Fast Connectivity With 5G In The Factory

Jon Lawson

The advance of 5G wireless technology could provide the transport industry’s assortment of end users many benefits, but what can it do for manufacturing? Juliet Elliot investigates

Streamlining the manufacturing process is something all factory managers are focused on. Volkswagen is pushing ahead with the use of 5G at its Dresden and Wolfsburg plants to see how much the low latency and reliability can contribute to faster, more reliable production.

At the former location, the company has teamed up with partners Porsche, Audi and the Dresden University of Technology to test a driverless transportation system. The machine uses 5G to transmit its immediate environment data to the cloud computer, before an ideal route to an ID.3 body is calculated and uploaded in real time. The research project has benefitted from external funding coming from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

VW is keen to develop as much of the relevant knowledge in-house as possible, taking full advantage of the Nokia infrastructure. Klaus-Dieter Tuchs is Group IT project lead. He explains, “5G can be a driver of the Industrial Internet of Things, meaning fully networked production, which is why we are very serious about acquiring the necessary expertise ourselves early on.

“The private 5G network really does have particular strengths for applications that require a great deal of flexibility in use. For example, it controls and networks screwdrivers, robots and automated guided vehicles (AGVs). Currently, every one of these AGVs has its own small computer to calculate its route. We can also use 5G to control the vehicles and robots centrally. We’re currently testing this at the Transparent Factory in Dresden.”

Meanwhile, in Wolfsburg the 5G standalone campus network pilot is being established. The company applied to the Federal Network Agency for a 3.7 to 3.8 GHz frequency with 100 MHz bandwidth specifically for the project. Tuchs continues, “The main advantage is that we are the only ones allowed to use this. That’s also the key difference from wireless LAN – whose frequencies are public and can be interrupted by any smartphone on the factory premises. In a private 5G network, we have full control over the air interface and are able to prioritise capacities ourselves, which considerably increases reliability. It also enables uninterrupted transfers between the radio cells and a very high number of devices per cell. If local problems arise, we can resolve them ourselves quickly. That wouldn’t be possible using the public cellular network.”

The company believe one task that will lend itself well to the use of 5G is uploading data to the control units in the vehicles. This is a long-winded chore normally lasting an hour, and finding out if it can be speeded up under what the company calls “real-life laboratory conditions” is a key part of the trial.

Tuchs says, “The 5G mobile communications standard is efficient, can be used flexibly and is fast. We are already using it to achieve transfer rates of up to one gigabit per second, with an upward trend. The latencies will be just a thousandth of a second in the future, which is about 150 times faster than the blink of a human eye.”

The plan is to seamlessly blend this new kit with existing technology. Tuchs explains, “The introduction of 5G doesn’t mean that we will be cutting all the data cables. Rather, the new campus network will supplement our LAN networks and the local wireless LAN networks. It currently covers the pilot hall and the centre of excellence for technology and innovations. Our long-term goal is to use the campus network to cover large sections of the factory premises in Wolfsburg, which has a surface area of 6.5 square kilometres – the size of more than 900 football pitches. Other plants are set to follow.”

It won’t be a rapid rollout, as everything will be tested thoroughly before being installed in other locations. The company is looking at expanding the project in 2023.