ABI Research recommends that telcos take a hard look at smart manufacturing as a potential vertical market for connectivity, especially since manufacturers are facing a technical dilemma in implementing smart manufacturing solutions. Private LTE networks offer security, low latency, and high bandwidth, enabling manufacturers to adopt various applications, such as augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and remote robotics, in their plants to facilitate manufacturing processes.
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Singtel Is Looking into Robotics and AI
In December 2017, Singtel partnered with Nanyang Technological University and the National Research Foundation Singapore (NRF Singapore) to establish a corporate lab called Singtel Cognitive and Artificial Intelligence Lab for Enterprises (SCALE@NTU). The initiative cost US$32 million and aims to accelerate innovation in the fields of AI, advanced data analytics, robotics, and smart computing.
One of the main vertical markets that Singtel aims to address is manufacturing. Using its impending LTE-M, NB-IoT, and private LTE network infrastructure as the foundation for a connectivity layer, Singtel wishes to be ahead of the industry in offering analytics and automation solutions to its regional enterprise customers.
Manufacturing Is Going Smart and Wireless
Currently, fixed networks in manufacturing are undergoing their own evolution by introducing low latency and minimal jitter, which are critical to meeting closed-loop control requirements via time-sensitive networking. However, the downside of fixed networks is the physical limitations that they impose on the alteration and expansion of manufacturing lines. Scalability of plantwide communication and manufacturing processes is limited by current infrastructure placement. On the other hand, current wireless technology options such as mesh Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Zigbee, while providing excellent fluidity to manufacturing processes, exhibit challenges in line-of-sight, scalability, and data throughput. This means that data-intensive technologies such as augmented reality and remote robotics are challenging to run on the current wireless technologies offered in manufacturing.
A private LTEor 5G network offered by a telco is ideal to resolve this conundrum. Freshly minted in Lisbon, Portugal, on December 22, 2017, the first 5G New Radio (NR) specifications bring ultra-low latency, up to 1 millisecond, and ultra-fast broadband via new spectrum resources in 3.5 GHz and 28 GHz, with full specification in Release 15 and 16. This means that data-heavy and latency-sensitive manufacturing applications that previously needed to run on Wi-Fi can now run on a wireless network.
On top of this, telcos bring storage, computing, and networking capabilities closer to the manufacturing plants via multi-access edge computing. Nokia recently partnered with Amazon Web Services to offer Greengrass, an edge-computing application that enables local computing, messaging, data caching, synchronization, and machine learning inference for connected devices.
Case in point is China. As the world’s manufacturing hub, China is actively moving towards smart manufacturing. The recently released 2017 China Smart Manufacturing Green Paper reveals that the country is still in an early stage of smart manufacturing implementation. Key technologies and equipment required for smart manufacturing are still not sufficiently mature and many enterprises are still unclear on their implementations. This presents a great opportunity for telcos to step in and act as the system integrator and deploy both ICT and network infrastructure for the manufacturers. ABI Research has extensive coverage on key vendors in the smart industry and AR and VR ecosystem.
Telcos Can Serve as System Integrators for Smart Manufacturing
The introduction of LTE and 5G will continue to enhance the productivity and safety of manufacturing plants via other assistive technologies. Google Glass is currently being trialed and adopted by AGCO, Boeing, and GE. Augmented reality enables hands-free operations by employees in manufacturing plants, giving them instant access to instruction manuals and allowing them to perform fault maintenance and remote communication.
In addition, LTE networks also enable the deployment of mobile wireless robots that run on LTE networks. Ocado, an online grocer in the United Kingdom, has been using a private LTE network to operate its warehousing automation solution. Aside from being free from cables and wired connections, mobile robots can be integrated with AI to facilitate manufacturing processes. Landing.ai, a startup by AI expert Andrew Ng, is implementing AI in Foxconn factories in China, particularly in machine vision and process optimization. Another AI startup, Element AI, is offering AI-as-a-service to small manufacturing plants for analyzing large datasets and predictive maintenance.
In summary, ABI Research believes that telcos can be a key player in Industry 4.0, using connectivity as a selling point:
Telco cloud brings services closer and faster to enterprises - The proliferation of cloud applications mean more and more activities are performed in the cloud. With the introduction of edge computing, telcos are deploying small scale data centers closer to the network edge. These data centers enable storage and computing of certain applications to be done closer to the enterprises, with quicker response time, or lower latency.
Telcos can offer private network solution to enterprises - For enterprises and organizations in vertical markets such as utilities, mining, logistics, ports, warehousing and manufacturing, connectivity plays a huge role in their day-to-day business. Telcos can assist these enterprises in offering service level agreements for the connectivity services, by acting as the system integrator and deploying both ICT and network infrastructure for these enterprises.
Telcos are slowly changing their culture, too - In the past, telcos were very much focused on improving their own infrastructure, within the domain of their own industry. Now, with NFV, telcos start to embrace open source software and DevOps philosophy. Case in point: FirstNet, the nationwide public safety LTE network of the United State, is currently being deployed by AT&T. AT&T uses OpenStack to manage all the core network infrastructure and network functions. Moving forward, telcos are incorporating more and more IT concepts from the open source community into their networks, with the aim to achieve cloud native architecture.