5G improves mining, manufacturing opportunities

Materials World magazine
29 Aug 2019

The internet’s next generation is arriving globally, with promises of low latency that can deliver real-time speed, enabling autonomy.

5G communications promise low latency and high speed. For companies, it will improve the ability to operate equipment wirelessly and receive data from a mine site or the factory floor in real-time, without having to put a person in the way of moving equipment or heavy machines. While the installation of 5G is being slowly rolled out across the globe, mining and manufacturing companies are experimenting with how to maximise the technology’s potential. Making the most of 5G is, in part, linked with adopting Industry 4.0 principles, including automation. Businesses that get on board are likely to reap the greatest benefits.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of the internet standard. While the final standard for industrial purposes is expected to be announced in March 2020, The International Telecommunication Union issued the draft report, Minimum requirements related to technical performance for IMT-2020 radio interfaces in February 2017, declaring its proposed requirements for 5G. It called for a network to be able to support one million connected devices per square kilometre, a latency of no less than four milliseconds (ms) in some technology, and carriers that must have at least 100MHz of free spectrum, scaling up to 1GHz. The download speeds are expected to be a minimum 20Gbps, compared with 4G’s 100Mbps and only 100,000 devices in the same space. Countries with some 5G capacity at present are South Korea, USA, Poland, Portugal, Qatar and the UK. In England, 5G is being rolled out in stages and to date, only certain cities on selected networks are enabled, including London, Birmingham and Manchester. 

Smart factory developers and mine operators have praised the opportunities 5G can offer. ‘With extremely short response times, high capacity, and a high level of accessibility to the mobile network, commercial and standardised 5G technology can be used for applications such as remote control of heavy machinery in real-time. This opens up new opportunities for greater efficiency, cutting costs and reducing risk in hazardous environments. 5G enables us to create a safer, more efficient and sustainable society,’ Ericsson Head of Research, Magnus Frodigh, said.

Ericsson Programme Manager for 5G for Industries, Mats Norin, said companies in various industries, including manufacturing and mining, have realised they need connectivity in order to drive efficiency, improve quality and safety. ‘We believe that using 5G cellular technology means they will have a secure and predictable environment. Other technologies running on unlicensed bands can never run with the deterministic behaviour you can with a licensed spectrum. That is why we believe 5G is competitive and future proof.’

5G and mining

Automation and remote operating systems are among the highlights of 5G for miners, in particular, removing humans from potentially dangerous situations such as rock blasts. Sweden-based mining company, Boliden, has been involved in a number of automation projects. In 2019, together with Telia and Ericsson, the companies announced the world’s first underground network based on 5G with new radio (NR) at the automated Kankberg gold mine. In a press statement, Boliden said the customised network can function independently so work can continue even if communication with the mine breaks down. In an earlier trial at Kankberg, Norin explained the mine had a safety system so when a truck came close to a mine worker, their tagged jacket would flash when the vehicle was 25m from the worker, so both pedestrian and driver were aware of their proximity.

‘5G is an important component that enables a higher degree of automation and thus a safer and more sustainable mine,’ Boliden Program Manager, Peter Burman, said. Boliden’s Aitik open-pit copper mine in Sweden has been using WiFi for machine communications. Automated drill rigs, named Pit Vipers, have been used to drill holes into rock, which are then filled with explosives. The Pit Vipers can move from one drill hole to the next along a predefined path and perform repetitive tasks autonomously, in contrast to having a drill rig operator on site carrying them out manually. If the task or movement is not predefined, the drill rig is equipped with cameras that enable an operator to control it remotely.

Five drill rigs at Aitik have been retrofitted with autonomous operation and remote-control features. Automating a drill rig could increase operating time from 5,000–7,000 hours per year. Although WiFi has increased productivity, it is not capable of serving the wide outdoor coverage required by an open-pit mine like Aitik, and it limits the fleet size of automated machines. In an Ericsson statement, the company said only 5G could serve such demanding requirements – bandwidth, quality of service, latency and positioning.

