Impact of the COVID-19 and 5G

Article By : Don Scansen

Before we were all blindsided by Covid-19, 5G, edge computing, and Wi-Fi 6 were being rolled out. How did the pandemic affect all that?

Where would news be without talk of Covid-19? These days, I guess there is another big focus, but I don’t want to go there. Let’s hope little newsworthy happens over the next few days.

The pandemic has affected us all. For so many businesses, their owners, and their employees, the effects are quite dire, so whenever the technology business is discussed in this context, it somehow feels a little too self-centered. And the direct impact of the disease on the health of many goes well beyond failing businesses.

But I am here to talk tech.

Overall, information technology is thriving through a global crisis, but Wind River commissioned a survey of manufacturing business leaders, half in the US and half in Europe (UK, Germany, and Spain). About 450 respondents provided their insights during the third quarter of 2020. Industry 4.0 And 5G in the Covid Pandemic: A Survey By ARC Advisory Group and Wind River, a white paper summarizing the findings, was just released.

Evolution to industry 4.0 (Wikipedia)

The focus of the questionnaire and analysis was to determine Covid-19 impact on the so-called fourth industrial revolution emphasizing 5G adoption. This “Industry 4.0” idea is about a decade old, originating from a German government initiative to promote the computerization of manufacturing.

Wherever you rank it in the grand scheme of things, the pandemic severely impacted supply chains. Improvements to supply chains were the top priority of respondents to the survey. We need to go into more detail on the impact of 5G before, during, and looking out beyond the end of the pandemic.

2020 began with industry well into Industry 4.0 upgrades. Before we were all blindsided by Covid-19, key new technologies were getting rolled out — 5G, edge computing, and Wi-Fi 6. With the shocks to the supply chain, the Wind River survey looks to understand the impact to the rollout of these new technologies. Will the new enabling technologies slow down, get a boost, or carry on unaffected by the pandemic?

As manufacturers struggled to survive the supply chain issues, their focus was certainly on daily business. But with public health agencies restricting all manner of business operations, there were a few issues putting scrutiny on the 5G rollouts and other new technologies.

Work from home was likely the biggest change brought on by the pandemic. In-progress or planned changes to remote operations was one of several process improvement initiatives surveyed.

Comments on the current status and future plans for five key improvement areas were sought:

  • Remote operations and control
  • Supply chain optimization
  • Product or service innovations
  • Enhance time-critical control
  • Optimize non- time-critical control.

The surveyed companies appeared to be spreading their focus amongst all five areas and not just selecting one or two to identify as critically important. Also, a significant majority of companies have either implemented, are well into the improvements, or plan them within the next year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most important for current use and initiatives that were underway for hard hit manufacturers was supply chain optimization. Future plans get an evening of focus with the exception of plans that are one year out emphasizing non-time-critical control.

Key process improvement initiatives timing (source: ARC White Paper).

When companies were asked to rank which of the five areas as most important, optimizing the supply chain once again stood out.

Since Wind River is heavily involved in edge and cloud applications, they commissioned the Covid-19 impact survey looking to get a handle on the impact to 5G implementation for manufacturers.

The white paper analysis of the survey points out that manufacturers have a preference for maintaining some type of communications networks rather than rely on cellular network providers. Whether it is conventional industrial ethernet or land mobile radio for voice communication, many manufacturers sense a risk reduction by operating and controlling their own networks when a disruption would lead to slowdowns or temporary shutdowns.

This is good news for 5G equipment vendors as the Wind River survey suggests that manufacturers will be adopting the new equipment inside their plants. But back to the timing, we will see what the consensus was on the speed of 5G adoption.

Approximately half of companies surveyed indicated that they would adopt industrial 5G networks within one year. Overall 80 % intend to move to 5G networks within three to five years. Geographically, American companies were more positive about 5G deployment than Europeans surveyed.

Perceived barriers to 5G adoption (source: ARC White Paper)

Companies were polled about a few specific potential barriers to 5G adoption or at least the planned timelines. Cost and the complexity of integrating the new networks into existing systems were considered important issues, but the biggest hurdle for industrial 5G appears to be confidence in the technology.

The networks used by manufacturers are critical to their success which is why there is a preference to keeping operational control in-house. The mission critical nature of the networks these companies will deploy drives a healthy skepticism of new technology as well. Unfortunately, there was insufficient granularity of the responses to understand if the confidence in the technology applied equally to service providers and to the use of 5G equipment for private networks. The analysis of results ARC provided in the white paper suggests to me that the concerns were biased toward external network issues rather than foreseeing potential issues with 5G in and of itself.

Overall, it looks like industrial 5G marches forward with little gain or impediment resulting from the pandemic. As 2020 blurs into 2021, I’ll take that as good news.

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