Hannover and Over Again—How the “5G Only” Message Continues to Hold Back Industrial Wireless Innovation

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By Andrew Zignani | 2Q 2024 | IN-7332

This ABI Insight highlights the continued disconnect between 5G and the broader industrial wireless ecosystem.

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Hannover Messe 2024 Exposed Industrial 5G Failings to Date, but Are Lessons Actually Being Learned?


Having last attended Hannover Messe in 2019, when the topic of 5G in industrial applications appeared to be on an upward trajectory, I arrived at the 2024 version of the “5G Arena” with an expectation of significant progress in terms of private 5G networks adoption, the formation of a 5G industrial device ecosystem, compelling examples of Return on Investment (ROI) driven by 5G industrial solutions, a closer relationship between Operational Technology (OT) and 5G technology providers, and a clear framework for accelerating the adoption and availability of 5G industrial equipment. At the same time, I had anticipated a more realistic acknowledgement that 5G would be incapable of solving all the challenges of OT environments by itself, and that industrial network providers would accept that multiple alternative wireless technologies will need to work alongside 5G in order to create the scalable, easy to deploy, secure, robust, and reliable connectivity necessary to deliver strong ROI and realize the promises of the myriad wireless applications of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). However, what I found was a surprisingly subdued 5G Arena, where despite taking up significant space, there appeared to be larger gaps between stands, and beyond a few products highlighted (mostly on the infrastructure side), very limited talk around real-world deployments, commercially available 5G devices, or how 5G is able to solve real-world challenges today. It was perhaps even more readily apparent, given the separation of the 5G arena from the rest of halls, of the continued disconnect between the potential of the technology and the willingness of end users to adopt it on a large scale. ABI Research has been highlighting this disconnect for the last 5 years, and this year, there appeared to finally be a realization that a “build it and they will come” approach is not sufficient for the industrial sector, and that perhaps 5G will not be the only wireless technology that can solve OT problems now, and in the future. However, to what extent are these failings being realized, and what can be done to continue to help solve these problems in the years to come?

Multiple Wireless Technologies or 5G at All Costs?


There were a number of interesting panel sessions at the 5G Arena, ranging from updates on market adoption, the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the role of multiple connectivity technologies, and discussions on private network rollouts, alongside the benefits and timelines around 6G and what it will mean for industrial settings. The tone of these sessions shifted from continued hype around the benefits of 5G as a solver of all industrial problems, to more realistic acknowledgment of challenges that 5G has faced in addressing industrial needs and the growing narrative that the technology is still very much in its early days of adoption and there is still a long road ahead for it to become a fundamental enabler of industrial digitization. Common issues that were raised included:

  • The inability to take existing Information and Communication Technology (ICT)-based infrastructure and devices into the industrial realm and expect it to perform, illustrating the limitations of real-world 5G deployments
  • The lacking ecosystem of devices and solutions (particularly on the end node side)
  • The need for tailored solutions, and challenges in matching 5G lifecycles and the longer 10 to 20-year life span of industrial equipment
  • The cost of implementation and price of end nodes needing to drop in order to deliver ROI
  • Unfulfilled promises due to delayed features in The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) releases
  • The underestimation of the sheer complexity of industrial use cases requirements
  • A focus on enhanced Mobile Broadband (MBB) use cases and solutions versus advanced capabilities and devices
  • Delayed rollouts of private networks

For the most part, Wi-Fi, or an industrial Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN), was presented as an inferior technology incapable of meeting mobility requirements or the stringent reliability and deterministic performance being demanded by the OT. However, it is also clear that current 5G has also been insufficient in meeting these requirements, and several panel sessions highlighted how current implementations of 5G networks are still not able to work in the industrial context, and that it is not deterministic to the extent that it is needed on the shop floor. Indeed, much of the discussion about cellular was still focused on enhanced coverage, rather than the more advanced functionalities of the technology. As highlighted in ABI Research’s Hannover Messe 2024 Key Takeaways whitepaper, 5G positioning was discussed as important to future innovation, but little was mentioned about commercial adoption of these solutions. Fraunhofer IIS was promoting its latest Nomadic 5G Positioning Testbed to enable end users to test 5G positioning capabilities on-premises before the arrival of commercial equipment. Ericsson, likewise, was demonstrating its 5G Precise Positioning Solutions, however, the performance is currently vastly inferior to that which can be provided by UWB vendors also at the show, including Siemens’ SIMATIC RTLS solution, and other Ultra-Wideband (UWB)-based Real-Time Location System (RTLS) solutions from Eliko, Woxu Wireless, Safeloc, Kinexon, and Pozyx. These vendors have spent years perfecting their technologies to be able to address the challenges of industrial environments, and while 5G positioning holds promise, real-world deployments that can compete with the accuracy of UWB will likely require extremely dense deployments of 5G anchor points comparable to UWB solutions today, increasing the overall cost of deployment.

