5G communications drive process industry digitalization

Figure 3: Proof-of-concept test configuration uses new algorithms and 5G to resolve tough advanced process control challenges. Courtesy: Yokogawa

Learning Objectives

  • 5G wireless communication can help process manufacturers realize digital transformation.
  • 5G can help in many ways including cloud robotics, remote monitoring and more.
  • A proof-of-concept was performed with remote control technology to prove 5G could be successfully used in a process manufacturing facility.

Wireless Insights

  • Wireless communications can help connect mobile devices such as phones and tablets, which enable improved efficiency in field operations in process industries.
  • 5G is emerging as an advanced wireless technology for industrial process requirements and offer many potential benefits such as increased mobile broadband, low-latency communications and machine-type communications.

Wireless communications are used throughout the process industries and contribute to efficient plant operations. ISA100.11a, for example, is a reliable industrial wireless standard. ISA100-compliant devices are used in a wide range of applications from process monitoring to closed-loop control. Another technology, low-power, wide-area (LPWA) wireless networks are used for asset monitoring applications and are characterized by an assortment of power-saving techniques and long-range communication. Wireless communications also are used in the field to connect mobile devices such as phones and tablets, which enable improved efficiency in field operations. 

The process industries and other manufacturing industries are introducing digital technology to improve productivity even further. As a core technology, wireless communication, which provides connectivity regardless of location, is becoming more important. Meanwhile, the requirements for wireless communication to meet requirements across diverse applications are becoming more challenging. For example, to support field workers, reliable connectivity must be ensured throughout a plant. Controlling mobile robots more precisely requires reliability and real-time interaction. Furthermore, to achieve autonomous plant operation using artificial intelligence (AI), numerous sensors are deployed in the field. High-capacity communication is required to connect these sensors, acquire a large amount of data and transport it to AI-based analytics. 

5G is emerging as an advanced wireless technology for industrial process requirements. Below, review 5G technologies and see use cases, including challenges presented by practical applications. 

5G communication characteristics overview

“5G” is the fifth generation of mobile communication systems and succeeds the recent, 3G and 4G/LTE generations. While those generations were developed more for personal communication services, 5G is also intended for use as a network infrastructure for the Internet of Things (IoT), which will connect all devices and objects for daily life and in manufacturing and other industries.  

Figure 1: Three 5G communication characteristics are listed with practical applications. Courtesy: Yokogawa

Figure 1: Three 5G communication characteristics are listed with practical applications. Courtesy: Yokogawa

As shown in Figure 1, the International Telecommunication Union’s Radio Communications Sector (ITU-R) defines three communication characteristics for 5G: enhanced mobile broadband, ultra-reliable and low latency communications, and large-scale machine-to-machine communications. The following sections describe the performance requirements for each communication characteristic. Please note that it is not necessary to satisfy all requirements—for example, simultaneous connection of one million terminals with 20 Gbps high-speed communication—at the same time. 

1. Enhanced mobile broadband 

5G focuses on increasing the data throughput of broadband wireless communications, which had been enhanced in previous generations. Broadband services for smartphones and other mobile terminals are typical examples of applications that take advantage of this characteristic. The requirements include a communication speed of up to 20 Gbps and stable communication bandwidth of about 100 Mbps to users in a particular area. 

2. Ultra-reliable and low-latency communications 

5G aims to achieve both high reliability and low latency, enabling real-time wireless communication. This characteristic is intended for mission-critical industrial applications, such as production control, remote surgery, and smart grids. The requirements include an over-the-air latency of 1 ms or less and a packet reception success rate of 99.999% or higher. 

3. Massive machine-type communications 

This characteristic means connecting many terminals with low communication volume simultaneously. Applications with large numbers of inexpensive, battery-powered devices such as IoT sensors are assumed. The requirements include the ability to accommodate with more than one million terminals per km2 and excellent power-saving, battery-powered operation for more than 10 years. 

