Private 5G networks and the factories of the future

Picture the scene…

A self-driven lorry parks up at a loading bay at a car manufacturing plant, expertly guided into place by sensors. A forklift truck wheels itself into place and a mechanized arm lifts pallets from the lorry. Goods are extracted, weighed and scanned – all the time being checked against the manufacturer’s database of orders and regulatory requirements. They’ve passed the test.

The forklift truck navigates its way into an unloading area where, supervised by a single human manager, goods are unloaded and sorted by type and end destination within the plant. The forklift returns to the lorry. Zoom out, and this scenario is being played out at every loading bay skirting the perimeter of the plant. Zoom back in, and there’s a hive of regimented, mechanized, autonomous, intelligent activity. Freed from their wired tethers, robotic machines zip about the floor, ensuring production lines – also fully automated – are optimized and running smoothly, transforming raw materials in, to fully formed assets out. The operation runs 24/7/365. Every movement and occurrence and variable are measured, logged, and analyzed for performance and optimization.

This is the factory blueprint of the future. And it’s all possible via a private 5G networks. The infrastructure itself isn’t part of a futuristic vision – private networks are running today and supported by LTE spectrum. However, 5G will enable the kind of ultra-reliable low-latency communication (URLLC) that use cases like our future factory will require.

Advancing Industry 4.0

The future vision isn’t too far off: according to findings from Nokia, 74% of manufacturing decision-makers plan to upgrade communications and control networks in the next two years to advance industry 4.0. More than 90% are investigating use of 4G/5G, and of these, 84% will deploy their own local private wireless network.

We’re already seeing deployments. In January last year Qualcomm Technologies and Siemens claimed to be the first to test a private 5G SA network in a proof-of-concept (PoC) project at the Siemens Automotive Test Center in Nuremberg, Germany. Since then, we’ve seen a number of other projects. Nokia, for instance, is helping utilities firms deploy private wireless networks using a mix of carrier and enterprise spectrum. This includes the first private network deployment using the CBRS spectrum, with San Diego Gas & Electric. In Finland meanwhile, Nokia is to implement an industrial-grade private 5G network at the KymiRing motor racing circuit, the largest motorsports and events venue in northern Europe.

Sports venues, medical facilities, education campuses, office blocks, utilities plants, airports and transport hubs: any site that requires dedicated, secure, private, high-capacity connectivity will gain from such a set-up. In fact, the GSMA has estimated that private networks could serve 25–40% of SMEs and corporates, starting with high-priority sectors before moving into other areas with more complex layout and delivery requirements over the next three to five years.

Private 5G Small Cells

Small cells will be a key part of deployment plans for many of these kinds of networks. As the name suggests, small cells provide coverage for small areas in a similar way as do traditional base stations. They’re capable of supporting the high data rates needed for consumer mobile use as well as low-speed and low-power devices: just the kind of mobile device profiles you might expect in an office building or shopping center. Small cells are also low cost to deploy and can be integrated into existing infrastructure (such as those office buildings and shopping centers mentioned), democratizing access to private network deployments and allowing smaller enterprises – as well as major Industrial IoT players – to benefit. Furthermore, although they support fewer devices than macro cells, small cells can still support thousands of devices, making them well-suited to indoor private network deployments.

While the potential benefits of small cells and 5G private networks are huge, challenges remain. The main issues with small cells are guaranteeing excellent coverage in the area they are deployed and ensuring consistently high data rates, reliable connectivity and seamless handover without compromising QoS. Reliability is key: any network failures could have serious implications for customers and potentially to a macro-cell for load balancing reasons. Network testing is therefore equally key.

The challenges of testing private 5G networks prior to deployment

Think of a private 5G network in a shopping center that involves small cells. The building’s owner might be planning a deployment that involves several small cells spread across the site, which need to support a high volume of devices all with different mobility scenarios. Before rolling out a private 5G network, the building owner needs to know how many small cells to deploy and where to deploy them in order to ensure the best coverage and to get maximum performance in terms of throughout.

Whether they involve small cells or not, there are also technical challenges to testing private 5G networks. As discussed above, the use cases for private networks are pretty diverse, meaning the network must support a whole range of endpoints, each with different requirements. An automated factory will have sensors, M2M data exchange, autonomous robots, V2X etc. A university campus will need to support far fewer IoT devices, but a lot more human subscribers all talking, texting and using the internet on their devices.

Deploying a private network requires some investment, so enterprises and operators need to be certain that the infrastructure can support all of these mobility scenarios as soon as its live. A wait-and-see approach (especially when it comes to ensuring robust network security and defending against hackers) is not an option. Testing needs to be done cost-effectively, well in advance of a network’s deployment, to ensure that both enterprise and operator will get sufficient ROI.

Finally, there’s currently a bit of a knowledge gap which is holding back testing and deployments of private 5G networks. Building owners and developers of private networks naturally do not have the same level of knowledge and experience as telcos. They need partners that can help them test this infrastructure and ensure that it can deliver the promised performance benefits.

Finding a partner to test private 5G networks

By working with an experienced network validation and testing provider like VIAVI, businesses can develop networks cost effectively and ensure they operate to the same high quality as a telco’s commercial network. Crucially, they can ensure that networks support multiple, diverse mobility scenarios and are ultra-secure, well in advance of roll-out.

This can be achieved by testing in the lab: a cost-effective approach, helping to pinpoint potential issues and allowing engineers to troubleshoot and action problems before they occur in a real-world scenario. The VIAVI TM500 can be used to simulate the behavior, traffic and mobility profiles of end-users (in the case of a shopping center, for example) or endpoints (like in a connected factory) in a 5G private network deployment. It also supports a high number of UEs per cell or carrier to evaluate capacity. The VIAVI TeraVM virtualized product can be used to emulate a 5G SA Core Network to test the effects of connecting a private 5G network to a core network prior to launch.

We help our customers ensure their technology works, works at scale and achieves the expected performance. Businesses can develop private 5G networks cost effectively and ensure new technology is working optimally prior to rollout. We reduce time to market, complexity of testing, validation, inter-operation and deployment of cellular technologies for all customers at all stages of the private network development process.

The factory of the future isn’t too far off. And neither is the sports stadium/ hospital / office block / leisure complex / processing plant of the future. To realize these visions quickly, easily and cost-effectively, now’s the time to test.


About The Author

TM500 Marketing Manager

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