At the beginning of the last century the world entered an age of mass production where the economies of scale that could be achieved by producing many, identical products drove down the price of those items. This manufacturing shift brought about a change of business model too, moving from “Pull” to “Push” leading to Henry Ford’s famous quote “Any colour you like as long as it’s black”. In other words you had to take what were given, not necessarily what you wanted. In the preceding age items were made often to order and by many “craft” producers who in this age soon became uncompetitive or had to move to the luxury end of the market. What we then saw at the end of the last century was the start of a trend that is continuing and indeed accelerating until today and that is “Mass Personalisation”. It’s a shift that’s shown graphical in the figure below.

Now when you buy a new car, for example, it is made to order, to exactly the specification you want and it’s this that presents new challenges for manufacturers. Also at the end of the last century there has been massive growth in Contract Manufacturing who manufacture products for a number of different customers. Companies like Apple, for example, don’t manufacture their own products anymore but use Taiwanese or Singaporean contractors. These contractors therefore need flexibility; they need to be able to reconfigure lines depending on what they’re building today, next week or even next year. All these things together have resulted in manufacturers looking for new answers and has spawned the Industry 4.0 initiative or the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Evolution of the production paradigm towards Industry 4.0
Source: Ericsson Technology Review

How then can 5G help in this new world and be a driver for Industry 4.0? One of the ways manufacturers are looking to provide the required flexibility is by having machines that move. In most factories today we have fixed lines where the products move from one stage to the next to be operated on by robots that perform a specific function or part of the process. But what if the robots could move, what if they could go to the product? It’s an idea that turns manufacturing on its head, the product doesn’t move, the robots come to where it is! Your manufacturing plant becomes one open space, a sort of “ballroom for robots”. Then it’s of course easy to change what you manufacture or to personalise each product but to achieve it we need robots that can be quickly and easily reprogrammed and are mobile, which brings us to the issue of networking. How do we communicate with things that are moving and constantly changing?

Existing networks cannot cut it in this environment, we can’t run cables to robots that are moving, we’ll soon end up with a tangle of spaghetti, and Wi-Fi cannot deliver the number of connections or the mobility required, we need something new. That’s why manufacturers are turning to 5G to solve the problem. 5G is inherently mobile, supports many device connections, has the bandwidth to re-programme robots quickly and efficiently and is very secure. That’s why many advanced manufacturers are now looking to build private, indoor 5G networks to control their production facilities, but this is only the start. When these networks are linked to 5G networks that are managing the supply chain manufacturers can achieve optimisations in “just in time” manufacturing, making sure the right parts for a particular personalisation are available just when they are needed.

Manufacturing is then is due for massive change in the coming years and is truly a Fourth Industrial Revolution; an age of robots and 5G will be at the forefront of making this happen.