April 26, 2017      

As time goes by, robots are taking over more and more critical manufacturing processes. These “smart” machines come outfitted with sensors that feed data to specialized software. This enables the robots to monitor processes and adjust their output accordingly, but they need 5G to fully do so.

When hooked together, these robots can communicate with one another to respond to a multitude of issues, greatly simplifying factory workflow. However, these massive interconnected systems have a downside. Existing networks are too slow, preventing such systems from reaching their full potential.

In typical systems, robots are connected to one another through a local connection. This limits the effectiveness of industrial automation. The advent of cloud robotics could change this — if existing network connections are reliable enough.

The 5G revolution

Enter the 5G connection. Standing simply for “fifth generation,” 5G represents the next set of standards for broadband communications. 3G networks allowed devices to signal phone towers to send and receive data, while 4G offered faster connections with less latency.

In theory, 5G connections could deliver download speeds as high as 10,000 Mbps, nearly eliminating latency issues. They also have the ability to power multiple devices with different operating requirements.

Global growth in mobile devices and connections

Global growth of smart mobile devices and connections. (Click here to enlarge.) Source: Cisco

What does this mean for robotics and manufacturing? Simply put, 5G systems will allow for unprecedented advancements in industrial automation by utilizing increased connectivity, cloud computing, and big data. Existing connectivity speeds limit the ability of robots to transfer data. Consider how the number of connected devices will increase in the next couple years.

Global Growth of Smart Mobile Devices and Connections (Excluding LPWA)

LPWA (Low-Power, Wide-Area) is a wireless network meant for M2M modules that operate on low bandwidth, but have a wide geographic coverage. (Click here to enlarge.) Source: Cisco


While an interconnected, cloud-dependent system may work on a small scale, the model simply doesn’t work with larger companies with warehouses and factories nationwide. 5G connections would make this a problem of the past.

How will 5G change robotics?

Most robots we’ve so far have been tethered in some way to a wired system. This is because the wireless connectivity needed for cloud computing just hasn’t been there. Conventional speeds, frequencies, and power aren’t sufficient for wireless robotics.

Thanks to 5G, all of that will change. Robots and automated systems will be able to roam free, untethered and wireless. Better yet, they will be able to take advantage of remote computing and data-storage systems.

How 5G could benefit robotics

How 5G could benefit robotics. (Click here to enlarge.) Source: Ericsson

This is the future. These machines will finally be able to shed their wires and step out into the world. While that may be understandably scary for some, know that it also opens up opportunities.

For instance, smart-home cleaning devices can be set up to run with a minimum of user input, tapping into a remote network of instructions and data. Robotics will also enter the workforce in larger numbers than in years past.

In public transportation, greater autonomy could save millions in taxpayer money, let alone the implications of self-driving cars.

Manufacturing applications

The increased interconnectivity a 5G connection offers will greatly streamline manufacturing processes. Take, for example, those of Astro Machine Works Inc. All of the custom machine company’s equipment is Internet-enabled, which gives its whole facility access to cloud programming and network storage.

Brian Hess, sales manager at Astro Machine Work, said he wants to take advantage of the growing trend in wireless business for the Ephrata, Pa.-based company.

“The ability to take a file and immediately download it into the machine minimizes downtime and makes changes easier,” he said. “Even on the shop floor, people are using wireless connections to communicate with the machines. It’s like instant gratification.”

According to Hess, current data-transfer technology is always getting faster, and Astro Machine Works is striving to adapt to the latest changes to remain competitive.

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Why the excitement?

Simply put, the changes the 5G network brings along will let robotics experts build sophisticated equipment, free from the limiting 4G network. These systems will be able to utilize cloud technology, allowing them to access their programs from the cloud, rather than requiring local hosting.

On the manufacturing side, companies can expect to see a huge jump in robots’ reliability. The faster data connections will allow the robots to access programs and data from the cloud and process it to adjust their output.

For a practical example, say a manufacturing plant must communicate with a warehouse to manage output of a popular product. The robots at the plant would be able to monitor the flow of stock and adjust their own process to compensate.

Manufacturers can also expect to see cost savings. With cloud computing, the majority of the calculations take place off-site, reducing the processing power required to run the machine. This leads to savings in unexpected areas like power and temperature management.

Overall, 5G could revolutionize the manufacturing and robotics industries in the coming years. Its higher connection speeds and reduced latency will enable companies to run in ways only dreamed about decades ago. And who can imagine what innovations may come as a result?