5G in Maintenance and Support

With businesses facing increasing customer demands and pressure on margins, maximising uptime is crucial for profitability: downtime costs manufacturers in the UK three days of production per year on average. 

Traditionally, maintenance of machines works one of two ways: “fix it when it’s broken” or “regular maintenance every six months”. These options are no longer viable amid today’s fast-paced environment. Deeply inefficient, they impact profit margins and even sustainable ways of working: interval-based maintenance can mean replacing parts unnecessarily, running the risk of wastage. 

5G supports condition-based maintenance, marking a shift towards repairing products at the point of requirement instead of on a fixed interval basis. It is also capable of enabling predictive maintenance, which can identify defects between 60 to 90 days earlier. Hexagon found that manufacturers can reduce the number of spare parts required by 10% through a shift to asset condition monitoring. According to a report by The Manufacturer, 88% of manufacturers believe 5G will also enable engineers to troubleshoot remotely. This will lead to more efficient production lines, in addition to better customer service, providing people with effective support and maximising experience by identifying maintenance needs ahead of customer detection.

Maintenance and Support Applications

VR / AR to Facilitate Maintenance

Advanced connectivity enables more effective and efficient maintenance. Technologies such as VR and AR provide workers with faster-to-access reference guides (for example, CAD drawings), previous maintenance information, and even allow workers to upload the updated status of the product in real-time. Not only does this reduce human error but it can be used to guide less qualified workers, either independently or with remote support. Such technologies will decentralise expert resources and plug the skills gap, in addition to reducing travel costs and footprints. 

Where has 5G been deployed to enable VR and AR for more effective and efficient maintenance?

5G Factory of the Future implemented distributed and shared hybrid virtual spaces. It is thought that low latency instructions, enabled by 5G technology, could save about five seconds per instruction read compared with traditional methods. Using augmented and mixed reality, content is fed directly to workers at the point of use via devices such as wireless hand-held tablets and personal headsets. The industrial application integrates digital work instructions with CAD designs to help engineers carry out maintenance activities. The technology is expected to create a reduction in travel costs (65%) and maintenance time (15%) arising from real-time, worldwide collaboration and increased ease of training and maintenance support. Read the end of project report here.

As part of the Worcestershire 5G project, Worcester Bosch—known for manufacturing domestic boilers—launched the UK’s first 5G factory using a 5G private network and mobile edge computing infrastructure, provided by Ericsson and managed by BT. The network was used to test interactive live streaming and communication between experts and remote field engineers for maintenance activities. Engineers were given Augmented Reality (AR) headsets connected via 5G to carry out maintenance on a Bosch machine as part of their remote training while speaking to an engineer providing instructions from a separate location.

Manual inspections require specific experience and skills, such as the ability to accurately compare products to spec. Hexagon’s research found that one-quarter of qualified technicians are expected to retire within the next five years, and 73% of organisations say it is difficult for their company to hire skilled labour.  More than a third (36%) of manufacturers surveyed said that comparing parts to spec, such as a CAD model, is difficult for them to do. Plus, they’re time-consuming—48% of manufacturers said automated part identification and measurement would simplify the quality workflow. AR devices enable instant support and measurement and can be used by technicians, maintenance workers and operators throughout the entire facility. Instructions can be rapidly visualised, allowing experts to support on-site personnel remotely. There are additional benefits of AR within a manufacturing context. For example, because service experts can support local inspectors remotely, about half of their travel to appear on-site can be avoided, reducing the CO2 impact by 50%. The financial benefit of Augmented Reality quality inspections reaches about 0.5% of the revenue as yearly steady-state net value. 

In Estonia, at the Ericsson factory, 5G is used to enable factory workers to undertake troubleshooting via AR. Roughly 50% of the total time required is spent on searching for information from documents, manuals and schematics. Ericsson anticipates that the average fault detection time could be reduced by 15% and that there are likely to be fewer component replacements, leading to energy consumption savings as well as reduced chemical use, waste and scrappage.

