Automation symbiosis: How the edge and 5G unlock the possibilities of tomorrow

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Automation symbiosis: How the edge and 5G unlock the possibilities of tomorrow

By Adam Compton, Director of Strategy, Schneider Electric

Humans have been automating manual processes since the dawn of recorded history. Inventor and mathematician, the Hero of Alexandria, invented a self-filling wine bowl with a float valve that sensed the level of liquid in the bowl. The refilling process is a feedback-controlled loop, wherein humans cede control of the machine to the machine itself.

Today, a new age of automation is at hand. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, couples operational technology with information. This revolution is riding an army of IoT devices that proliferates by the day.

The effects of a burgeoning industrial IoT market are evident in the sheer volume of connected devices and systems that dot factory floors. One firm estimates that smart factories require 0.5 connected devices per square meter. Manufacturers pair operational technology, such as sensors, actuators and controllers with IT systems to automate various activities along the assembly line. For example, control valves with embedded temperature, pressure and acoustic sensors can operate autonomously using benchmarks that humans pre-specify.

Connecting OT and IT to enable automation increases efficiency, optimizes facility management and improves safety for humans who often work alongside machines. To realize the benefits of automation, connected assets in high-leverage situations must relay data from their control instantaneously to software that controls their actions. If too much latency exists in the feedback loop, machines and robots can fall out of sync. As more endpoints become connected, the already monumental challenge of transmitting and coordinating massive volumes of data in real-time only becomes more difficult.

To increase factory network bandwidth and reduce latency, many industrial organizations are adopting private 5G networks. 5G can virtually eliminate latency in control feedback loops and potentially double the bandwidth currently available in hardwired networks. To reach 5G’s full potential, however, firms must rethink their IT infrastructures.

Transmitting data from Industry 4.0 technologies to a hyperscale cloud data center hundreds of miles away or even to a cloud data center via network hops can introduce latency that 5G promises to vanquish. Effectively removing latency from the equation requires factories instead adopt edge computing at the factory site itself. Edge computing assets, such as micro data centers, can ingest and process data without sending it back and forth between larger data centers.

Edge computing also enables remote monitoring of assets through technologies like data center infrastructure management (DCIM). DCIM technologies help firms monitor factories from afar, optimize energy efficiency, and help prevent equipment problems that lead to downtime.

Automation is just the beginning of what 5G and the edge can offer

5G and edge computing are becoming essential partners in the quest for automation. The marriage of low latency and high throughput with on-site processing is enabling a host of applications even beyond the factory floor. Autonomous vehicles rely on the combination of communication networks and edge infrastructures, as do smart city sensors. In-hospital patient monitoring also requires the real-time automation capabilities of 5G and the edge. Even Microsoft relies on the edge to speed up its Azure cloud delivery.

Industrial automation is but one use case for the symbiotic relationship between 5G and the edge. Organizations can think of those two technologies not as innovations themselves but as conduits for future growth. And, while 5G networks may still require further development before they can offer widespread coverage, it’s clear the opportunity they offer is too great to ignore.

Ride-sharing applications like Uber realized the potential of 4G years ago. Their business model, which required real-time GPS data and rapid processing, was only possible because of the increased speed and bandwidth of new communications networks. Today, the company is already charting its 5G course, as it discusses air taxi infrastructure with AT&T. To get ahead of the game, business leaders can begin today to develop the ideas that the edge and 5G may enable tomorrow.

About the author

Adam Compton is the Director of Strategy for Schneider Electric, where he leads business strategy for the North American business, focused on IT and data center markets and applications for high available power and cooling solutions. With over 20 years of experience, originally hailing from APC, he is responsible for monitoring and analyzing market intelligence toward the goal of revenue growth for Schneider Electric.

DISCLAIMER: Guest posts are submitted content. The views expressed in this post are that of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of Edge Industry Review (

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