Automating industry pre-5G
Automating the delivery of parts from storage to the production line was expected to improve productivity and manufacturing flexibility, but it was proving difficult. Erno Marjakangas and his team were experimenting with an Autonomous Intelligent Vehicle (AIV) or advanced mobile robot (AMR). Unlike Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs) long used in manufacturing, AIVs and AMRs are supposed to be able to navigate without a fixed guidance system, making their way through the labyrinth of metal storage racks to retrieve parts and deliver them to the production line. Good in theory, but it wasn’t working.
An AGV typically uses a fixed system, like magnetic tape on the factory floor, which means it can only follow a pre-set course. An AIV or AMR, in contrast, is more autonomous and uses local sensors to get its bearing and navigate around the factory, even when the layout has changed; as a result, it can travel anywhere.
AIVs have the potential to make the factory much more flexible and capable of shifting production very quickly. But, like any co-bot, they also need to work safely around people, other machines and fellow AIV/AMRs. For that reason, they also use wireless to communicate every 10-100ms the status of their safety system to ensure all is functional.
Unfortunately for Marjakangas, who heads excellence and development at Nokia’s advanced manufacturing facility in Oulu, Finland, the AIV/AMRs kept stopping. The only way to get them moving was for a member of the team to manually restart the AIV/AMRs. The problem was eventually identified as the Wi-Fi network; the AIV/AMRs would lose connection for a few seconds as they moved from one Wi-Fi zone to another. The loss of communications with the fleet and safety management system would cause the AGV/AIV to stop because it couldn’t report the status of its safety systems. Marjakangas was losing valuable production time and his team was spending too much time manually re-starting the stopped AIV/AMRs.
Fortunately, Marjakangas had access to some of the world’s best network engineers to solve the problem. It was 2017, and Nokia had pioneered the use of 4G/LTE private wireless networks to be used in just the kind of advanced manufacturing settings that Marjakangas was running at the Oulu facility. Unlike Wi-Fi, 4G/LTE is a mobile cellular technology, so rapidly handing off the network connection from cell to cell wasn’t an issue.
The new network not only solved the mobility handoff problems, but it also opened up other potential applications. 4G/LTE is designed to deal with radio interference in dense urban landscapes with tall buildings and many moving vehicles. Although the extensive metal shelving and high ceilings in the factory provided a challenging radio environment for Wi-Fi, they were no problem for 4G/LTE.
This kind of pervasive connectivity unlocks the potential for a host of other use cases within the same network
“This kind of pervasive connectivity unlocks the potential for a host of other use cases within the same network,” according to Marjakangas. “In addition to the mobile robots, we’ve already connected various production testers and sensors, and we’re investigating other use cases such as video analytics in the assembly process, wireless manufacturing robotics, and digital twins for optimization of production operations.”
Marjakangas is excited with the capabilities of 5G, especially its higher bandwidth and its ability to provide ultra-low latencies for very precise control of machine automation. But he also stresses that 4.9G/LTE, the latest version of the 4G standard, is more than adequate for 85% of the things most industrial sites need. It supports industrial IoT networks, has impressive bandwidth and is far more reliable and secure than alternatives such as Wi-Fi.
Nokia is currently deploying 5G private wireless networks for some of its enterprise customers around the world, but the majority of private wireless still tends to be 4.9G/LTE. “Today there is a very robust industrial device ecosystem for 4.9G/LTE, to power almost all use cases in advanced manufacturing,” says Dave Nowoswiat, with Nokia Enterprise. “At the same time, Nokia is working with many industrial OEM partners to validate 5G and its capabilities, to help accelerate the development of a healthy 5G industrial ecosystem.”
Nokia is working with many industrial OEM partners to validate 5G and its capabilities, to help accelerate the development of a healthy 5G industrial ecosystem
This isn’t stopping Marjakangas from trialing 5G and experimenting with new industrial automation use cases, but for his bread-and-butter processes, he is still counting on 4.9G/LTE. He figures that he will run both 4.9G/LTE and 5G in parallel, at least until the 5G standards are complete and a 5G industrial ecosystem has developed. Meanwhile, the AIV/AMRs are running non-stop at the Oulu factory, and Nokia is now the industry leader with 260+ private wireless customers around the world powering many AIV/AMR systems, digital twins and many more Industry 4.0 use cases for its manufacturing customers worldwide.