Similarly, Schneider Electric is empowering its maintenance technicians with 5G-powered augmented reality in their French factory. Using 5G smartphones connected to the Schneider augmented reality application (Electric EcoStruxureTM Augmented Operator Advisor), technicians can complete maintenance using real-time data linked to virtual objects—such as a machine, a production line or the entire factory. Employees can simply film a machine to access information on its status and the subsequent maintenance operations, which then reports real-time information to the cloud. (For example, temperature data from a coil winding machine can signal when it is overheating.) This helps to reduce machine downtime and speed up maintenance operations while minimising human error.

The low latency and stable connectivity that 5G provides also enables augmented reality troubleshooting15 to repair electronic boards. Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson has been experimenting with AR overlays in their factory in Tallinn, Estonia so technicians can repair electronic boards without referring to blueprints or word documents. The company found that technicians spend roughly half of their time on non-value add activities like finding and linking schematics with layout files when they were troubleshooting a faulty unit. They use AR to quickly identify parts of an electronic board that need to be fixed. This cuts the time it takes to create, edit, and update those documents, train technicians, and repair electronic boards significantly. 

VR / AR to Provide Remote Support to Customers

It is not only internal support that can be revolutionised by 5G. With its ultra-low-latency, 5G offers real-time remote support that can be delivered via mixed reality. This results in fewer engineer call outs, ensuring a better experience for customers, and more efficient and sustainable ways of working for manufacturers. 

Where has 5G been deployed to enable VR and AR for remote support?

As a part of the UK5G Testbed and Trials Programme, 5GEM used 5G-connected AR/VR headsets to provide remote expert support to customers. With this setup, on-site staff could be guided to fix relatively simple faults which would previously have required a callout of an engineer to the factory. 5G’s low latency is critical for this practical and comfortable VR experience. Read their end of project report here.

Mazak likewise provides support to customers who have purchased their machines. Typically, this requires a visit to the customer site by a Mazak engineer, and due to the wide range of machines sold by Mazak and the extent of customisation available, there is no guarantee that a single visit will result in a fix. But as part of the Worcestershire 5G project, 5G-enabled augmented reality presented a new solution. The technology facilitated interactive live streaming and communication between centrally located experts and remote engineering staff operating in the field, improving their ability to fix issues the first time. This reduced the need for follow-up visits, minimised machine downtime for Mazak’s customers, and improved service quality.

Based on an assessment of nearly 240 follow-up diagnostic visits over a two-month period, Mazak estimated that 15% could have been avoided had the system been available. With each follow-up visit taking a further day on average, this equates to around 216 man-days over a full year, reaching just over 2% of available engineering resources. The manufacturer has recognised that this time could be better used elsewhere, showing 5G could be the answer to reducing customer downtime, as well as service and warranty costs.

Condition-Based Monitoring

A robust and secure 5G network can connect sensors to detect wear and breakage to tools and machines in real-time. 5G and UHD cameras, whether fixed or on a robot, are also useful here for enabling monitoring of unmanned machinery, particularly in hazardous settings.

Where has 5G been deployed to enable condition-based monitoring?

As part of the Worcestershire 5G project, Bosch implemented ultra-high-resolution live-streaming to enable remote monitoring of real-time conditions of working facilities in the factory environment. Video monitoring of machines carrying out repetitive tasks was deployed and it was identified that alongside the addition of AI, this can help to facilitate a shift from periodic to condition-based maintenance. Multiple sensors were also deployed to monitor the status of machines, tracking a range of data including vibration and temperatures. These applications go hand-in-hand to enhance maintenance programmes, reducing overall business costs: Bosch expects the use of 5G to facilitate condition-based monitoring could underpin productivity gains of 1%. The network’s capabilities increase output by addressing the need to have real-time machine condition data for effective maintenance.

Dr Andreas Mueller, Head of Communications and Networking Technology at Bosch, said:

“5G can lift Industry 4.0 to the next level and Industry 4.0 may be the killer application for 5G.”

Fraunhofer IPT and Ericsson have teamed up in the EU project 5G-SMART, to build a 5G Industry Campus Europe in Aachen, Germany with four indoor sites and outdoor campus coverage.  They are using 5G at the campus to develop and evaluate adaptive machining with an acoustic emission sensor for monitoring the condition of the cutting tool.  In this way, they are able to detect wear and breakage to the cutting tool in real-time.

