The manufacturing and industrial sector is on course to reach 49 million private 5G connections by the end of the decade.

This is according to a new report by ABI Research, which predicts those connections will generate $2.4 billion worth of connectivity revenues for suppliers. However, it seems these figures could be higher if device makers get their collective act together.

“A lack of 5G industrial devices has stalled manufacturers’ interest in 5G private wireless,” said ABI Research. “In turn, the lack of enthusiasm has discouraged hardware suppliers from creating the necessary devices.”

The result is, vendors have tended to release converged devices that support Wi-Fi and LTE, in addition to 5G, said ABI. Indeed, when it comes to enterprise private cellular networking, LTE is still by far the dominant technology. A Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) report in June identified 794 organisations worldwide that are investing in private cellular networks, and that 603 of those have opted for LTE.

However, headlines in recent months suggest that telcos and vendors are ramping up efforts to address the smart manufacturing and industry sector with more advanced devices that will require 5G connectivity. June was a particularly productive month. Chip maker Nvidia collaborated with BT and Ericsson, among others, to showcase a VR manufacturing workspace that enables teams in separate locations to work together on the same industrial processes in real time.

Ericsson teamed up with Italian incumbent TIM and robotics firm Comau to demonstrate what network slicing can offer the so-called factory of the future. In addition, Ericsson rival Nokia partnered with Korea-based LS Electronics to co-develop new products for factory automation, data centres, and smart transportation.

Meanwhile, in May, Nokia also partnered with robot maker Mobile Industrial Robotics to demonstrate autonomous mobile robots (AMR) at a logistics event in Stuttgart. Also in May, BT signed a multi-year deal with Ericsson that covers the development of private 5G offerings for the manufacturing, defence, education, retail, healthcare, transport and logistics sectors.

The momentum certainly seems to be building then, but as ABI Research also pointed out, in order to gain maximum benefit from private 5G, manufacturers and industrial companies need much more than just the access network.

“Customers will need to invest in ancillary technologies, such as edge networking, data management, and data analytics, to accelerate data collection and create a digital thread,” said Michael Larner, industrial and manufacturing research director at ABI Research, in a statement last week.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that these ancillary investments add not just to the cost but the complexity of a private 5G deployment. While some enterprises will have the requisite in-house skills to source and implement these solutions on their own, the chances are the majority will need help from a systems integrator or managed services provider of some kind. According to separate ABI Research figures published in March, revenue from professional services for private enterprise networking is projected to reach $47 billion by 2030, or 44 percent of total private networking revenues.

While that figure might have suppliers salivating, they will have to prove to enterprises that the long-term benefits of private networking are worth the effort.

“The lack of 5G devices is a genuine drag on adoption, but suppliers, information technology (IT) providers, operational technology (OT) specialists, and systems integrators (SIs) should be working with prospective customers to educate them today about 5G’s potential,” Larner said.

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