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Global company weighs 5G for manufacturing, IoT analytics

Global manufacturer Sanmina is studying the benefits of deploying 5G on its manufacturing floor to improve the speed of IoT and analytics data exchanges to the cloud.

Manesh Patel, CIO at Fortune 500 global manufacturer Sanmina, has identified the perfect use case for enterprise 5G cellular service: transmitting data from IoT sensors to cloud-based analytics engines and back to the factory floor fast enough to support real-time decision-making.

"Our equipment is becoming more intelligent and is generating high volumes of data that need to be sent to a cloud-based application, where it can be quickly analyzed so we can do useful things with that information," Patel said. Currently, Sanmina connects edge computing to wired networks that can handle a portion of that analysis for the company but not the complexity that would be a true business benefit. Processing that high-volume data requires reliability and speed.

Ideally, 5G data will travel at peak speeds of 20 Gbps, compared to 4G's 1 Gbps, and offer latency of 1 millisecond or lower, which is well suited for Sanmina's use case.

With 5G for manufacturing, Patel said he envisions how IoT sensors attached to machines that make medical devices could send a continuous stream of temperature information to the cloud, for example. That information could then be compared to patterns and historical data about temperatures for those materials, machines and the manufacturing process. If an anomaly occurred, the affected machine and a person on the manufacturing floor would be alerted so changes could be made in real time to adjust the temperature, pause the process or switch over to another machine.

"Historically, we have had to be reactive. The high speed and low latency associated with 5G will help us be proactive and keep production going, which will save materials that otherwise would have had to be scrapped and avoid missing customer delivery dates," Patel said. Instead of taking hours or days to fix a problem -- which is a typical response time, Patel said -- the Sanmina team would be able to head issues off completely and reduce downtime to minutes.

A move to 5G manufacturing would put Sanmina in the ranks of Mercedes-Benz, which announced last year it would use 5G -- through service provider Ericsson -- for its smart car production. Mercedes-Benz said that 5G will link the machines and production systems together in an intelligent manner and that the enormous quantities of data required for various test scenarios will be quickly processed -- with high reliability and low latency.

Start to evaluate 5G now

As excited as Patel is to get Sanmina's project underway, he said he knows enterprise 5G, including the base stations and 5G-compatible equipment, is not yet generally available. In fact, Gartner said in its "Hype Cycle for Enterprise Networking, 2020" report that less than 45% of global communications service providers will have launched 5G by 2025. Another problem: Gartner does not expect 5G millimeter wave spectrum, which the research firm said will be necessary for optimal performance, to be readily available outside of dense urban areas. Where it is available, Gartner warned that obstacles such as building walls, window glass and heavy foliage might cause signal propagation issues.

These challenges are even more reason to start evaluating the technology now, Patel said. He chose a greenfield project because, while upgrading an established use case from Wi-Fi or 4G LTE "would be relatively easy, it doesn't provide a lot of value," he said. With this new 5G strategy, however, the company can build the necessary support for its manufacturing and IoT requirements from the start.

Swarun Kumar, assistant professor for Carnegie Mellon University's College of Engineering, said now is a good time for businesses to start asking their service providers about their enterprise 5G roadmaps. "Service providers can help with a cost-benefit analysis," he said. And he advised businesses to evaluate all facets of the technology, including the number of devices they would need and the required latency, not just higher speed. "Think about what your current network infrastructure is giving you in terms of those metrics and what 5G's achievable metrics are. That is the calculation," he added.

He also advised companies to think about all the geographical regions they expect to use 5G in. "Fragmentation is going to be a problem. Every provider has its own strategy for 5G and plans to use completely different technology with different frequency bands," he said. These disparate strategies make it difficult for enterprises to create a cohesive, global strategy -- in turn making it difficult to achieve consistent performance from one location to another.

Getting out of the gate early will help enterprises assess the magnitude of this issue, when applications and gear will be ready, and when they might start to adopt 5G.

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