5G promises super-fast connections, low latency and better coverage. In the manufacturing realm, early adopter Whirlpool is deploying a private 5G network in one its Ohio factories to solve a major problem: Driverless vehicles inside the plant rely on Wi-Fi to navigate, and they stop dead when the factory environment causes the signal to degrade. The sidelined vehicles create traffic jams, slow down production, and require hands-on attention before they can resume delivering parts.
“It’s a cascading effect,” says Douglas Barnes, Whirlpool’s North American regional IT and OT manufacturing infrastructure-applications manager. “I’m not only late with that delivery but with everything stacked up behind it.”
The plant has full Wi-Fi coverage, “but the wireless is half useless, no matter what you do with it,” Barnes says, because the building’s construction isn’t suited to Wi-Fi. “It’s just a matter of how these plants are laid out…I’ve got metal everywhere. There are conveyor belts running on the ceilings,” he says. In addition, Barnes has to contend with radio-frequency interference. “Old equipment creates its own radio-frequency voice, and there’s old equipment everywhere.”