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Will 5G transform manufacturing?

The mobile communications industry has spent years trying to stoke consumer enthusiasm around 5G mobile services and how faster mobile broadband speeds might impact people’s lives. But an even more significant impact may come when 5G is applied to machines, in industrial settings such as factories, a fact that industry is only beginning to understand.

The annual Hannover Messe event in April – a trade show in Germany focused on industrial technologies – offered a snapshot of the myriad ways in which 5G and other cellular technologies could help transform industrial spaces. As part of the AI exhibition, wheeled robots carted around crates, machines performed welding tasks and robotic arms twirled lightsabers in a demonstration of their dexterity.

Many of the technologies that could transform factories will get a boost from 5G, which is more robust than Wi-Fi and allows greater freedom and mobility than cables.

That mobility is especially important when using, say, wheeled robots or automated forklifts. And because disaster can result if a robot doesn’t stop or turn exactly when it should, 5G offers the kind of low latency – in other words, very rapid responsiveness – that make robots safer to use.

In some use cases demonstrated by 5G equipment vendors in recent months, drones were tasked with plant inspections, checking for things like rusty pipes in areas that might be hard for humans to reach.

Human work will be greatly enhanced in these factories, too. Workers will use 5G-connected virtual reality to more easily visualise the impact of planned changes and augmented reality will give them rich sets of real-time information about their physical environments.

In addition, workers with specialised expertise will be able to oversee multiple factories remotely, using 5G sensors and video to collect information and robots to respond (e.g. make changes or repairs).

One of the key challenges in evolving to this future world is the information gap between the telecom firms that provide 5G and the industrial companies that could use it.

Many business leaders don’t yet realise what 5G could enable and how it could change their businesses. And many telecom firms don’t understand individual industry verticals well enough to know how to help them improve their operations. They’ll have to spend the next few years trying to work this out together.

This article first appeared on Verdict, which is part of the same group as NS Tech and GlobalData