5G, the next generation of mobile telephony, is just around the corner. The technology will bring not just greater speed (to move more data), but far lower latency, so will be more responsive, as well as offer the ability to connect a lot more devices simultaneously – sensors and smart devices located in robots, for example. The potential of 5G varies according to reports, but the standards bodies involved are aiming at 20 Gb/sec speeds and 1 ms latency, which will be unprecedented.

The term latency crops up a lot, so to explain further, latency is essentially the time span between when an input is initiated at one point in a communications link, and when it returns with error-free input from another point. Current 4G cellular networks have a round-trip latency of about 50 ms, but to enable applications like connected robotics, the 5G standard recognises that less than 1 ms will be required.

Reports suggest that global 5G roll-out looks set for 2020. But the race is on to be first and US telecommunications giant AT&T, for example, says it expects to be the first with mobile 5G when it launches a network in 12 cities by the end of this year.

So it looks like the next 12-24 months will see 5G unleashed on the world, which has pricked the interest of some, but not all, robotics companies. The advantage of using a 5G connection is that response times are quicker, and there are no peaks and troughs like those associated with Wi-Fi or current 4G networks. In turn, this could make robots safer. At present, robots are equipped with an emergency stop button to prevent them from harming humans or causing damage. But what if the button is out of reach at the required moment? Thoughts such as these have led to a host of recent partnership announcements. Tech giants Nokia and Bosch, for example, have been developing pick-and-place robots that can be controlled wirelessly over a 5G connection, with demonstrators already appearing at exhibitions. The low latency and high reliability of 5G is used to instantly stop machinery from operating when an alarm is triggered.

Of course, safety is not the only advantage of 5G. There are close links with Industry 4.0 and the evolution of smart factories, and with better wireless connectivity comes a better factory platform. For instance, factory layouts are likely to benefit, as reconfiguring assembly lines becomes simpler when equipment does not need a wired connection.

The combination of automation specialist and telecommunications expert continues with Kuka (https://is.gd/aregis) and China’s Huawei X Labs, which have teamed up to work on collaborative robots with 5G. Live demonstrations have already been showcased, with a pair of robot arms performing dancing and drumming in precise synchronisation and collaboration. According to Kuka, the 5G live demonstration highlighted some of the capabilities offered by the technology, achieving latency as low as 1 ms with 1 μs clock synchronisation and 99.999% reliability.

“5G cellular wireless technology will enable Kuka to provide robot-based production systems with even more flexibility through wireless machine-to-machine and machine-to-cloud communication,” says Stefan Lampa, CEO of Kuka Robotics.

Huawei, in fact, has also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with automation specialist Festo (https://is.gd/ujahuh) to jointly explore 5G network applications in manufacturing and promote the digital transformation of the industry with 5G slicing technology. The MoU centres on 5G cloud robotics, which is based on a moving robot platform that consists of a handling apparatus (robot arm) with six degrees of freedom. An uRLLC (ultra Reliable and Low Latency Communications) slice is used to fulfil the real-time and high reliability requirements of the closed control loop.

“In the factory of the future, everyone and everything will stay connected to rely on manufacturing services provided in industrial clouds,” says Dirk Pensky, the head of Festo’s software engineering department. “Festo is involved in different activities to shape the future of our factories. 5G will become the communication technology for smart manufacturing and we aim to prove that with this co-operation.”

Another research collaboration sees ABB (https://is.gd/wemise) partnering with Ericsson, who together have established a joint 5G industrial innovation lab. Physically located at ABB’s premises in Västerås, Sweden, this will be equipped with infrastructure and network services from Ericsson, including connection to the company’s 5G virtualised core network, edge computing (local/distributed cloud), network slicing and Ericsson’s IoT accelerator platform. The lab network will be optimised for better performance (low latency) than current public networks, and support new access types for the IoT. Projects are planned in areas such as process and factory automation, and robotics.

Ericsson is in fact also working with robotics specialist Comau (https://is.gd/rovewa). The pair will 5G enabled projects related to the development of services and solutions for Industry 4.0 and smart manufacturing. According to Comau, the 5G telecomms move will help companies exploit the full potential of digital manufacturing in the UK and within Europe as a whole, thanks to real-time interconnectivity between mobile devices (smartwatches, smartphones, tablets), enabling technologies (augmented reality, cloud, big data and cyber security), robotics-driven production processes and machine intelligence. Increased computing power is a fundamental element of Industry 4.0 and, as such, mobile communications become essential to enable seamless connectivity between robots, operators and the factory at large.

The increased speed of 5G will simplify data collection and enable full and constant monitoring of the work process – including remote diagnostics maintenance – which will help reduce the operational and management costs of the production itself.

“5G provides the platform for explorative analytics and real-time predictive and preventative maintenance,” explains Comau’s innovation manager Massimo Ippolito. “As performance data collected by the robots and other systems in the plant is automatically cross-referenced and processed using pattern recognition analytics, companies can identify potential breakdowns or bottlenecks on individual machines before they even happen.”

Ultimately, 5G network expansion will not only help companies provide increasingly flexible, customised small batch-oriented production processes, it will facilitate increased co-operation between humans and robots, thus improving productivity and global competitiveness.

Box item

5G applications for machine tools

Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Production Technology (IPT) and Ericsson have announced that they are collaborating in exploring use cases for 5G in the manufacturing environment. With its ultra-low latency, high data rates and capability to run a multitude of devices simultaneously in a cell, 5G technology is particularly suitable for deployment in networked, adaptive production facilities with extensive measuring and control engineering, the pair say. The reason for this is that running precision machine tools in complex production processes demands extremely high standards of communications that must be both stable and reliable. 5G technology will, for the first time, permit the extensive use of wireless sensor connections for real-time data analysis, ensuring that the adaptive control of production processes can be undertaken through short reaction times.

At the Fraunhofer IPT, 5G will be tested and developed specifically for use in production. Engineers at the Aachen-based facility are planning extensive deployment of 5G technology for a diverse range of applications in which machines, production and communications systems, as well as databases, are interconnected. Preliminary examples of 5G deployment in production will be presented by Ericsson and Fraunhofer IPT on 23-27 April at the joint Fraunhofer stands in Halls 2 and 17, at the Hanover Fair.

Article first published in Machinery, March 2018