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—— Samar Eraky
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—— SVIRIKHIN VASILIEVICH
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Cellular connectivity for Industry 4.0
The arrival of the fourth and fifth generations of cellular connectivity, with new low-power, wide-area standards such as LTE-M, NB-IoT, and 5G, allows you to easily connect most machinery and other assets at the factory of the 21st century. Furthermore, private networks enable cellular connectivity’s security, privacy, and reliability.
According to the research report, “Rise of the Smarter, Swifter, Safer Production Employee,” published by Ericsson, most manufacturing enterprises expect to be at least 80 percent automated within 10 years, with many hoping to see at least a two-fold rise in the use of ICT-enabled tools within the next five years.
While wired connections, especially Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN), provide the best high-priority path for time-critical data, wireless communications are preferred as the fastest way to connect many devices, machinery, and other assets in the factory.
Since the arrival of GSM — the second generation of cellular networks — in 1991, industries have been adopting it to connect machines, monitoring systems, alarms, and other systems. GSM features basic data transmission on GPRS/EDGE and SMS.
Ten years later, the third generation (3G) enabled faster data transmission, a broader spectrum, and a global standard. A new industrial standards body, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), was born to provide its members with a stable environment to produce the reports and specifications that define 3GPP technologies. Today, keeping its original name, 3GPP defines the specifications of every generation of cellular networks.
Cellular Service Providers (CSPs) are Sunsetting 2G and 3G Cellular Networks
In the past 30 years, hundreds of thousands of Machine-to-Machine (M2M) devices that use 2G networks have been installed. Those are actuators, environmental sensors, utility meters, alarm systems, and other sensors that use SMS and GPRS/EDGE for communication.
One reason to invest in 4G and 5G connectivity for IoT is that operators are shutting down legacy 2G and 3G networks worldwide. While existing devices could continue to operate for the time being on those legacy networks, support will phase out and carriers are no longer activating new 2G devices. The existing connections are now living on borrowed time.
Like 2G, many carriers are eager to sunset older 3G networks to repurpose that spectrum to support 4G LTE and 5G. New devices need more speed, and 3G tops out at around 3 Mbps. Besides being faster, 4G LTE is also more efficient, allowing more devices to share channels and featuring massive IoT technologies such as LTE Cat-M and NB-IoT.
According to GSMA Intelligence, in addition to the 43 networks already closed by 2020, at least 64 more networks will be shut down between 2021 and 2025 as operators seek to optimize operations and costs and reclaim spectrum for 4G and 5G.
The 4G LTE Advantage with LTE-M and NB-IoT
The arrival of the fourth generation of cellular networks (long-term evolution or 4G) signified a quantum leap in how cellular wireless could work in industrial applications. Not only was a new radio designed for the first time to handle massive Internet of Things (IoT) connections, but as new releases became available, new low-power standards allowed for new applications and smaller devices.
Two IoT standards operate on 4G and 5G networks: Long Term Evolution for Machines (LTE-M) and Narrow-Band IoT (NB-IoT), offering new low-power, wide-area connectivity on cellular networks. These allowed the deployment of massive IoT applications, especially for industrial and agricultural use. Over the years, LTE-M became very popular in the U.S., and NB-IoT became the preferred standard in Asia and Europe.
For most massive IoT applications requiring low power consumption and the security and availability of cellular networks, NB-IoT and LTE-M are the preferred solutions. While both support massive IoT deployments in the thousands of connections, there are some differences: NB-IoT requires less power and smaller modems, making it ideal for smaller devices running on batteries, but it doesn’t support SMS (yet) or voice. LTE-M requires more power, but it supports SMS and limited voice communication.
From the cellular service provider’s perspective and profitability, LTE-M allows them to support the service on existing 4G networks with a software update, while NB-IoT requires additional hardware.
