5G fast approaching the world of industry

The 5G VIIMA project, which has developed 5G networks and related applications to meet the needs of industry, is due to end in spring 2021. The two-year project pulled together seven research organisations and around twenty companies into a research consortium that investigated and developed the use of wireless 5G technology in industry. Next up on the drawing board is the new industry project SISU.

The 5G VIIMA project, which was coordinated by the University of Oulu, has had two key areas of 5G technology at its core: local networks and the Internet of Things. An increasing number of organisations are interested in deploying their own closed communication network, and 5G can make this happen. Because 5G primarily operates on higher frequencies, the base stations must be closer together, and this enables the formation of local ‘micro-operators’ with their own private 5G networks. Furthermore, the possibilities for the Internet of Things (IoT) – meaning the utilisation of devices, machines and sensors through a wireless network – are greatly expanded by this capacity and speed of 5G.

How could industry make use of these features? The answers depend always on the particular situation, explains researcher Marja Matinmikko-Blue from the University of Oulu Centre for Wireless Communications.

‘Participating in the 5G VIIMA project were a number of different kinds of industrial locations, including both closed environments such as a Nokia factory and also areas such as the Port of Oulu where there are many different stakeholders. For each location, we considered both the challenges involved and the particular 5G solutions and other ICT solutions that would be beneficial in that context.’

5G VIIMA Coordinator Olli Liinamaa, who works in the same research unit, highlights the benefits of wireless communications. ‘If the devices move around, then the data transfer must of course be wireless, but wireless solutions also solve the many problems that would arise for stationary machinery if their location would change. Cabling is discarded, as are fault-prone routing adjustments.’

The starting point for the use of 5G networks is the infrastructure in each particular location, which can include both the local network and also traditional operator networks and other communications networks. The utilisation of IoT, on the other hand, starts with reflecting on the situations and activities for which wireless would be beneficial. In addition, the need for other ICT solutions must be examined: for example, one of the solutions implemented at the Port of Oulu is situational data collected using video cameras and sensors and then transmitted via the network to actors in the area.

‘We need to understand the real challenges of the actual operating environment,’ summarises Matinmikko-Blue. ‘This can only be done through multi-stakeholder teamwork. In the 5G VIIMA project, the different parties were brought together around the same table to form a shared understanding of the operating environments and their challenges. Companies and research partners were able to develop wireless solutions together and try them out in the real world.’

‘For example, workshops were held at the Port of Oulu in order to first understand the operating environment: what takes place there, what stakeholder groups there are and what they do. In the same way we also considered the different ICT elements in order to understand what networks, operators and ICT solutions are in place at the Port of Oulu. Based on this data, we started to think about what kinds of solutions were needed and then moved forward step-by-step, for example by measuring the capacity of the current networks.’

Follow-on project to put solutions into practice

According to Matinmikko-Blue, creating a forum for debate and a culture of experimentation has been a key achievement of 5G VIIMA. When large operators and equipment manufacturers, small ICT solution suppliers and researchers work together to transmit technological information to industrial companies, and when these companies then give insights into their practical uses and drawbacks, technological opportunities and needs slot together and real solutions take shape. Furthermore, these solutions that have been developed and tested out in Finland can then be exported all over the world.

There is also a need to understand related regulations. For this reason, 5G VIIMA has also involved the participation of the national regulator, the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom, which has been able to clarify the telecommunication regulatory situation and explain about matters such as the radio frequencies that will be used for 5G.

This interactive process enables a clarifying and refining of the industrial use cases for 5G and the needed ICT solutions in a way that would not be possible without such cooperation. ‘It is precisely the exchange of information that has been considered very useful,’ points out Matinmikko-Blue.

A particular challenge for local networks is the availability of 5G radio frequencies. There is a shortage of good frequency bands that could be used to cost-effectively construct a local network. In addition, national regulation regarding who is granted the frequency usage rights varies considerably even between European countries. Similarly, there is a great deal of disparity in the regulation of local networks – indeed, the very formation of such networks is still not possible in many countries. Finland has been among the first to make decisions on 5G frequencies, while elsewhere the work is still in progress.’

As regards IoT solutions, one effective general approach that emerged was the ‘digital twin’ concept, which involves creating for the particular target – such as a production process or the operations within a certain area – a model (digital twin) which is when optimised. In addition to sensor data, the system can also make use of other resources such as video and external information sources.

However, the more detailed development and utilisation of wireless solutions in the industrial environment is still in its infancy. ‘There is a wide spectrum of opportunities, and 5G VIIMA has not got very far in testing them out,’ says Matinmikko-Blue.

Liinamaa recognises that many questions remain unanswered. ‘Although the project carried out numerous experiments in a real-world environment, 5G networks still lack many useful features and the commercialisation of industrial applications is still only just getting started.’

Matinmikko-Blue summarises the objectives of the follow-on project: ‘The experiments will be expanded and new industrial environments will be included. The aim is to identify business opportunities – what are the benefits of wireless solutions from the perspective of both the provider and the industry – and to produce solutions that can be commercialised for global markets.’

Sustainable development as a criterion for both industry and ICT solutions

A key new aspect are the sustainable development goals integrated throughout the follow-on project; the aim is to achieve sustainability both in industrial operations and in the solutions developed for them.

5G VIIMA only made reference to the sustainability perspective, while the follow-on project will place it right in the centre,’ Matinmikko-Blue explains. ‘The sustainability challenges of industry are brought to the attention of ICT solution developers, and the solutions themselves must also be sustainable. One crucial factor here is improving energy efficiency.’

Energy efficiency has been one of the starting points for developing 5G: increased data transfer capacity requires decreased energy use per byte of data transferred. It is difficult, however, to measure this.

‘There are as yet no proper end-to-end measures for 5G energy consumption. However, these questions have already been raised, and in March 2021 the Ministry of Transport and Communications published a Finnish climate and environmental strategy for the ICT sector.’

More than 15 industrial partners and seven research organisations have already joined SISU, the new two-year project proposal, so the necessary pieces are nearly in place. The rest depends on the funding.

Text: Jarno Mällinen

Last updated: 8.4.2021