5G technology promises to disrupt the manufacturing industry with several pathbreaking applications and use cases to help them in enhancing productivity and operational efficiency. 

At the recent Huawei Connect event, Yu Weigang, Executive Deputy General Manager of Hunan Valin Xiangtan Iron and Steel Co Limited, elaborated on the crucial role of 5G in transforming the manufacturing industry. The company started the transformation in 2016 and has invested 300 million Yuan in modernizing the factory for boosting its productivity and efficacy. 

Addressing Growth Issues With 5G-Enabled Digital Transformation

Established in 1958, Hunan Valin Xiangtan Iron and Steel Company was one of the world-class large steel-making factories. However, in 2012, the company started facing several issues. "Because our factory was situated in the city center, we were not able to improve our capacity and generate more steel, so we suffered from a loss starting from the year 2014. We began to feel that we needed to improve our efficiency to continue to survive and to continue to grow," explains Yu. The company decided to develop a plan for digital transformation, which they believed will help them in addressing these issues. 

While the company was already using some components of the Information and communications technology, it was fragmented. "We only used wired connection, so there were a lot of data silos, we could not enable smart manufacturing. The key issue was how to connect these silos of data in the manufacturing process," explains Yu. 

With ultra-fast speed, extremely low latency, large bandwidth, and edge computing capabilities, 5G opens up a host of opportunities for the manufacturers. It allows the manufacturers to build smart factories and benefit from technologies such as artificial intelligence, Augmented Reality, and the Internet of Things (IoT). The mobile 5G technology allows for better flexibility, lower cost, and reduced lead times for factory floor production. 

The Hunan Valin Xiangtan Iron and Steel Co wanted to leverage the capabilities of 5G to increase productivity and enable autonomously running of the operations. "We wanted the machines to talk and for the factory to run autonomously. The third objective was that we wanted our workers to work with ease. Fourth, higher efficiency. The objectives of the multi-pronged program were well-defined," says Yu. 

Yu gave particular instances of how 5G has helped them in enhancing operational efficiency. The factory equipment needs to be inspected every day, which was done manually. The status of the equipment was recorded twice a day. 

"Now we have installed the sensors on the equipment directly, and the data is sent to the database directly. We can see the operational status in mobile applications, including temperature, pressure, throughput, and vibration, of this equipment. In this way, we don’t need to send workers to inspect the machine, and we can inspect as many times as we want in a day. This has helped us improve inspection efficiency," explains Yu. 

Further, Hunan Valin Xiangtan Iron and Steel Co has been able to automate the factory processes by using telemetry and connectivity. This allows their workers to work with ease, and the machines don’t have to be manned all through the day. 

Typically, the temperature is very high in iron and steel factories, and a worker needs to work for two-to-three hours in a day at a stretch. The use of 5G technology allows the company to change this. 

Recalling a recent instance, Yu mentioned that the use of 5G technology helped them during Coronavirus pandemic as well. “We had imported machines from Germany. However, because of the pandemic, the experts could not visit the site to install the machines. Thanks to 5G and AI technology and our collaboration with China Mobile, we could connect to the experts online. We were able to install the machines with remote guidance. There are six machines of this kind imported, and we were the only ones who were able to install this," he says.

Even as the company has enhanced its factory’s operational efficiency, some gaps can be addressed as the technology continues to mature. 

"The current downlink rate can meet our needs, however, if we really want to realize smart manufacturing, there are some gaps. First of all, we need to have a measurement, we need to have algorithms, and we need to have smart control. Earlier this year, I visited Huawei and learned about their algorithms. It has very high potential, and for deep learning, that is also a very sophisticated level of smart manufacturing," elaborated Yu. 

Powered by 5G the coming years are likely to fundamentally transform the manufacturing industry. The industry and the service providers need to work together to develop new use cases that will help the enterprises to realize the full potential of 5G.