With the arrival of 5G networks, both LTE-M and NB-IoT are part of the specification and thus directly supported. Additionally, for IoT applications that require more bandwidth but not the whole network capabilities, there is 5G NR-REDCAP, which offers a similar performance as LTE over the sub-GHz spectrum.
With the arrival of the embedded SIM (eSIM), some companies, such as Infineon, STMicroelectronics, and Sony Semiconductors, are offering smaller chipsets for cellular connectivity.
New Radio, 5G Advanced, and 5G Redcap
We still need to get the full specifications of 5G available everywhere. Most 5G networks worldwide use the 3GPP Release 15, non-standalone. That means those networks require the support of existing 4G LTE infrastructure.
Standalone 5G (3GPP Rel. 16 and above) allows for massive IoT connectivity using only the power needed to perform the necessary data exchange. IoT devices can connect on the fly and adjust their power output accordingly.
Additionally, for critical IoT applications such as robotics and remote operations, 5G networks provide the required reliability, ultra-low latency, and lower power consumption.
The introduction of 5G New Radio capabilities such as NR-REDCAP, which provides 4G speeds at many more frequencies with lower power consumption, will make 5G a suitable option for many users requiring higher security and uncompromised connectivity. Also, new, smaller, and cheaper chipsets and iSIMs help reduce BOM cost and power usage.
According to Ericsson, “The 3GPP Release 17 work on the support for reduced capability NR devices is an important step further to expand the addressable market of 5G NR. It enables a reduced capability device to operate in any of the NR frequency bands.”
While 5G Is Still in Development, 6G Will Come Soon
Research and development of the following standard of cellular wireless connectivity are underway.
Different companies and research facilities are working with the 3GPP to define and test the feasibility of the upcoming network evolution, 6G. They expect 6G to provide speeds of 1 to 100 Gbps to the end-user, and multi-MIMO capability of 100-1,000 simultaneously dependently-modulated beams, effectively providing speeds in the 10s of Terabytes per second.
Besides providing precision localization to a fraction of an inch, supplementing GPS, 6G imaging techniques will identify any person or moving object. This intelligent, immersive infrastructure could support low-latency virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and seamless telepresence.
The Rise of Private Wireless Networks
Wired and wireless private networks have been around for many years. Many industries have been using a combination of wired Ethernet and Wi-Fi to connect machines, sensors, gateways, and other assets.
While cellular networks provide a new layer of security and availability, some industries require on-premises connectivity and the possibility of locally securing data and operations. LTE and 5G offer the option of deploying private cellular networks for specific locations and applications.
Some private networks are just virtual slices operating on existing public infrastructure. These are run by cellular service providers, who allocate a portion of the spectrum or some cells for their industrial clients.
Nowadays, some cellular infrastructure providers also offer private networks outside the CSP domain. Companies such as Cisco, Samsung, Huawei, Nokia, and Ericsson, among others, are now delivering their solutions directly to large industrial customers.
“Industries can also deploy a private network using their own enterprise spectrum if you can get it from the regulator,” said Sylwia Kechiche, Principal Industry Analyst, Enterprise at Ookla, “or they can lease it from the operator. So there are multiple different ways for an enterprise, depending on what sort of level of control they want, whether they want these virtual private networks.”
Juniper Research puts Nokia and Ericsson as leaders in the private cellular business. According to the company, “Our study found that traditional cellular network operators are often behind in the roll-out of private network capabilities, allowing other providers to step into the role. The most successful players here are network vendors with equipment channels they can use to enter the market. The flexible nature of 5G has enabled many non-traditional operators to provide private cellular services, particularly where regulation allows for unlicensed use of 5G spectrum.”
CSPs, which are technically capable, still need to train their sales staff to address the needs of their industrial customers. Their salespeople, many close to retirement, are used to promote more legacy services such as voice and data.
Tom Loozen, EY’s Global Telecommunications Leader, told IoT Times that cellular operators must step up their efforts in providing private network solutions. Otherwise, he argued that other, more aggressive system integrators would continue eating their lunch.