How Ericsson is bringing 5G to the smart factory floor

The Swedish 5G leader is proving how factory operations can be brought to a 'millisecond basis'.
13 January 2020

Ericsson brough 5G to one of Mercedes Benz’s factories in Germany. Source: Shutterstock

Light-speed internet, ultrahigh-definition (UHD) content streaming, and super-low latency in data transfer are some of the promises of 5G. The technology represents a massive market, and that’s seeing competitors race to develop the core infrastructure which will provide the backbone for the cellular technology’s applications across all sorts of future-focused use cases in the coming years.

With the technology promising a genuine milestone in connectivity, a number of tech firms— including Nokia, Samsung Electronics and ZTE— are locked into the 5G race, each with their own particular strengths, and while Chinese tech titan Huawei is widely regarded as the current leader, Swedish-based Ericsson continues to nip at its heels.

As reported by Computer Weekly, while China and South Korea are some of the most advanced in terms of 5G rollout, closer to home Ericsson has made some serious progress, working with early adopters to demonstrate how a 5G-connected business world could look.

In the automobile sector, for example, last year the Scandinavian telecoms firm teamed up with Telefónica to operate a car production system via a private 5G network at Mercedes-Benz’s plant in southern Germany. Building a private 5G network across the carmaker’s 20,000sqm complex, the 5G network will facilitate product tracking on the production line, with the aim of optimizing processes and make them adaptable to market requirements at short notice. Mercedes-Benz production and supply chain specialist, Jörg Burzer, said the technology would open up “completely new production opportunities.”

As part of its cross-industry 5G research and development program ‘5G for Europe’, meanwhile, Ericsson collaborated with Italian industrial automation company Comau to develop a 5G network that supports a system of IoT (Internet of Things) and big data. Ericsson described the work as an “important milestone” in demonstrating how factories and industrial plants can leverage on 5G’s potential. 

The firm also developed a 5G network for MTU Aero Engines to enhance the production of jet engine blades. The project achieved 1-millisecond latency, demonstrating how 5G will make it possible to control manufacturing machines in real-time, reducing costs and improving quality being able to spot and address defects on-the-fly.

Despite being locked in a race with a Chinese competitor, the Asian market is out-of-bounds for the European contender. In China, Ericsson teamed up with China Unicom— the world’s fourth-largest mobile service provider by subscriber base— to develop the port of Qingdao into a 5G-powered “smart harbor” in a pilot of 5G industrial cooperation

The project is predicted to lower labor costs by 70 percent and follows a similar project in the Port of Rotterdam, where IoT networks are leading to cost savings of a potential US$80K per hour for firms. 

Ericsson says 5G has the potential to upgrade communications in factories and supply chains to a millisecond basis. But the firm is also supporting innovation and research around innovative applications outside of large-scale industry.

In the tech company’s labs, students are developing technology that allows people to remotely control the steering wheels and pedals of an autonomous vehicle. The technology will rely on a 5G network, which enables a large amount of data to be transferred with minimal delay through its large bandwidth. 

Presently, Ericsson is partnering with Nobina, the largest public transport service provider in the Nordic region, to develop self-driving busses. The project aims to promote residents to use public transport and, in the future, could open the doors for Uber-style public transport services. 

While Huawei might be regarded as the world’s 5G leader, Ericsson certainly isn’t backing down, but the ranking for market superiority is far from conclusive.

Ahead of Ericsson’s 2019 Q4 earnings report later this month, Nokia announced last week it had won 63 commercial 5G network contracts including the likes of  AT&T, KDDI, Korea Telecom, NTT Docomo, Telefonica O2, SK Telecom, SoftBank, Sprint, T-Mobile US and Verizon.

That update is significant because Huawei is struggling in the 5G network space.