25-11-2020 | | By Sam Brown
Recently, General Motors announced that they had installed the first private 5G network for use in their automotive assembly centre. What is a private cellular network, what advantages do they bring to the industrial scene, and will they replace other network technologies in the future?
5G is the next generation of cellular technology after 4G and will bring about a wide range of improvements. To start, 5G will have much higher download speeds than 4G allowing for greater amounts of data to be transferred. While 5G is stated to have as much as 100x the speed of 4G, in reality, it is more likely to be 10x to 20x when considering real-world implementation with multiple devices accessing the same cell.
5G also allows for a greater number of simultaneous connections with the use of advanced MIMO antenna techniques such as beamforming. The use of such technology enables an antenna to form a communication beam to a specific device which prevents its signal from interfering with other nearby devices. Thus, each device can maximise its beam connection, and therefore increase the overall bandwidth.
Latency is also to be significantly improved with estimated latencies as low as 2ms for 5G, compared to 20ms to 30ms for 4G this is a major change. This will allow devices to communicate in near real-time, and thus the use of cloud computing becomes more practical.
Most cellular networks installed globally are public networks which anyone with a valid SIM can connect to. While private companies provide cellular service and hardware, cellular networks allow for any member to access regardless where they are in the network.
However, networks such as Wi-Fi are private, and only those who have authorisation can use such networks. Each home in a street may have Wi-Fi, but only the residences of those houses can access the network. If a user from one home walks through the street, they are unable to connect to these networks; this is what differentiates public from a private network.
A private cellular network; i.e. only authorised users can use that network. While private cellular networks are still in their infancy, the introduction of technologies such as 5G is starting to make them more popular, and heavy research is being done to make such networks economical and practical.
General Motors has recently announced that they have installed a private 5G cellular network at one of their assembly plants. This installation is the first of its kind in the US and marks an important milestone in the development of private cellular networks. The installation, which is located at Factory ZERO in Detroit, was constructed by Verizon and utilises their 5G Ultra Wideband service, and is in anticipation for the factories production of EVs in 2021.
The addition of the private 5G cellular network comes apart of a $2.2 billion investment into the auto assembly centre, the largest to date for any GM facility. Two next-generation Evs being built at the facility include the GMC Hummer EV and the Cruise Origin which will utilise GM’s Ultrium battery platform. The integration of the 5G network is a result of a need for a wireless network that provides high speed, low latency, and high device count.
While many network technologies exist, the two most commonly used ones by far are ethernet (LAN) and Wi-Fi (WAN). Ethernet provides fixed devices with a reliable highspeed connection while Wi-Fi provides short-range mobile connectivity with high speeds. However, while these technologies may be ideal for home users, the introduction of IIoT leaves industrial sites with a growing issue; how to simultaneously connect thousands of devices while keeping infrastructure simple.
The first major advantage to using a cellular network over Wi-Fi is that they allow for a large number of simultaneously connected devices. As cellular networks are designed to be used in environments with thousands of phones operating at the same time, the same network can provide a reliable wireless connection to many industrial devices all operating simultaneously.
The second major advantage to using a cellular network is their ability to allow for roaming. On a good day, Wi-Fi may allow for a maximum range of up to 300 meters, but as soon as there are obstacles such as walls and beams this range is reduced significantly. Therefore, multiple Wi-Fi hotspots are required, but this can cause issues as devices roam from one area to the next as reconnection can take time. Cellular networks, however, are designed to allow devices to easily roam from one cell to the next without the need for long complex reconnections. This is particularly important for autonomous vehicles used in factories which require remote monitoring.
While cellular networks may not replace Wi-Fi and Ethernet in the home environment, they stand a good chance of doing so in industrial applications. Their ability to provide high-speed, low latency connections is critical to next-generation industrial processes, and the ability to allow for roaming between different cells will allow large-scale installations that cross vast distances.