Exclusive spectrum use in 5G 

Most of the existing wireless communication technologies, such as Wi-Fi and ISA100.11a, use unlicensed spectrum (e.g., 2.4 GHz band), which does not require users to obtain a license. This unlicensed spectrum is used for a variety of purposes for unlimited numbers of users. However, there is a risk of interference from other wireless systems on the same frequency. On the other hand, 5G and other mobile communication systems often use licensed spectrum that can be occupied only by licensees and are less susceptible to radio interference from other systems. This provides more reliable wireless communication. Since communication reliability is crucial in industrial applications, exclusive use of spectrum is a differentiator for 5G vs. wireless technologies on unlicensed spectrum. Frequency bands allocated to 5G vary from country to country and region to region, but the “sub-6” and millimeter-wave bands are expected to be used: 

  • Sub-6 (less than 6 GHz): This frequency band has an excellent balance of coverage area and communication capacity. In some countries, the 3.7 GHz and 4.5 GHz bands are allocated.  
  • Millimeter wave (24 GHz and higher): Due to high directionality, this high-frequency radio wave cannot easily go around obstacles but can provide higher communication capacity using a wide bandwidth. In countries such as Japan, the 28 GHz band has been allocated. 

Operating private networks (local 5G) 

Existing mobile communication systems were designed to provide wide-range communication services throughout a nationwide network built by mobile network operators (MNO). On the other hand, 5G also is expected to allow non-telecom operators to build and operate private networks in limited areas. Private networks can customize communication performance depending on the application and are suitable for applications that require high security and stability because they are independent from other networks and users. 

International standardization for 5G

In some countries, companies and local governments are expected to build and operate their own private 5G networks. The table compares the main features of nationwide carrier 5G and local 5G. Apart from the frequency bands allocated to the MNOs, sub-6 (4.5 GHz band) and millimeter wave frequency bands are allocated to local 5G. After obtaining a license, local operators can make exclusive use of these frequency bands within their areas. 


The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) led by the standardization organizations of major countries and regions is developing standards for mobile communication systems. Following 3G and 4G/LTE, the 3GPP is developing 5G standards that meet the requirements specified by ITU-R. 

5G-ACIA standards 

5G is expected to be used in the traditional mobile communications industry and other industries. Incorporating new requirements for industrial use is an important factor in the successful development of standards. International forums focusing on the use of 5G have been established in each industry and are working with the 3GPP to develop 5G standards. In the manufacturing industry, the 5G Alliance for Connected Industries and Automation (5G-ACIA) was established in April 2018. Major companies from the manufacturing and telecommunications industries are participating and discussing the use of 5G technology in manufacturing. 

Five potential use cases for process industries

In the manufacturing industries, communication requirements vary for field applications, such as remote asset monitoring, process monitoring and control, connection of mobile terminals for field workers, and operation of mobile robots. As explained earlier, 5G is expected to be used as a wireless infrastructure that enables the introduction of a variety of wireless plant applications. In addition, those applications that best use 5G’s communication characteristics are being developed to promote digitalized remote operations in manufacturing. Figure 2 shows potential 5G use cases in a plant. 

Figure 2: Potential 5G use cases in plants include mobile device support, remote monitoring, cloud robotics, wireless/cloud control systems, enhanced sensor connections for digital twin optimization. Courtesy: Yokogawa

Figure 2: Potential 5G use cases in plants include mobile device support, remote monitoring, cloud robotics, wireless/cloud control systems, enhanced sensor connections for digital twin optimization. Courtesy: Yokogawa

1. On-site operation support with mobile devices 

Mobile devices are being deployed to improve the efficiency of on-site work such as patrol rounds and inspection of plant facilities. Current limitations in network coverage and bandwidth in the field impose constraints on work support applications via wireless communications. 5G will allow broadband wireless communication anywhere in a plant with higher speed and lower latency.  

