Will 6G trigger a manufacturing revolution?

2nd July 2024
Sheryl Miles

The next evolution in mobile networks is on the horizon with 6G. Set to surpass 5G with enhanced speed, reduced latency, and expanded capacity, countless applications will benefit.

Here, Roger Kauffman, Senior Director of Product Management and Marketing for Molex, talks about the possibilities of 6G and how manufactures should prepare for its integration.

Manufacturing is anticipated to be one of the greatest beneficiaries of 6G. While the technology is still years away, manufacturers planning for the future should start thinking about the possibilities of 6G and how to ensure readiness.

The 5G to 6G transition: a major overhaul

Today’s consumers demand faster and more dependable experiences across devices – from smartphones and wearable devices to in-vehicle infotainment systems. In response, network providers are enhancing and expanding 5G infrastructure, the current leading-edge wireless technology. But is it enough? Industrial applications in factories and warehouses are already pushing 5G to its limits, demanding more data at faster speeds. For manufacturing, 6G can’t come fast enough.

With testing expected to begin in 2030, 6G will mark a new era in connectivity – but it won’t be a flip of the switch. Similar to the transition from 4G to 5G, the switch from 5G to 6G will require significant infrastructure investment. The enhanced coverage and greater bandwidth necessary to support 6G applications will require construction of new transmission towers. To handle the unprecedented data traffic 6G is expected to support, fibre-optic cable deployments will be essential. In addition to these hardware considerations, sophisticated new software must be deployed to efficiently orchestrate the intricate web of 6G-connected devices.

True 6G relies on mmWave frequencies

Millimetre wave frequencies (mmWave) are radio frequencies with a wavelength between one and 10 millimeters. They offer notable benefits compared to other frequency bands, primarily substantial bandwidth capacity to handle large amounts of data. mmWave frequencies also provide low latency, ensuring rapid data transmission. These characteristics render mmWave frequencies particularly suitable for high-demand applications that prioritise speed and dependability – like those driving the need for 6G.

Nonetheless, mmWave frequencies come with certain limitations. Transmission range is relatively short. Buildings, walls, and trees pose other challenges, as these signals are easily blocked by common physical objects found in the environment. To counteract these limitations and ensure comprehensive coverage, networks using mmWave frequencies will require densely packed base stations. To combat signal attenuation – a more pronounced issue for mmWave than lower frequency bands – technologies like massive MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output) antennas and high-precision, high-frequency connectors are essential to enhance performance.

How 6G will benefit manufacturing

To upgrade the communications infrastructure of an entire manufacturing operation to 6G, the benefits must outweigh the steep financial investment. For a factory that is running at high efficiency over Wi-Fi, a transition to 6G would have to represent a can’t-miss manufacturing paradigm shift. What could move the needle for widescale 6G adoption?

Real-time digital twins

6G is set to be a cornerstone of the ongoing advancement of Industry 4.0, leveraging capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and digital twin technology – areas that rely on the immediate processing, analysis, and response to vast amounts of data. This technological infrastructure will facilitate the real-time monitoring, control, and automation of industrial processes to boost efficiency and productivity. Rather than reacting to issues after they occur, digital twins will raise awareness of impending problems and prompt preemptive action.

A more intelligent supply chain

Where are those parts we ordered? Enabled by 6G, each container on a cargo ship could have an embedded sensor to allow real-time tracking from anywhere in the world. Additionally, by applying digital twin technology to the global supply chain, manufacturers can anticipate future delays and identify inefficiencies.

Autonomous vehicle assembly

Imagine an electric vehicle (EV) assembly plant with no conveyor system. Instead, the vehicles drive themselves around the factory floor from station to station, making stops at the bumper installation robot, windshield station, and final quality inspection. Eventually, the completed car rolls out to the street, heads to the dealership or the buyer’s driveway. Yes, this would require vast amounts of data collected by multiple systems simultaneously and in real time – but this is exactly the type of application enabled by 6G.

Autonomous robots

While the previous example imagines vehicles driving through the factory floor and visiting stationary assembly stations, the opposite could be true in other manufacturing processes. 6G could enable mobile autonomous robots to move around the factory floor, free from physical safety barriers, enabling them to complete tasks from pick-and-place to mechanical assembly.

Protecting critical data in the Cloud

While enhanced data security protocols are anticipated with 6G, no system can be expected to be completely invulnerable. Every IoT device poses a potential security risk, and the integrity of the entire network is contingent upon the security of the software it runs on. Recent high-profile incidents of data breaches, losses, and privacy concerns have underscored the vulnerabilities of cloud-stored data. This is particularly concerning in manufacturing processes where sensitive, proprietary information – including a digital twin of the factory floor – could end up in the wrong hands.

Despite these concerns, 6G is expected to take several steps forward in the arena of data security, including:

Enhanced encryption

6G is projected to utilise advanced encryption standards, enhancing security against unauthorised access and decryption of data as it moves across the network. This enhanced security is intended to safeguard data both during its transmission and in cloud storage.  

More robust authentication and authorisation

6G is expected to integrate multi-factor authentication, biometric recognition, and AI-powered behavioural analytics to verify user identities, thereby restricting access to sensitive data in the cloud solely to authorised individuals.

Real-time communication via ultra-low latency

The anticipated ultra-low latency and instantaneous communication capabilities of 6G could facilitate swift identification and neutralisation of security threats, allowing security protocols to rapidly address and prevent potential breaches from expanding.

Expect 6G to be limited at first

Since the advent of 1G in 1979, wireless technology has progressed through a new generation every 10 years. As the impending sixth-generation standard, 6G won't achieve full functionality immediately upon release. Infrastructure development will be a gradual process, with broadband providers competing to offer the most expansive and reliable network. This evolution will mirror that of 5G, which is still being refined to unlock its full capabilities. Similar to how 4G LTE paved the way for 5G, 6G will require several years of development and may be iterative. Wireless technology historically has seen cumulative improvements with each new generation and 6G is poised to follow suit.

While consumers will race to buy 6G-enabled devices, manufacturers must take a more measured approach to adoption. This will require careful analysis of existing factory infrastructure, local 6G availability and a thorough understanding of the costs involved in the transition.

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