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5G demo heralds ‘wireless’ PLCs of the future

08 May, 2018

At the recent Hannover Fair, the Chinese electronics giant Huawei and Beckhoff Automation demonstrated a 5G technology that could lead to the use of wireless PLCs in the factory of tomorrow. In a proof-of-concept demonstration, the companies showed two PLCs communicating via a prototype 5G wireless network, instead of using cables.

They say that by integrating 5G cellular technology into PLCs, industrial automation will in future be achieved in a more economic and environmentally sustainable manner. Ethernet communication on layer 2, using the EtherCat protocol between two standard PLCs could, for example, allow remote control of motion systems.

Beckhoff expects the 5G technology to open up new applications, such as the horizontal coupling of machines in factories, or the vertical connection of machines to the cloud. Monitoring machines by attaching extra sensors to them could also be done wirelessly, for example, for condition monitoring and predictive maintenance with the help of low latencies.

Dr Guido Beckmann, Beckhoff’s senior management control system architect, reports that, in laboratory tests, the 5G technology has achieved latencies as low as 1ms with 500ns clock synchronisation.

“Currently, wireless PLCs tend to connect using low-power, short-range technology, such as ZigBee,” says Pierce Owen, a principal analyst with ABI Research. “Using 5G instead will come with many advantages, such as increased range for remote control with higher performing connectivity and URLLC (ultra-reliable, low-latency cellular networks). Latency as low as 1ms will improve operators’ reaction time to events, and enable safer automation of operations and instant diagnosis of faults.”

Peter Zhou, chief marketing officer of Huawei’s Wireless business, describes the Hannover proof-of-concept demonstration as a “milestone”, which verifies the potential of cellular-based real-time control for smart manufacturing.

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