Industrial Automation

What OT Environments Can Capture from 5G Integration Today

Lukas Bechtel
Find out how different levels of 5G integration align with industrial automation’s need for high reliability and ultra-low latency—and what’s possible today. 


To truly enable digital transformation, industrial automation, and the real-time applications that drive plant efficiency, the manufacturing industry is exploring the possibility of integrating 5G and TSN (time-sensitive networking).


In a blog last year, we first described the possibility of 5G bringing the real-time capabilities of TSN (time-sensitive networking) to wireless networks to support industrial communication.


As a refresher, TSN introduces mechanisms for quality of service, reliability and configuration. With TSN, different kinds of data traffic can share the same network—all while maintaining reliable throughput within specific timeframes.


Bringing 5G and TSN together could create new opportunities for fully connected industrial environments that allow operators to gain insight into real-time plant operations so they can optimize resources and improve efficiency and productivity.


But three obstacles stand in the way of 5G-TSN unification, which we covered in another recent blog.


To wrap up our 5G-TSN blog series (at least for now), we’re examining 5G integration levels and what’s possible in today’s world.


Exploring 3 Levels of 5G Integration

There are different levels of 5G integration to consider in industrial automation. With each level comes more complexity but also the ability to enhance what’s possible through 5G and TSN.


Non-Public Communication

The first level of 5G integration is a 5G network that enables non-public (private) communication and connectivity. This is possible in two ways:


  1. Through network slicing, where a network provider offers up a network slice with certain Quality of Service (QoS) guarantees. Several “tenants” access the network, each with their own segment.

  2. Through OT ownership, a 5G core network can be established using your own licensed frequencies.


Establishing a private communications network with 5G is often a good solution for plants that need to monitor and configure remote stations, for example. Perhaps they need to ensure that a piece of equipment is working or get status updates on performance or functionality.


Through 5G integration, devices are always accessible and visible, and reliable connectivity is maintained over long ranges. Typically, this deployment is used to monitor basic information through 5G as a second channel. Latency is not a consideration.


Seamless Sensor-to-Cloud Communication 

The next level of 5G integration enables seamless sensor-to-cloud communication to provide guaranteed bandwidth and time synchronization over a 5G link.


Here, the focus is on reliable service and low latency. Seamless time synchronization utilizes part of URLLC (Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communication) criteria for time-sensitive communication, ensuring guaranteed bandwidth and Ethernet protocol data unit (PDU) and user plane function (UPF) data transfer.


Industrial communication occurs through Ethernet protocols within Layer 2 of the OSI model, while IP-based communication occurs in Layer 3. Typically, industrial protocols use Layer 2 addressing to enable communication between PLCs and sensors or actuators. SCADA and monitoring applications use Layer 3 addressing. This level of integration enables both types of addressing over the same 5G network.


Because seamless sensor-to-cloud integration guarantees bandwidth, it’s ideal for situations where multiple mission-critical systems must run at once. For example: situations where turning on an IP camera for visual image capture can’t interfere with the flow of predictive-maintenance data.


The support of time synchronization gives all data a relative meaning and is necessary for any kind of data analytics. Consider a long pipeline that includes five stations with flow meters. You want to know: What is the time difference between flow rate changes in different stations? Do these measurements align with the model of the pipeline?


To answer these questions, you must first understand the timing (synchronization) associated with each flow meter. Because you understand when the data was captured, you can better understand what the data is telling you. Seamless time synchronization is also a good fit for applications that lean heavily on moving process data seamlessly to the cloud for better analysis and understanding, such as predictive maintenance.


Deterministic Communication

The most complex—yet most potential-filled—level of 5G integration is deterministic. In these cases, the data flowing in both directions must have a guaranteed level of latency to make sure it arrives at its destination on time.


In deterministic communications, the focus is on highly reliable service and ultra-low latency, fully complying with URLLC for time-sensitive communication through time-aware shaping/time scheduling and frame preemption.


This would enable plants to operate a virtualized PLC, or a PLC with sensors and actuators that rely 100% on 5G connectivity vs. a mix of 5G and wireless connectivity. Another use case may be a control loop that allows a PLC to wirelessly control a robotic arm.


What’s Possible Today and Tomorrow with 5G-TSN

As of today, deterministic communication via 5G isn’t possible yet. While it’s far from being commercially available, the industry is making strong progress.


We can, however, state with good confidence that seamless sensor-to-cloud communication is evolving and will be achievable sooner rather than later.


In fact, Belden is currently developing architecture to help manufacturing plants build the future by integrating 5G and TSN for seamless wired and wireless integration. When these innovations are possible, these companies be well ahead of their peers when they can take advantage of the opportunities it offers in a cost-effective way.


Learn more about Belden’s TSN solutions.


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