In March, Ericsson installed a 5G mast at Volvo CE’s Technology Centre at Eskilstuna, Sweden, so Volvo CE could test remote-controlled machines with short response times. Launched in partnership with operator Telia, it became Sweden’s first 5G network for industrial use. Volvo CE Technical Specialist for Connected Machines, Calle Skillsäter, said testing involved a remote-controlled wheel loader, the L180H, and a simulator inside a tent about 100m away behind a concrete wall. Tasks included filling buckets with gravel and loading haulers on Volvo’s autonomous load carrier, HX2. The test track has a number of physical barriers, uphill and downhill tracks, and rough terrain – all designed to mimic the real conditions of a construction site.

Skillsäter said mining can be dangerous for people operating the machines in remote locations and because of the fumes released after blasting rock. ‘If we can remove people from the site, then we are reducing the risk of accidents. You will also have the capability to manage several operations and sites from one central location – increasing productivity.’

He said testing is still in an early phase and there are no results to report yet, but confirmed the impressive bandwidth. In April, Skillsäter said the technology would be tested for two years for Volvo CE to bring a level of maturity suitable for testing with customers, ideally within that time frame.

‘Today’s remote control technology provides a delay which makes it very difficult to control a machine with any speed or precision, but 5G will be as good as real-time. In addition, the picture quality is much better, video footage is in a better resolution and 5G provides a more reliable connection – all of which makes it easier for the operator in the simulator.’

In previous experiments with remote operations, Volvo CE placed a tele-op loader 400m below ground and controlled it from the surface in 2017 in a research project with Boliden and others at the Kankberg mine. At the time, the companies evaluated WiFi and long-term evolution (LTE) technology, but in a later project they focused solely on LTE.

During the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona 2015, Volvo CE had a prototype excavator in Eskilstuna that was controlled from Barcelona to showcase a potential 5G use case. At the time, the latency was prohibitive and the machine was almost impossible to control.

5G and smart factories

Industry 4.0 operating principles can be liberated with 5G capability, as the low latency 5G offers means data can be fed in real-time on a production line. Whether it is a trolley moving a part to a station to be worked on by a robot, or a robot signalling a fault in a line assembly, more hands-free and cable-free capabilities are realised. While 5G capability is being slowly rolled out globally, some businesses are yet to fully implement Industry 4.0 processes. On top of that, a number of businesses have different operating machines which do not ‘talk’ to each other, making automation challenging. A number of technologies are being introduced to bridge the gap.

Norin told Materials World about a collaboration between Ericsson, Telecom Italia SpA and Comau in Italy. The project included moving the logic controls on an automated station from control cabinet to a cloud. But to get the systems to work, they needed a latency of the order of 5ms, which requires 5G technology. ‘If you connect the robots over air, then you can move functionality from the brain in the robot to a central computing type of functionality’, he said. ‘But that also puts a lot of demands on the 5G network when it comes to stability, integrity and response times. Then you are down to a few milliseconds’ response times in the network to make it possible to control the robot.

‘We believe if you reduce cabling then you do at least three things – you reduce the cost for the cable, you decrease the labour cost to do all this cabling, but maybe more important but less talked about is that you increase the flexibility in the production. A small amount of cables means it is easier to shuffle around on the floor.’

The Worcestershire 5G Consortium focuses on live trials in the Worcester Bosch and Yamazaki Mazak factories investigating increased productivity in manufacturing, detection and prevention, remote maintenance, new models for manufacturing as a service, security by design, and training the next generation 5G engineers. The project launched the UK’s first 5G industrial trial in the Worcester Bosch factory in February 2019.

‘The increase of speed in communication is useful and necessary to realise new features in the production environment. 4G would be sufficient for a data exchange and communication that is not critical. Anything near to real-time communication needs 5G,’ the German Machine Tool Builders Association, Verein Deutscher (VDW), Managing Director, Wilfried Schaefer, told Materials World.

