure it to support real use cases, so it is built around realistic needs and delivers value from day one.

The path to value for 5G private networks

The path to 5G private network value is to start small and build pilot use cases designed to take advantage of the 5G network. Use these to define your initial network architecture. Test, refine, and launch more use cases, evolving the architecture iteratively as you go. 5G private networks should be part of an ongoing business transformation programme, not a one-off technology project.

To learn how to deliver value from a 5G Private Network, starting with use cases and microservices, download our new Whitepaper.

[1] Capgemini Research Institute, “Accelerating the 5G Industrial Revolution: State of 5G and edge in industrial operations”