Augmented reality (AR) is one of the use cases of 5G’s enhanced mobile broadband. Although it requires large amounts of data, AR can offer intuitive solutions by overlaying high-definition images on the equipment to be worked on and displaying them together on workers’ tablet devices or wearable terminals in real time. Field workers can operate the target equipment while referring to the overlaid work procedures or share the live image in real time with skilled personnel in a remote location and receive specific advice. This use case is expected not only to improve the efficiency, reliability and safety for fieldwork, but also to transfer skills more efficiently through practice. 

2. Remote monitoring with high-definition images 

5G has a larger capacity than the previous generation, 4G/LTE, especially in upstream communication. This enables high-resolution videos of 4K or higher to be transmitted in real time. One potential use case in plants is remote monitoring with wireless cameras. When the definition of images is high enough to distinguish a subtle change in color of a liquid surface or corrosion of pipes, visual inspection can be performed remotely. High-resolution images also can be used as inputs to AI analytics, which can automatically detect abnormal conditions such as intrusion by unauthorized personnel or fire. 

3. Cloud robotics 

As the working population decreases, mobile robots are expected to ensure the safe and reliable operation of factories. The robots move autonomously throughout a plant and, in place of human workers, perform tasks such as inspection rounds in hazardous areas. Drones can operate at heights, which would be risky to human workers. “Cloud robotics” is emerging as a promising technology. Since the control function in the cloud is not restricted by the computational performance within the robot, advanced control functionality can be deployed. 

By taking advantage of its high speed and large capacity, 5G will enable mobile robots to be wirelessly connected to the control function in the cloud in real time. By using the ample computational resources available in the cloud and processing a great deal of sensor data such as camera images and location data from the robot in real time, it will be possible to perform more precise situational analysis and control. The ultra-reliable and low-latency communications provided by 5G can be used for urgent, time-sensitive communications to avoid incidents such as collisions between robots and mobile process units. 

4. Wireless/cloud control systems 

High reliability and low latency cannot be achieved at the same time by existing wireless technologies but will be possible with 5G. This makes 5G feasible in mission-critical applications. One possible application is to make a part of the distributed control system (DCS) network wireless to reduce the costs of installing and maintaining communication cables across a vast area in a plant. Monitoring points also can be added and modified without any work on communication cables. 

Furthermore, if 5G ensures high-reliability, low-latency communications between field devices and the cloud, the controller and other DCS functions could be placed in the cloud while maintaining the mission-critical performance. In addition to external cloud systems, 5G is expected to be used with multi-access edge computing (MEC), which builds a low-latency computing platform in the network. When control applications are implemented on the MEC platform, it can enable cloud control services that make full use of the high reliability and low latency of 5G, without need for the Internet or other networks. 

5. Simultaneous connection of multiple sensors for a digital twin 

A digital twin is a digital counterpart of an actual plant in cyberspace and is used as a basis for achieving digital transformation in plant operations. Applications are not limited to static digital plant design information. The digital twin reflects real-world plant conditions in real time and can be used for predictive maintenance and optimization of operations through simulation and AI analysis. To synchronize the status of the physical plant and the digital twin more precisely, it is necessary to accurately grasp the status of equipment, piping, and other assets as well as weather and other conditions. Many sensors must be installed to achieve this. To satisfy this requirement, each sensor must be wireless, inexpensive, and capable of operating for several years without requiring a battery replacement. 5G’s feature of simultaneous connection of multiple devices is a key to this application. 

Current status and challenges for industrial 5G applications

While potential use cases of 5G in plants are many, 5G has not yet been actively implemented in the process industries. 5G challenged to introduction are noted below. 

Maturity of 5G capabilities for industry 

5G must support a variety of features to satisfy consumer and industrial applications. 5G standards are being developed in a prioritized, phased manner. The first standard, 3GPP Release 15, published in 2018, focused on supporting enhanced mobile broadband for consumers. As of July 2021, most 5G networks are compliant with Release 15. However, this means 5G applications today have yet to make full use of the technology’s full potential and are limited to enhanced mobile broadband characteristics. 

