5G technology: unleashing the robots

The smart factory is coming — and 5G is one of the driving forces behind it. At Audi, that means that the production robots are going wireless — being unleashed, you might say. Read on to see how the 5G network will make the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) a reality in automobile production.

02/18/2020 Reading Time: 3 min

A small robotic arm approaches an airbag with the Audi logo, grips it gently and sets it precisely into the nearby steering wheel. It’s a process that might be repeated every day in the Audi factory of the future. And, in the Production Lab at Audi, it’s already happening every day. The special highlight: with 5G technology, it all works wirelessly.

Wireless — is that still revolutionary these days? Yes! This is one of the first use cases for automation that focuses on the safety of human employees. In this case, that means that the gripper arm stops when, for example, a human hand appears within the robot’s radius of action. With 5G, that happens very flexibly. Control of the robot is decentralized and wireless, and the data transfer is just as efficient as with a wired connection.

The small example shows that 5G can work under realistic test conditions in the Production Lab at Audi. 5G technology, and the smart factories that it heralds, have enormous potential and are ready for their big debut. And that holds true even though it will take a year or two before 5G comes to Germany.

Bringing the smart factory forward: together with Ericsson, Audi is studying 5G use cases

Verena Bossdorf and Christopher Kolb, Team IIoT of Audi Production Labs

Verena Bossdorf and Christopher Kolb, Team IIoT of Audi Production Labs

The technology behind the 5G-networked robotic gripper arm is being developed by Audi in cooperation with Ericsson. The automobile manufacturer and the network provider are researching the use of 5G technology in the area of industry — technology that will make smart factories a reality. The Swedish company is considered the inventor of mobile communications; more than 40 percent of all mobile conversations are conducted on Ericsson networks. “In the scope of our cooperation, we are gaining valuable insights into the use of this technology in production,” explains Verena Bossdorf, head of the IIOT team at the Audi Production Lab.

Both companies are learning and benefiting from each other. Concrete use cases will drive development of the 5G network forward. Christopher Kolb, who is also a member of the IIoT team at the Audi Production Lab, is directly working on this project. He knows why many potential scenarios in a smart factory will only be made possible by 5G networks.

We can now connect more automation applications with 5G that would previously have been connected with cables.

Christopher Kolb, Team IIoT

Mobile and flexible: Audi is using 5G technology to unleash the smart factory of the future

So far, the robots in the production facilities at Audi are connected with each other with cables, which limits their mobility. The 5G network makes it possible for the machines to operate completely wirelessly. “That has many practical benefits. On the one hand, there just aren’t any cables in the way anymore. That makes us more independent,” explains Kolb.

On the other hand, the production processes are becoming increasingly complex and must become more flexible. 5G technology is the solution to the challenges in modern production.

  • 5G provides a secure and stable connection in multiple ways: it offers a mobile communications spectrum that is available exclusively for industrial use, and it provides a Quality of Services mechanism — the possibility to prioritize various applications within the network.
  • Low latency — meaning a short sending and receiving time for wireless signals — makes it possible to wirelessly control smart factory systems in real-time.

5G vs. 4G: what’s the difference?

Why aren’t these use cases already possible with the existing 4G (LTE) networks? The media usually talks about 5G being ten times faster than 4G. But what really makes it unique is a fundamental change in the wireless technology. With 5G, the focus is placed — for the first time — on availability and low latency, which is necessary for production in a smart factory.

Kolb explains the difference using an example from daily life: “In the current network standards, it’s important that Netflix streaming works well, for example. But because the streaming services rely on data buffering, the fluctuating transfer rates found in LTE aren’t noticeable. But it won’t be until 5G that we have a stable data transfer rate without interruptions.

Industrial Internet of Things: what will 5G make possible in the smart factory of the future?

The existing wireless technologies are not capable of meeting the future needs of a smart factory. The world of industry, with its enormous, complex robotic systems, simply cannot be compared with the wireless telephones and Wi-Fi-enabled televisions that we have in our homes. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) needs more: it needs 5G. “We are seeing more and more networked devices, more and more mobile connections for which a cable connection is just no longer feasible. For these cases, we see 5G as a complement to Wi-Fi. The technology is so powerful that it will make many new use cases possible,” explains Kolb.

He’s thinking of mobile, autonomous transport systems, for example. These currently communicate via Wi-Fi, but they still struggle with lost connections and errors. Another one of his thoughts is about wireless tools like power screwdrivers, scanners, and other portable electronic devices.

One thing is sure: with 5G, man and machine will be efficiently and reliably connected. The smart factory will continue getting smarter — even if it starts with just a little robotic arm being unleashed.

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