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5G and the smart supply chain

09 August 2019

In recent years, enterprises have made great strides forward in supply chain efficiency as automated IIoT devices proliferate across the supply chain. These devices rely on data to perform effectively. As a result, companies in every industry are emphasising data collection and analysis, giving rise to edge computing, which gathers and processes data directly where data is generated, known as the network edge.

Edge computing has helped supply chains transition from a series of independently managed locations to an increasingly connected network of devices, sharing knowledge in real-time. Enabling greater communication for devices throughout the supply chain provides businesses the knowledge and flexibility to automate key decisions and maximise efficiency. 

The cost of computing

While enterprises have implemented edge computing and are yielding the benefits of smarter supply chains, the productivity gains and cost savings have largely eluded smaller-scale businesses. Edge computing can powerfully upgrade a business’s ability to gather and analyse key supply chain data, but hardware can be expensive. 

Meanwhile, edge computers are only as powerful as the network connections they rely on. Currently, many smaller-scale businesses and manufacturers struggle more with connectivity than computing. Establishing sufficient bandwidth, latency, and security at the network edge to support next-level data computing can be extremely expensive. For businesses without excessive technology budgets, patches of Wi-Fi linked by Ethernet are the norm. These networks may not be powerful enough to support a full range of edge computing applications, limiting the consistency of IIoT in the supply chain. 

How 5G changes the picture

Thankfully, the expected advances of 5G connectivity will make connected, IIoT-enabled supply chains accessible to more businesses than ever before. 5G will offer a dramatic performance upgrade to existing 4G and LTE networks, but more importantly, 5G technology will greatly simplify network management. By building centrally controlled, unified networks on 5G signals, companies will decrease their spending on networking devices. By limiting hardware endpoint vulnerabilities, companies will also benefit from increased and greatly simplified cybersecurity. 

As 5G technology proliferates, cheaper, more effective connectivity will create new computing and automation possibilities for businesses of all sizes, especially those without billion-dollar technology budgets. 5G will allow companies to view far more data, while edge computing technology will allow companies to analyse this data with greater speed and confidence. In effect, expected advances in network technology will bring automation and IIoT capabilities to businesses that that previously only dreamed of them. 

The benefits of 5G at the near and far edge

Improved connectivity will deliver vast improvements to businesses looking to optimise their supply chains through automation. 5G will dramatically improve data collection and analysis at both the ‘near edge’ (within a business facility) and the ‘far edge’ (where a device is deployed after sale). 

At the near edge, IIoT devices on the shop floor will be able to collect and share data more easily with the help of 5G bandwidth. Meanwhile, edge computers used to analyse IIoT-collected data will run faster thanks to 5G connectivity, providing logistics and manufacturing teams with the information they need to make critical decisions. 

5G technology also offers notable benefits at the far edge of a production cycle, after IIoT devices have left a business facility. Private 5G networks can help IIoT devices quickly and securely transmit data from far-flung, remote locations. 

Transportation is another key opportunity for supply chain teams to use edge computing to optimise their logistics decisions – powered by a 5G network, businesses can host applications on small appliances and track critical data and adjust transit routes to deliver product more efficiently. In-transit data transmissions are a key challenge today for automated technology in the supply chain. With 5G connectivity, this ability will grow significantly stronger. 

Use cases 

To illustrate the potential of 5G at the near and far edge, consider the example of a brewery. On-site, at the near edge, 5G technology can help brewers collect and analyse additional data about their beer during production, allowing them to adjust their ingredient mix and processes as needed. After a shipment of beer leaves the brewery, 5G-enabled trucks can automatically transmit their locations and traffic patterns, allowing the brewery’s logistics team to re-route shipments and avoid delay. 5G can also help logistics teams track the temperature of the beer in real-time, ensuring their product maintains its quality before delivery. 

While the supply chain benefits of 5G will trickle into every industry, a few key verticals stand out as ripe for disruption. The oil and gas industry, for example, is marked by complex material processing and long-distance transport that 5G can help organise. In discrete manufacturing of consumer goods, 5G can link distributed edge systems to link distant, small scale supply partners via a private network. Finally, in perishable food and beverage manufacturing, 5G can help logistics teams optimise temperature conditions in transit and reduce waste. 

Preparing for the 5G revolution

As 5G technology develops rapidly, OT, IT, and supply chain teams can prepare by monitoring their internal processes to determine where their existing automation and analytics operations are not performing adequately. Businesses can also closely examine their existing hardware spending, to ensure supply chains are positioned to make the most of expected gains in connectivity. Supply chain teams should identify the aspects of their operations that are most in need of change, so that they can integrate 5G effectively in the years ahead.

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