With rapidly rising prices for energy and raw materials and growing crisis-related supply bottlenecks, companies are relying on the efficient use of resources more than ever. In addition, the digital control of production processes helps to reduce production errors on a long-term basis as well as pave the way for the learning steel plant. According to the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, companies in the mechanical engineering and plant construction sector estimate that digitalization can generate savings of up to 25 percent.

Connectivity of plants, processes, and machines brings decisive competitive advantages and is the springboard to a fully connected Industry 4.0. Innovative solutions and state-of-the-art development methods for predictive plant condition analysis, product quality, production planning, and energy management are already helping to save money, increase profitability, and save resources.

A dedicated network for industrial production

One of the hurdles in the comprehensive digitalization of the manufacturing industry is the lack of broadband in many areas. The industry needs a scalable, powerful, and robust network that meets the specific demands of the industry in terms of latency, reliability, availability, energy efficiency, and security – and that is exactly what Industrial 5G promises. The fifth generation of mobile technology delivers high data rates and secure availability, including for critical applications, extreme reliability and accuracy, and real-time connectivity while providing energy-efficient and improved security for people and machines. In this way, even complex industrial processes can be fully mapped and optimized.

At the same time, 5G is the first network for which companies in Germany have been able to apply for licenses since 2019 and so operate their own industrial 5G network. The German federal government has reserved 100 MHz bandwidth (from 3.7 GHz to 3.8 GHz) for local use. Unlike public 5G networks, which are provided by mobile telecom operators that make 5G available regionally, a private, industrial 5G network is operated by users such as industrial companies themselves, and it can be designed and configured to meet their individual requirements, similar to the currently most commonly used WiFi.

For example, this is leading to the creation of local area networks, known as campus networks, which can be used either in isolation or in conjunction with public mobile networks. Within this protected and particularly secure network, all wireless devices connect to the wireless network, thereby creating a comprehensive digital infrastructure. In environments where mixed networks consisting of different wireless technologies (e.g. WiFi, Bluetooth Mesh, or LTE) are used in combination with wired networks, this kind of industrial 5G network will be all that is needed.

With the help of Industrial 5G, security areas and trespassing can be digitally monitored.

With 5G on the path to the learning steel plant

At present, 5G is the only technology that can cover the required range of services for fully digitalized production as well as connect several locations. This allows processes to be controlled completely remotely and in real time, regardless of how critical they are. With 5G technology, additional information can be provided in difficult-to-access areas or for mobile stations as well as recorded and evaluated and, on this basis, used to optimize processes. System extensions, retrofits, and technologies that were not feasible up to now can be realized with 5G.

SMS implements pilot project at SMS Campus Hilchenbach

"In order to experience the many advantages that Industrial 5G offers, we have launched our own pilot project. This enables us to develop, test and optimize digital applications in real time," says Jens Petri, Head of Technologies & Partnerships CoC Asset Optimization at SMS digital. "And with this unprecedented implementation of such a network in Germany, we are paving the way as an industry pioneer in this field."

The established digital infrastructure is a highly stable network that helps to collect practical data and findings relating to predictive processes and to evaluate and manage them intelligently with the aid of machine learning. The use of digital solutions is thus intensively tested under real production conditions with high cycle rates. Based on this experience, SMS will be able in future to set up Industrial 5G networks in its customers' plants – backed up by a network of partners – that ensure the reliable and real-time exchange of data between edge devices and the cloud. A special focus here is on the issue of interfaces. Thanks to wireless smart sensor solutions, production data from non-digitized machines can also be retrieved and incorporated into the consolidated evaluation – without the need for manufacturers to disclose their trade secrets.

5G helps to adapt the manufacturing process by allowing faster forecasts with no time delay, meaning downtimes and product rejects can be avoided as far as possible. This not only has a positive effect on the product quality, it also helps companies to make their processes more sustainable by utilizing information and resources in a targeted way – and in doing so significantly reducing the carbon footprint and promoting green steel production.

At the same time, the digital solutions are also being integrated into the demonstration factory at the Center Connected Industry (CCI) at RWTH Aachen. This enables testing to be carried out in different environments, which in turn provides additional insights that can be used for development and optimization.

The SMS Campus in Hilchenbach showing the dimension of the internal 5G network.

Cooperation with competent partners and strong commitment in research projects across Europe

In order not only to provide customers with its own expertise but also the best possible support in R&D and technical solutions, SMS digital works closely with competent partners, who actively help to promote the company's vision, when setting up the 5G networks. Mobile network operator Ericsson was brought on board as technology partner for the 5G network; they will provide the 5G network structure and technology at SMS group's Hilchenbach location.

With regard to the 5G infrastructure, Siemens is responsible for providing the powerful routers and the necessary support with its technological expertise. SMS is also collaborating with the Fraunhofer Institut, the Forschungszentrum JülichTH Köln, and the Competence Center 5G.NRW. Customers who are already actively involved in pilot projects or who want to set up their own Industrial 5G network at an early stage in conjunction with SMS group include the Mercedes-Benz Group in partnership with Primobius, the American steel producer Big River Steel, and the BOXBAY high-bay storage by Amova, an SMS group company.

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Huge strides toward autonomous operation

The Industrial 5G network is revolutionizing the monitoring and control of complex production processes. 5G will allow for rapid intervention even if production is unmanned, which in turn can radically reduce downtimes and product rejects. This not only has a positive impact on product quality, but also helps companies to make processes more sustainable by reducing their resource consumption. In this way, Industrial 5G is becoming a driving force on the road to green, CO2-free steel production.

"5G is the answer to many challenges facing the steel industry," underlines Jens Petri. "With retrofitting projects, the technology offers significant savings and optimization potential for a manageable financial investment by turning data into success and ensuring greater security and sustainability. This means that we and our customers are ideally positioned for the future."

By establishing dedicated 5G networks and providing an integrated wireless infrastructure to its customers, SMS is taking a further decisive step toward autonomous production. After all, lasting results can only be guaranteed with complete connectivity in real time and the overall coordination of all processes.

Contact: Jens Petri, SMS digital