Release 16 and later standards include functions that can be used for full-scale industrial applications. They enhance high-reliability, low-latency communications, and private networks and also support interoperability with time-sensitive networking (TSN), a fundamental network technology in the field of automation. Although Release 16 was published in July 2020, compliant products were not yet widely available in industrial markets as of July 2021.  

Functions for industrial use will be enhanced in Release 17 (expected to be published in 2022), Release 18, and later (5G-Advanced) standards. While 5G provides advanced industrial features such as high reliability, low latency, and multiple simultaneous connections, it will take further development of 5G standards, compliant products, and infrastructure to support them. 

Business value created by 5G 

For the potential use cases to be widely implemented in plants, the standards, products and infrastructure must mature. In addition, it is necessary to prove the return-on-investment in new 5G technology. Although the specifications show that 5G technology outperforms existing wireless communications, 5G business value is only emerging. 

Remote control technology proof-of-concepts using 5G, cloud, and AI

Yokogawa Electric Corp. and NTT Docomo Inc. successfully concluded a proof-of-concept (PoC) test for remote control technology using 5G. The 5G-ACIA (Docomo and Yokogawa are members) presented demonstration results at Hannover Messe. 

The PoC included a cloud environment for AI-based autonomous control using the Factorial Kernel Dynamic Policy Programming (FKDPP) algorithm developed by Yokogawa and the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in conjunction with a 5G mobile communications network provided by Docomo. The test, which controlled a simulated plant processing operation, identified technical advantages for 5G in the remote control of actual plant processes. 

Figure 3: Proof-of-concept test configuration uses new algorithms and 5G to resolve tough advanced process control challenges. Courtesy: Yokogawa

Figure 3: Proof-of-concept test configuration uses new algorithms and 5G to resolve tough advanced process control challenges. Courtesy: Yokogawa

While this PoC is a promising step, further testing remains to develop a clear business value for industrial 5G solutions. For example, communications reliability and latency-related issues are still to be examined over the long-term. 

The trend to locate production facilities in remote and/or hazardous areas in recent years is fueling a growing demand for remote industrial operations and transforming how people work. One possible solution is to install edge devices equipped for high-speed wireless communications at plants and employ cloud-based autonomous AI technology to control the equipment in real time. 

Instead of PID, APC: 5G, autonomous control AI 

The FKDPP algorithm has been proven as a feasible autonomous control AI solution. In a 35-day field test at a chemical plant concluded in February 2022, FKDPP successfully controlled processes known to be difficult to automate using existing proportional-integral-derivative (PID) and advanced process control (APC) control technologies that had been manually performed. The combination of FKDPP and the cloud with 5G, which offers low latency and the capability to connect many devices, promises to be a core technology for achieving industrial autonomy. 

The demonstration was conducted to verify whether a three-tank level system could be controlled using FKDPP in the cloud via a 5G network. A target water level was set, tests with low- to high-speed control cycles were conducted and the effects of mobile-communications latency on FKDPP control were confirmed. Compared to 4G, the test demonstrated that, especially with high-speed control, 5G delivers lower latency, less overshoot relative to the target water level and the capability of handling a control cycle as short as 0.2 seconds, achieving improved control for more stable quality and higher energy efficiency. 

Realizing 5G’s potential, benefits 

Many industries are starting to consider the use of 5G wireless communication technology to accelerate digital transformation. The high reliability, low latency, and simultaneous connection to multiple device features are essential to industrial applications. To enable widespread use, 5G standards must be completed, compliant products must be mature and infrastructure must be developed. It also is necessary to demonstrate 5G’s differentiators and value to potential users. 

Table: Features of carrier and local 5G are compared, showing differences in operators, communications, licensees, interference, customization and security. Courtesy: Yokogawa

Table: Features of carrier and local 5G are compared, showing differences in operators, communications, licensees, interference, customization and security. Courtesy: Yokogawa

Hideo Nishimura, standardization and technology manager; Shuji Yamamoto, wireless manager, both at Yokogawa. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com 


Keywords: 5G, wireless communication 


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