Two of the more common phrases heard when it comes to 5G are “faster speeds” and “lower latency.” Both are positive aspects of the next generation of wireless connectivity, but a lot of times when 5G is discussed in terms of how it will impact commercial real estate, offices, sports arenas, hospitals, smart cities, self-driving vehicles and mobile devices often come to mind.
However, there’s another vertical that has embraced 5G and using it to work more efficiently—factories. The Wall Street Journal recently explored how factories are putting 5G to work to help keep employees safe, reduce labor costs, keep machines going overnight and more.
Here are 5 ways that 5G has transformed the factory floor environment.
There is a lot of equipment, metal and other obstacles that can block wireless signals in a factory. Manufacturers are now building boutique 5G networks inside of plants to remedy the Wi-Fi “cold spot” issue. 5G needs to place more small antennas than current cell networks, which is a problem when deploying the network in a city. However, it works fine to cover a factory floor.
Whirlpool is testing a 5G network across 200,000 square feet in its Clyde, OH factory, according to The Wall Street Journal. The company uses self-driving vehicles to carry parts around the facility that are connected to Wi-Fi. The vehicles stop if they lose network connection, so the company hopes putting some of the vehicles on 5G will reduce the stoppages and production delays.
“We believe 5G will provide better coverage and be more consistent,” Whirlpool VP for Information Technology Michael Berendsen said.
Augmented and Virtual Reality
Some companies are leveraging 5G to use augmented reality, enhancing real world objects with computer-generated information, more often. For example, Huntington Ingalls Industries is using AR to build parts of big military ships on land before putting them into the ship. Before 5G, temporary support structures were painted a different color so workers knew to remove them once the ship began to form. Now employees can uses tablets to identify those support structures digitally. The beams will light up on the screen, creating a quicker and more accurate identification process.
Meanwhile, other businesses are using virtual reality to make training go faster and cut down on production times. Invista, a fiber maker, developed a VR training tool that teaches workers how to string hot nylon threads through machinery, according to The Wall Street Journal. Using VR has cut Invista’s training time down from five months to about four weeks.
5G networks have also allowed workers to use wearable devices and sensors to complete their work faster and more safely. Sensors can track workers’ sound and heat exposure that often lead to future injuries. Other manufacturers are testing sensors that can detect if an employee is too tired to operate heavy machinery.
Airline repair and maintenance service company Lufthansa Technik AG is using gloves with built-in scanners to speed up its aircraft parts delivery. When a priority package arrives, the gloves will vibrate to alert employees to take care of it first. Workers say they like the ProGlove better than the traditional handheld bar code scanner because its lighter and easier to use, according to Harald Kolbe, head of digital innovation at Lufthansa Technik’s logistic services division. The device can also decrease scanning by four seconds per package.
When workers are finished for the day, 5G-enabled machines can keep going. The phenomenon, known as unattended running feature machines with sensors and other technology that can produce parts even if a worker isn’t present. Customer metal pats manufacturer Wagner Machine Inc. invested approximately $1.2 million in metal-forming equipment so it can partake in unattended running. After workers set up the machine, it can make parts for almost 20 hours per day—twice as long as Wagner’s traditional machines that require an attendant. Employees can track the machines with their smartphones and get alerts if something breaks.
How quality control is conducted is quickly changing thanks to 3-D imagining. Handheld 3-D scanners can make sure finished products aren’t too big rather than traditional manual inspections. Willman Industries, Inc., which produces metal castings, has used a 3-D scanner to view its castings’ entire surface and how it might differ from the standard model. The company can now hire temporary workers to do the inspections so its higher-paid skill workers can put their attention on profit-oriented tasks.
“Time savings and cost savings are the two biggest drivers,” Willman Sales Manager Harold Hunter told The Wall Street Journal. “There are just so many ways we are using 3-D imaging.”