There was finally some acknowledgement that 5G will never be deployed by itself, but instead will work alongside other technologies such as Wi-Fi, industrial Ethernet, and other technologies, including UWB for positioning purposes. However, despite extensive discussions about the future roadmap of 5G and even 6G, there was no discussion of what Wi-Fi 8 (Ultra High Reliability) will bring to the table, or how other technologies such as Wi-Fi HaLow can lower the cost of sensorization as an alternative to Reduced Capability (RedCap). This could partly be due to a significantly diminished presence of industrial WLAN vendors at the show compared to previous years.

At times, there were also contradictory messages. Some were arguing that 5G needs to be anchored to ROI in order to accelerate rollout, while others were arguing that connectivity is now such a necessity that cost is becoming almost irrelevant. Some were pointing toward RedCap as a problem solver in reducing the overall costs of end points, while others were suggesting that RedCap was still too new for widespread adoption, and it would be several years before larger-scale deployments of RedCap industrial sensors would emerge. Some were arguing that greater rollouts of private networks would accelerate the wider device ecosystem, while others pointed toward a chicken and egg scenario inhibiting the availability of end nodes.

Solving the Industrial Wireless Disconnect


With the new 6G logo being unveiled at the same time as Hannover Messe was running, there was a surprising amount of discussion at the show on what 6G will bring to the table. Several panelists joked that 6G will deliver what has been promised in 5G and that 6G would be 5G on steroids. Others framed it as the foundation of the next industrial revolution. However, several were quite frank in their assessment that there needs to be much closer integration between OT and technology providers from now onward and that while real-world industrial deployments are not expected until around 8 to 10 years from now, this work has to begin as soon as possible in order to meet the expectations of industry, address the complexity of industrial settings, and be realistic on what can be achieved when and how to achieve it. It is becoming clear that OT requires a clear roadmap and tailored end node products that can be deployed for decades or longer with consistent features and not a promise of something that may be achieved over time. More focus also needs to be on how to enable an ecosystem of infrastructure and end nodes that can scale effectively, as well as moving away from a purely technology-focused approach to one designed to fulfill OT requirements while solving business problems.

Much of the discussion has shifted to the upper layers and what AI can bring to the table. However, on a more fundamental level, these devices generating data all need some form of connectivity. In the future, they will also likely need to understand the context they are in, provided by high accuracy localization techniques, and be deployed to solve specific end-user challenges, while delivering ROI. These connectivity challenges still need to be overcome if AI in industrial environments is ever to reach its true potential, and renewed focus needs to be placed on the critical connectivity element.

Industrial network solution providers should look at how they can use multiple technologies to their benefit, rather than disparage non-cellular technologies in favor of a 5G at all costs approach. Alternative technologies such as industrial WLAN, UWB, Bluetooth®, and several others will all have a role to play across different applications, and often bring unique benefits, whether that be in terms of high localization accuracy, lower costs, lower power consumption, or other important metrics. 5G should be used where needed, and technology rollouts cannot be decoupled from ROI just because of the pressing need for data extraction and connectivity. Compelling solutions that maximize the best of multiple technologies to deliver integrated, holistic solutions to extract the most data will be vital in enabling key future use cases such as AI, the industrial metaverse, digital twins, highly accurate positioning, increased sensorization, greater mobility, and flexible production environments, alongside enhanced worker safety and efficiency. In addition to solving the disconnect between the OT and technology solution providers, there also needs to be a bridging element between multiple different technologies in order to create cost-effective, high performance, reliable, and secure industrial networks that can help transform a much wider range of industrial enterprises around the world and help create unified industrial architectures for next-generation use cases.  


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