Telstra and AgriFood Connect have successfully deployed industrial IoT capabilities over 5G standalone that can support a variety of business requirements, such as asset condition monitoring and the collection of data from machinery. According to Ericsson, these sorts of capabilities will enable features such as predictive maintenance alerts that will drive cost savings against unplanned downtime and repairs.

Predictive Maintenance

5G enables dense sensor networks and AI models that are able to detect leading rather than lagging indicators of defects such as pump seal failures, lubrication and bearing defects or cavitation. Multiple industry studies agree that lubrication is the root cause of failure on 50-80 percent of rotating assets and past technologies of overall vibration were simply too late or difficult to establish meaningful alerts. 5G facilitates the capture and processing of more data, in real-time, allowing a shift to a predictive maintenance model,  which impressively, results in detections up to 90 days in advance. This allows for scheduling and controlling of maintenance and repairs, minimising downtime, extending the lifespan of machinery and avoiding wastage from time-based maintenance approaches. Hexagon found that manufacturers can reduce the number of spare parts required by 10% through a shift to asset condition monitoring and subsequent predictive maintenance. 

Where has 5G been deployed to enable predictive maintenance?

As a part of the Worcestershire 5G project, Mazak successfully deployed automated remote predictive maintenance. Taking advantage of 5G’s ability to process large amounts of data, the factory is now able to provide real-time analysis of machine status and feed this information to a cloud system. The company’s spindles are usually only removed for corrective maintenance after an issue or failure occurs but with the arrival of 5G, early warning signs of damage are available; this reduces repair costs, as well as downtime.

The 5GEM project enabled Vacuum Furnace Engineering to use 5G connected sensors to remotely monitor car vacuum furnace’s performance, state of health and environmental factors in order to streamline their maintenance process. Properly maintaining the furnace is vital to ensure a high-quality bond, but maintenance typically requires the machine to be taken out of service, interrupting production. With downtime for the manufacturer costing up to £100,000 per day, 5G and a shift to predictive maintenance could have huge financial implications. The organisation also used 5G to develop digital twins, enabling them to work out solutions to issues without stopping the production line.

Ian Jenner, Director of Control Systems at Vacuum Furnace Engineering (VFE), said:

“In order to feed the predictive maintenance algorithms deployed in the factory we need to collect large quantities of data from multiple sensors in real-time.  5G provides high bandwidth connectivity to support these requirements.  With a Mobile Private Network we are not limited by the network design choices relevant for public mobile network users, so in principle, we can tune the network to support the higher uplink bandwidth needed for our use cases.”

GF Machining in Switzerland is using 5G for predictive maintenance of high-speed milling machines.  The speed and acceleration of the machines means extremely low latency is required and 5G fits the bill. The failure rate of the milling process has been greatly reduced, saving the manufacturer EUR30 million per plant per year as a result. Smart Factory (SKT) has likewise deployed 5G-AI Machine Vision to automatically identify product defects. A 12-megapixel camera takes 24 pictures from various directions and sends them to a cloud server, where AI checks for any defects and filters out defective products with robotic arms; it is able to filter out defective products in less than eight seconds. At Shell, Pernis tests are carried out with UHD cameras and the use of Machine Learning for preventive maintenance. This makes it possible to inspect approximately 160,000 km of pipelines very efficiently and accurately in order to pre-detect and execute necessary maintenance, which ensures inspection of pipelines runs faster and more efficiently. 

Employing an IoT cloud platform and edge analytics14, Japanese manufacturer HIROTEC provided real-time visibility into its business operations to measure efficiency, leveraging machine learning to predict and prevent failures in critical systems. This led to a 100% reduction in manual inspections, and 5G networks will only increase the accuracy of such predictions.

Connecting Goods After Delivery To The Customer

5G enables manufacturers to connect and monitor the performance of goods even when they’ve been delivered to the customer. This helps to identify when product maintenance is required before the customer identifies a fault; leading to a better business reputation and ultimately, higher profits