In terms of developing 5G-equipped machines, Schaefer said machine tool builders are accustomed to always integrating new technologies. ‘If 5G modules are available to be used in the production environment, they will be used. The price is, of course, a question that will influence the integration.’ As for a potential customer base and support service for new adopters, he said, ‘This is difficult to answer at this stage. It depends on the infrastructure and the demand of the large customers who in Germany may install their own industry 5G net internally. The suppliers will of course be able to offer service.’

German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence Project Management, Anselm Blocher, said 5G’s improvement in latency will be more important than the gain in bandwidth. ‘As we will see more and more semi-autonomous assets like cobots and automated guided vehicles, for example on the shop floor, sensors and sensor fusion, will play the most important role to provide them with real-time data about the constantly changing environment,’ he said. ‘In addition, the heavily increasing range of variants require a far more flexible deployment of personnel in large production lines. Here again, access to real-time data is crucial. A further important advantage of 5G is the improved interconnectivity between different production locations and regarding distributed supply chains.’

In late June, Ericsson announced it is aiming to open a fully automated smart factory in the USA in early 2020, making radios to help transmit data across 4G and 5G mobile networks. The smart factory will be powered by Ericsson 5G solutions. Automated warehouses, connected logistics and automated assembly, packing and product handling, and the use of autonomous carts will be in the new factory. Dozens of businesses have joined forces to create 5G Alliance for Connected Industry and Automation (5G-ACIA), a global forum for discussing and evaluating technical, regulatory, and business aspects of 5G relevant to industry.

Automation and streamlining were among the topics raised at EMO, Hannover, Germany, the machine tool exhibition preview in July 2019. Numerous companies had experienced problems with machines operating on different system platforms, hindering automation and progression with Industry 4.0. As such, the universal machine tool interface (umati) was developed by 17 companies and VDW. The interface allows machine tools and peripherals to connect to customer-specific IT ecosystems. In essence, it offers an interface for machines on different operating systems to be able to effectively communicate and for a user to collate data in one hub. It is based on an object linking and embedding for process control (OPC) unified architecture specification. It can be used to provide an overview to check production, identify any errors, obtain data analytics and assist with tool management.

Machine tools manufacturer Trumpf is one of the partners involved in the umati project. Trumpf Head of Media Relations, Manuel Thomä, said umati would offer a standardised platform for the tooling machine industry. ‘The use cases which have been considered in the interface design are aimed at making main challenges of Industry 4.0 feasible,’ he said. ‘umati will enable integrating machines from different vendors into a production line more easily. After integration it will provide data crucial to keeping an overview over the production during operation for different stakeholders and keeping the machines operational by enabling those stakeholders to get data specific for their tasks in a timely fashion so they can make educated decisions on their upcoming tasks.’

Trumpf Lead Developer 5G, Christian Bauer, said 5G is an evolving and new technology for the company, ‘but as there is no 5G network available and the criteria for application for local spectrum in Germany not yet finalised and published, it will take some time until the preconditions are set’. Bauer said there is a market for numerous 5G applications in industrial environment. ‘Currently we have many different solutions for many tasks. All of these solutions are specific and need several different technologies to work properly. 5G has the potential to reduce complexity and generalise some of the current solutions.’ For consumer demand of 5G machines to take off, Bauer believes regulations for local spectrum in Germany need to be finalised. ‘A close cooperation of mobile network operators, equipment vendors and industry is imminent to make 5G a success,’ he said.

The decade ahead

Industry standards for 5G are expected to start from March 2020. Remote and automated operations are existing concepts, but the latency from 4G and previous internet generations have hindered the possibility of offering real-time data, which can realise the full benefits of automation. Mines such as Kankberg and smart factories like Ericsson’s are proof that 5G connectivity is commercially viable and can yield dividends to efficiency, safety and quality control. While official bandwidths for commercial purposes and the exact standards for the technology are still being finalised, collaborations between governments, telecommunication providers and industries can help realise the opportunities available through 5G.