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The Role of 5G Networks and OPC UA in Enhancing Digitalization Strategies

The introduction of Industry 4.0 in 2011 came with specific challenges. First, the proprietary equipment used within the average industrial facility needed unification to implement data-driven strategies required a solution. Secondly, a reliable means of communication and data transfer was required to enable the interexchange of data and finally, deterministic networking was required to implement the real-time data transfers for smart applications.

Solving the challenges required advancements in communication technology and a unification standard OEMs and facility owners could leverage to achieve digital transformation and Industry 4.0 business models. 5G and OPC UA provide solutions that solve the communication and unification challenges within the industrial sector.

Introducing OPC Unified Architecture (UA) Standards

A decade or two ago, assets within the average manufacturing floor consisted of equipment from multiple OEMs who developed proprietary software and tools to manage the equipment they produced. This proprietary equipment was used alongside legacy equipment, which still makes up 40% of the equipment on the average factory floor, and these assets functioned within their individual silos. Thus, production cycles consisted of equipment that couldn’t communicate or work within interrelated environments.

For example, cutting or grinding machines that feed CNC machines with raw materials couldn’t communicate or share inventory requirement data unless these machines were from a singular vendor. Leading to situations where a CNC machine may have fewer raw materials than what it requires to meet demand. The result is either downtime or poor customer satisfaction levels due to unfulfilled orders. Industry 4.0’s solution to the communication challenge was machine-to-machine communication and this is what OPC UA solves.

OPC UA provides manufacturers with the standards to implement an independent service-oriented platform that services the proprietary and legacy equipment used within the shop floor. Since its inception in 2008, the OPC Foundation has welcomed the partnership of OEM stakeholders such as Siemens, Rockwell, Schneider, Bosch etc. to its fold. The participation of these powerhouses means that manufacturers can leverage an open communication protocol to support communication across proprietary equipment.

The OPC Foundation also provides a framework that answers the determinism question. Earlier data packet transfers were done through the mass broadcast of data packets to the pieces of equipment within the shop floor. This meant individual equipment will be privy to multiple data packets until they receive the exact information sent to it. The mass data broadcasting technique was unreliable and manufacturers couldn’t give specific timeframes for when individual equipment will receive specific data packets thus, a deterministic approach was required.

In scenarios where critical industrial processes must occur in real-time, deterministic networking is required. OPC UA over Time Sensitive Networking (TSN) was initiated to solve the determinism challenges the industrial sector faced with networking and communication. OPC UA over TSN enhances wired Ethernet networks through predictable time delivery of information. Thus, manufacturers can prioritize the delivery of specific data packets over open networks to achieve real-time communication between assets on the shop floor.

Utilizing wired networks within the shop floor comes with diverse limitations. These limitations include the cost of expanding wired networks to cater for the addition of new assets to the manufacturing floor and utilizing Ethernet to support large scale IoT, edge deployments or digital transformation platforms. Bypassing these limitations requires a reliable wireless network that can be scaled to meet increased requirements and can deliver reliable low-latency networking within the harsh environment of industrial facilities – this is where 5G has important roles to play.

5G Network and the Smart Industrial Facility

Wireless networking is not new to the industrial sector but older iterations such as 3G and 4G networks do not provide the reliable networking latency and bandwidth for real-time data transfers. For example, transferring data-intensive information in 4K video format or inter-exchanging real-time data from multiple IoT devices to a digital twin requires high-performing network stability that 4G cannot provide.

The need for networking reliability and speed became the underlining pain points 5G addresses. It is a fact that 5G network is the first iteration of wireless communication built for the industrial sector. At full capacity, 5G networks will be more than 5 times faster than 4G networks and will support more than a million devices deployed within a square meter. The deployment of 5G also takes a modular approach using 5G boxes unlike the need to undertake extensive upgrades when expanding wired networks. This means that 5G networks will provide the reliability 4G can’t provide and the scalability, as well as, affordability wired networks can’t provide.

5G networks will also support the widespread adoption of digital transformation solutions such as smart hardware and analytical software within the shop floor. Leveraging 5G, manufacturers can easily add new IoT devices to the shop floor, transfer big-data-sets to digital twin solutions, and scale up Industry 4.0 use cases with ease.

5G networks will also bring deterministic networking to the table through the use of deterministic SLAs and intelligent network slicing to ensure manufacturers can prioritize data transfers and real-time communication. The adoption of 5G networks will provide extensive support for edge and cloud computing applications within the manufacturing sector. Examples include the use of digital twin applications for remote monitoring and enabling communication between edge devices and centralized cloud ecosystems.

Conclusion

Machine-to-machine and machine-to-cloud communication are key aspects to achieving the smart factory defined by Industry 4.0. The strides made by OPC Foundation and advancements in wireless technologies will provide the deterministic networking required to automate industrial workflows and deliver the ‘lights out’ factory.

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