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'Heath Robinson' devices and non-existent dongles -- The Stack peeks inside Ford's 5G test project

Ford's 5G project had ambitious goals - what did it achieve?

“If we look back at our first slide of what we were trying to do – we were starting from this idea of having all these 5G sensors that we just put around all over the machine. And we could potentially have carried on banging our heads against that door for two years and not got anywhere..."

Ian Jenner is director of control systems at Vacuum Furnace Engineering (VFE), which along with Ford, Vodafone and five other organisations, is part of the 5G Enabled Manufacturing (5GEM). Talking to The Stack at the UK5G Showcase, he is refreshingly frank about how the project with Ford has evolved in the nearly-two years since it started:

“It's not quite been done in the same way as what we imagined the machines would look like. But we've still been able to learn some fantastic lessons.”

See also: Making the case for private 5G networks

Part of the UK5G Testbeds and Trials programme, 5GEM aimed to prove the use-case of private 5G networks in manufacturing situations.

Working with Ford 5GEM installed high-bandwidth sensors for monitoring precision welding operations at Ford’s E:PrimE electric motor facility in Dunton, Essex. With TWI the consortium used 5G-enabled sensors to monitor brazing using VFE's furnaces.

With just under £2m of government funding, matched by members of the 5GEM consortium, the Ford 5G project kicked off in June 2020 with ambitious goals. But the complexity of the task at hand quickly became apparent.

“The network took longer to install and set up than we, certainly at Ford, anticipated. We're not the telecoms experts, so that's why we needed Vodafone and their hardware supplier Ericsson to help us. So that was perhaps surprising in comparison with Wi-Fi that we're more used to, where you can just stick your router, and away you go,” Paul Hadley, programme leader at Ford, tells The Stack.

In common with many of the 5G test projects, uplink speeds were also an issue, with consortium member Vodafone more used to consumer demands. The 45Mbit uplink, compared to the 600Mbit downlink, was inadequate for the data being sent over the network.

The data in question consisted of large high-resolution images of each of 192 welds in electric motor stators being produced on the test line. The initial aim of the Ford 5G project was to allow real-time in-place monitoring of the welds, so if a flaw in a weld was detected, the operation could be re-done immediately – instead of having to remove the stator, check it, then reposition it for re-welding.

“The handling and the moving around, this takes longer – and of course it's non-value-add time,” explains Hadley.

'Our IT backbone isn't ready'

Along with challenges around Ford's 5G network itself, the project also hit more fundamental issues, according to Hadley: “We've also recognised that we can very easily max out the network with the image data that we generate.

“It's made us recognise that our IT backbone isn't ready for it yet either. We've got to do some things in our existing factories before we can then start implementing 5G and other wireless systems to actually extract that sort of level of data.”

Other issues included challenges with the MQTT messaging protocol’s size limitations, as well as latency when uploading images to the cloud for analysis – hence the need for edge computing to process images on-site, and hence the need for a robust IT infrastructure.

But one of the biggest challenges was the availability of sensors – or the lack of it.

“Sensors an interesting one, because I think we recognise that to have a 5G sensor is not a simple device, and it's going to take a SIM card to connect to the network. It's not going to be cheap to do that. But the dongles very simply don't exist at the moment, certainly not in a very affordable spectrum,” says Hadley.

According to Jenner, many 5G sensors are also designed for short bursts of information, not sending a continuous stream of high-bandwidth data. So instead of relying on new and expensive devices for the 60-odd sensors required, the 5GEM team at the Ford site turned to what Jenner calls “Heath Robinson devices” to prove a concept.

HoloLens success for Ford 5G project

Amidst all these challenges was the Covid-19 pandemic, which made collaborative work much harder – and the associated supply chain issues, which contributed to a shortage of components and equipment for the Ford 5G project.

But out of all this have come valuable lessons for all members of the 5GEM consortium – even if the answers weren’t what they were looking for at the start of the project.

“I think we've learnt the strengths of 5G system are certainly the reliability and security, as Vodafone have always sold it to us. So where you've got applications that need that, then it works fantastically. For the big heavy data-intensive stuff, we'd have to perhaps have a bit of a rethink about what the best way of doing that is,” says Hadley.

But he says one aspect of the Ford 5G project which has been very successful is the use of Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality system: “It’s a great maintenance demonstrator, and of course, it can be more than that it can be operator training can be operator support.”

Hadley suggests augmented reality could also be used to monitor equipment in real-time while walking around the factory floor.

See also: Port of Felixstowe 5G project goes live crane sensors, AI modelling

For VFE, the 5GEM project has been very useful in gathering experience of setting up a secure private mobile network, says Jenner: “Lots of our customers who would like to do it, it's a difficult thing for them – and somebody needs to do the work to find out how to try and do it. We would not have been able to do it on our own.

“None of the members of the 5GEM consortium would have been able to get to where we are today without it,” adds Jenner.

“if Paul was happy with the security of it, and it was dealing with all the things we wanted to do as well, then that’s something that we can then put forward and say to other customers: ‘This is a thing that actually works.’

“And then it helps add to their business case, whether they want to put in a mobile private network as well. Because we can show them these are the benefits, and we've tested the security things and it works very well,” says Jenner.

Ford's 5G network is now being decommissioned, but VFE is already in discussions with Vodafone about potentially establishing a private 5G network at VFE’s training school, which would allow device manufacturers to try out their equipment with working machines, which would be difficult at live customer sites.

Ford is also looking forward to staying in touch with its consortium partners and contacts other 5G projects, according to Hadley.

“We know the projects, we know which are the ones that are industrial ones, which have got parallels with what we're doing,” he says. “So things like Factory of the Future, where we see they're doing interesting stuff. RuralDorset are using drones and so on, and so you think, actually, there's stuff that we could do there.”

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