Advanced manufacturing facilities are emerging as early adopters of private wireless technology, but they’re not always turning to mobile network operators for these solutions. Integrators, equipment vendors, and providers of alternative wireless technologies are all engaging with manufacturers that want to add more mobility to their factory floors.

“When enterprises first started considering private 5G, everyone just said ‘if it’s 5G let’s talk to a telco’,” remembers Paul Savill, global practice leader of network and edge compute at Kyndryl, which is the systems integrator spun out of IBM last year. Savill said companies aren’t always starting with telcos now, for a couple of reasons. One is the growing availability of enterprise spectrum, such as CBRS in the U.S., which makes it possible to deploy a network without a telco. Savill referenced Kyndryl’s non-exclusive partnership with Nokia, adding that some enterprise customers engage first with Nokia and others start with Kyndryl.

Savill said another reason enterprises may look first to systems integrators is because the use cases that are appropriate for private 5G often involve mission infrastructure, and companies may want to start the conversation with partners who have a history of supporting that infrastructure.

“Customers do not just want to buy a piece of technology; they want help from someone who understands how to tie it all together,” said Savill. Private wireless networks are often used to connect cameras, robots or autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) to on-premise edge compute servers that can process data collected from these endpoints and generate real-time actionable intelligence. That intelligence can inform the manufacturing process, and 5G offers the low latency required to immediately send instructions to robots or AGVs.

Enterprises that want to add AGVs or smart cameras to a factory floor may start by reaching out to the companies that make this equipment, and then learn from these vendors about wireless connectivity options. Private LTE and 5G are not the only choices.

Wi-Fi 6 is more likely to be compatible with a company’s existing equipment than is a 3GPP solution. Although the transmission range is typically lower than that of a midband private wireless network, Wi-Fi 6 is far superior to previous Wi-Fi generations in terms of bandwidth, speed, channel subdivision, and control.

The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), an industry association that includes Wi-Fi equipment vendors, chipmakers, mobile network operators, and cable operators, successfully tested Wi-Fi 6 in a factory to support mixed reality, large file transfers and video calls. The factory was in the West Midlands region, which the UK has designated as a 5G testbed for manufacturing and security. The WBA said its goal is to promote the convergence of 5G and Wi-Fi 6 in heterogeneous networks.

But many manufacturers will continue to see 5G and Wi-Fi as competing solutions rather than complementary technologies.

“We’re usually competing with private LTE or Wi-Fi,” noted Todd Rigby, director of sales at Rajant. Rajant sells a solution that is neither Wi-Fi nor LTE. The company makes mesh network nodes that use a proprietary protocol in the unlicensed ISM bands: 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5.8 GHz. Rajant has been in business for more than a decade, and Rigby said mining and military operations are the company’s biggest verticals.

“Typically people come to us when they need mission critical communications,” Rigby said. Since Rajant’s mesh nodes are themselves mobile devices, the solution is used by customers who need to stay connected while traversing large areas. 

Manufacturers including Hitachi, Komatsu and Epiroc are using Rajant’s solution, Rigby said, often in AGVs that move equipment down an assembly line. The network doesn’t need controllers or automation to self-optimize, as the mesh nodes constantly seek and find the best possible connections. The nodes can also function as Wi-Fi hotspots so smartphones can connect.

When it comes to connecting smartphones on a factory floor, Wi-Fi-based solutions may have an advantage over private CBRS networks for now. Most CBRS networks do not currently allow for seamless handover to and from public carrier networks, and a smartphone that enters the range of a private CBRS network may not automatically find the network. Wi-Fi handoffs are more frictionless for now, although that could change with time. (Athonet recently said it had developed a CBRS handoff solution with AWS, Syniverse and Federated Wireless.)

Many manufacturers want to keep all their data on premise, and they may be content with private networks that support onsite machinery and do not connect to public networks. Kyndryl’s Savill said all the private networks his company has developed for factories are “islands” with no connections to public carrier networks.

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