• Late last week AT&T and Samsung together cut the ribbon on a co-developed 5G Innovation Zone that had nothing at all to do with consumer 5G future opportunities.
• Rather, the new facility, housed within Samsung Austin Semiconductor’s Austin Texas fabrication plant, showcased several ways high speed cellular can both modernize and optimize manufacturing processes.
If you travel a few miles northeast of Austin, Texas, you’ll find among the gentle rolling hills an undistinguished 300-acre facility dedicated to the fabrication of semiconductors (aka computer chips) for networking, high performance computing, IoT, and of course mobile devices. And if you look carefully within the foyer of this 20+ year old foundry, you’ll find a somewhat unassuming highly rectangular room peppered with Ikea-styled demonstration tables and plain black monitors that when considered together scream out in all caps: “5G IS VERY REAL, RIGHT NOW!”
But not as you’d think.
Announced last October as a co-developed project between AT&T, Samsung Electronics America and Samsung Austin Semiconductor, this new rectangular room, officially referred to as an Innovation Zone, has very little to do with mobile phones or mobility in general. Instead it serves as a real-world testbed for 5G technology in support of plain old manufacturing processes. The two companies hope that together the Innovation Zone will help their customers and partners see the immediate value of 5G as a core networking technology upon which they can modernize, optimize and if all goes well innovate.
The trouble with 5G, of course, is that it’s simply not yet available as a global communications standard as a true replacement for 4G standards like LTE. According to GlobalData research, that won’t happen for another few years (see figure 1). Early rollouts from telecom operators like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile have been very selective and limited in both purpose and scale. It seems we’ll have to wait some time before we can rely on pure 5G alone to stream Netflix videos while on the morning commute.
But that doesn’t mean 5G can’t make a significant impact right now within select enterprise use cases like industrial IoT (IIoT) for manufacturing, where GlobalData predicts a steady and significant increase in the number of connected, particularly in support of industrial monitoring and metering (see Figure 2).
And that’s why both AT&T and Samsung see their new joint Innovation Zone as a window into both the present and the future of 5G, where as it turns out 5G is in fact all about streaming videos, not on the morning commute, but rather while chips whiz around a factory floor. To explain, here are a few select 5G use cases on display at Samsung’s facility.
• Video Camera-as-a-Sensor – Manufacturers can stream millimeter-wave thermal analysis of both machines and chips in motion, looking for potentially costly abnormalities. AT&T and Samsung demonstrated how this same technology could also be used to monitor engineers on the floor for safety and compliance. Are they overheated, wearing the proper safety gear, or who they say they are?
• Wireless Robotic Instrumentation and Control – Manufacturers can free robotics from wired constraints/costs using highly portable and affordable sensors. The vendors showed an example here running Google’s Fuchsia OS on a coin-sized sensor — a potentially huge deal for manufacturers struggling to modernize large, aging facilities.
• Mixed Reality Maintenance – Plying virtual and augmented reality goggles, the two firms showed how a maintenance worker could navigate a tricky repair process with an augmented overlay displaying process checklists, circuit board diagrams and real-time video instructions. Aside from the usual value in providing an overlay of real-time, data-driven knowledge, the key here is the potential for knowledge transfer among engineers — something immensely practical when you consider that many line engineers must rotate out every 15 minutes in some environments.
• Real-Time Big Data Insights – AT&T and Samsung showed how 5G can facilitate high volume, low latency measurement and sensor control. This may not sound impressive at first, but when you consider that many manufacturers only instrument every machine and payload (e.g., a computer chip) intermittently, the ability to suddenly afford to instrument “everything” is truly transformational. Predictive maintenance AI models, for example, can run at a much, much higher rate of success with defective payloads and potentially defective machines more consistently and readily detected and identified respectively.
Obviously, the first beneficiary of the new Innovation Zone is going to be Samsung itself. The Austin-based fabrication (and recently certified foundry) facility is very much looking forward to these potential 5G benefits. The last example (instrumentation insights) is of particular interest to the company as at present it builds its predictive models instrumenting only a percentage of its machines and payloads.
When you consider that a given fabricated semiconductor can spend up to 60 days traversing the sizable facility, any single unit itself could hold the key to revenue lost or saved. Full instrumentation is the goal, but to date the mostly wired- and WiFi-based instrumentation network at Samsung Austin Semiconductor falls short thanks to WiFi dead zones and the prohibitively high cost of wiring up every single station and chip. With 5G at the ready, Samsung intends to right those wrongs and usher in a new era of not just optimization but also potential innovation. GlobalData will keep close tabs on their progress.