Industrial 5G - Let's talk about 5G-Encode
The programme examines new business models and value propositions that use enterprise 5G networks in an industrial environment and test some of the 5G technologies. In particular it’s using some of the advanced features of 5G: network splicing and slicing in a real operational setting. Development work is being done in conjunction with the National Composites Centre in Bristol, which houses a specialist and advanced manufacturing environment for composites research and development. It’s one of the country’s innovation centres, with links to the concentration of aerospace development that is found around Filton near Bristol. The project is looking to work with Airbus and Rolls-Royce, which are big users of composites technology, to improve productivity in composite manufacturing. Running in parallel is the Digital Engineering Technology & Innovation (DETI) programme, which will develop tools, technologies and processes for smart manufacturing and design, underpinned by the ENCODE network.
It is sensible to combine the advanced materials research of the National Composites Centre with the advanced research of the 5G Industrial Trials and Testbeds programme. Thanks to the pioneering work at Bristol University and the initial DCMS Smart Tourism 5G testbed, there is a cluster of 5G companies in the area. There is also backhaul fibre in the ground from the earlier projects.
It’s early days, and the initial stage is to focus on the solution architecture. But the experienced team has a good understanding of the use cases and need to ensure that the 5G network and the network infrastructure will support those use cases. As with many of the Rural Connected Communities projects, ENCODE is using 4G as a launchpad and will migrate to 5G when the 5G small cells become available: not just 5G handsets but also 5G dongles and devices. They are available today, but they’re not cheap. During the course of the project, the team expects prices to drop quite significantly. Initially the specification will be the current standard release 15, 5G non-standalone, although the team is considering when to move to the future specification of release 17 standalone. This may be within the project timescale, before March 2022, but it will happen eventually as the project’s end goal is to hand the infrastructure over to the National Composites Centre. A key driver for the DCMS projects is the suitability for transfer into commercial ventures. There is a pragmatic approach to using the right technology, be this Wi-Fi 6 or 4G.
The lead company for the 5G ENCODE project is Zeetta, a spin out from the University of Bristol’s High-Performance Networks Group, which was involved in the 5G Smart Tourism and 5G RuralFirst Use-Case Trials.Zeetta is responsible for getting the infrastructure working so that it is ready to support the use cases.
Vassilis Seferidis, founder and CEO of Zeetta, told us: “We aspire to make the ENCODE testbed a national asset that will catapult to new heights the application of 5G technologies in the manufacturing sector.”
Zeetta is providing an advanced network control capability, and has a proof-of-concept multidomain orchestrator that will be developed as part of the project. In the early days, though, the network will be built using its single-domain, NETOS Rapide to manage the baseline private LTE network.
Initially the project managers expect to deliver improvements through use of very high-value manufacturing, much of which is modular, and the company constantly reconfigures the production line. Reducing downtime during configuration and making best use of the machinery and components rapidly pays dividends.
The second use case is around asset tracking. Composites manufacturing involves many time-critical steps, and there are challenges involved in keeping track of assets as they move between sites and manufacturing locations. When something like an Airbus wing is being made, it has to be moved between parts of the production facility, so the ability to hop between network technologies with network splicing is the key to being able to track assets in real time. The ultimate aim is a wireless factory that uses the low latency component of 5G to manage industrial systems. Factories are electrically noisy and experimenters with Wi-Fi have struggled. The expectation is that 5G will be more secure and robust.
An advantage of 5G is the possibility to reduce the carbon footprint through use of augmented reality for maintenance and training. If something fails, there is no need to wait for an expert to come out and fix things; the on-site engineer can be guided remotely to solve the issue. Use of this technique should address around 95% of the problems.
The National Composites Centre has two buildings quite close to each other. The network will run in both of these and in Bristol’s Millennium Square, which was part of the Initial Use-Case Trial. The University of Bristol has its own dark fibre between the sites, which helps to bring down the cost. At the moment the internal networks have speeds of just 100 Mb/s but they will be upgraded to 2 Gb/s and engineers hope to move to 10 Gb/s.
While the project is initially framed as a private network that only SIM cards issued by the programme can use, the team is interested in looking at neutral host options that would allow users from any other network to attach and be routed through to their own. This requires interconnect and a billing system. Zeetta expects that the relationship with Telefonica, which is helping the company with the Local Access spectrum and testing development licence, will help.
The project partners include Toshiba, which is serving as a system integrator for an experimental LTE/5G infrastructure from National Instruments. The plan is to have the 4G system up and running very soon, using the Enhanced Packet Core from Druid Systems.
Druid has a lot of experience in private networks and, interestingly, the company’s electronic product code is not just 5G ready, it already supports the current standards of 5G New Radio and 5G non-standalone. This will smooth the passage to the coming upgrade.
The private network model works well for access in the factory, but the ability to support 5G in Millennium Square is clearly attractive. This ability would increase the scope of the project considerably, however, as it would need the addition of billing, carrier interconnect, voice and even phone numbers, none of which are a necessary part of a private network. One advantage of having cells outdoors, however, is that they can pull a timing signal from the global positioning system. All phone networks need highly accurate timing; to achieve this via GPS requires a clear line of sight to the sky. The 5G ENCODE project will investigate other solutions for the in-building cells.
Although ENCODE is still in the planning stage, it has assembled an impressive list of industrial players with the right experience and skills to build one of the largest testbeds of industrial, private 5G networks in the UK.