What 5G Means to You and Your Factory

It’s never a good idea to make predictions. But sometimes even statements that seem clear and certain can come back to haunt you. Remember these quotes?

“640K is enough for anyone” by Bill Gates. “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home” by Ken Olson, President of Digital Equipment Corporation. And maybe the most ironic one ever, “There’s just not that many videos I want to watch” by Steve Chen. Mr. Chen went on to co-found a video company you might know. It’s called YouTube. I assume he’s probably watched more than a few videos.

I’m known to be sort of fearless when it comes to making outrageous statements, sometimes to my detriment. I once said, many years ago, when Ethernet was new, “DeviceNet is Dead.” It made me infamous and upset a lot of people. Not one of my best days.

So today, I’m at it again. I’ve pulled the crystal ball out of the back closet, I’ve got my gold miter hat on, a red cape, and a nice magic wand ($2.35 on eBay).

So, remember you heard it here first:

5G is Going to Revolutionize the Factory Floor

John Rinaldi, June 2018

5G is the newest standard in cellular communication. It is being tested by AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint in various cities around the US with a major rollout planned for about 2020. Qualcomm, Intel, Ericsson, Samsung, and others are all making huge efforts to lead the transformation to 5G. With an expected exponential growth in IoT devices, these companies see 5G as the technology to link all those IoT devices.

5G has vastly higher speed than 4G, though speed estimates are all over the map: anywhere from 10x to 20x to 100x faster than your current cell connection, and vastly faster than the speediest home connection today. In the not too far distant future, you’ll amaze your disbelieving grandchildren with stories of how “in the old days” you had to sometimes wait up to ten or twenty seconds for videos and audio files to load.

5G can do all this because it operates at extremely high frequencies. With frequencies in the 30 GKz to 300 GHz band, it is immune to the interference that plagues a lot of traditional WiFi appliances. 5G uses shorter wavelengths, meaning that antennas will be smaller than the antennas you see on WiFi devices today. And because they’ll be highly directional, they won’t suffer the energy and power losses associated with beaming signals in all directions (meaning support for lower power devices). With highly directional antennas, a 5G router could support way more devices than a similar system can today.

The disadvantage to those ultra-high frequencies is that the distance decreases as the frequency increases. And those signals are more easily distorted by rain, humidity, and physical objects. But more importantly, many of the 5G technical details remain to be resolved. Rolling out large numbers of devices that support a completely new standard is an expensive proposition. And, of course, in today’s world, security considerations are paramount. It remains to be seen if 5G will be more or less secure than today’s networks.

What does all this have to do with manufacturing? We are on the brink of truly “wireless” machines. We’ll still have power wires (until someone can figure out how to implement what Nikola Tesla figured out 125 years ago), but control wires will be a thing of the past.

Yes, I can hear you now; “John, we already have wireless EtherNet/IP, Modbus TCP and PROFINET IO.” That’s true but I envision a broader wireless future; the day when entire machine segments are wireless. With the increased speed and bandwidth of a 5G local network, each machine segment could be its own highly deterministic communications network, with everything from sensors to actuators to controllers on that network. And all those machine segments could be connected to a machine controller over standard 2.4Ghz WiFi.

The future is upon us! At least, that’s what my crystal ball says…