Digital Transformation Calls for Innovative Connectivity Solutions
Industrial players traditionally use wireline connectivity, such as fiber or ethernet, for cases requiring high reliability and low latency. However, the development of industrial digital transformation generates new requirements for connectivity solutions to support simultaneously high reliability, low latency, and deployment flexibility.
For example, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and advanced industrial robotics have been broadly deployed in today’s flexible manufacturing systems, often requiring very low communication latency and high reliability, such as 5 milliseconds (ms) end-to-end latency and 99.99% reliability for the operation of AGVs. The “augmented worker” is emerging in modern industrial processes, which entails a remote task expert providing guidance and support for field workers through augmented reality (AR) devices. The use case usually requires 10ms end-to-end latency and 99.99% reliability. However, wireline solutions will not be applicable for these use cases because mobility is also a critical requirement of each scenario.
Therefore, an innovative wireless solution is needed to support ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC) while providing enough deployment flexibility for industrial applications. As tech giants and mobile service providers compete for this new market, pre-integrated and pre-validated infrastructures can shorten the solution’s time to market.
URLLC’s Concept and Standardization
The first mobile communications system natively designed with URLLC features is 5G. A flexible frame structure was specified in 3GPP Release 15 to enable low-latency communications. The transmission time interval (TTI) can scale from 1ms down to ~140 microseconds (a microsecond is equal to one millionth of a second) for URLLC cases. The maximum number of retransmissions can be adjusted from four to two to meet the latency requirement. The 5G standard also allows the creation of a “mini-slot” with the minimum set to only two symbols (against 14 symbols for a full slot in the usual case), which can provide fine scheduling granularity to reduce transmission latency.
In Release 16, redundant transmission is introduced for high-reliability communications. User packets are duplicated and simultaneously transferred to the receiver via two disjoint user plane paths. The redundant packets are then eliminated at the receiver side. The redundant transmission mechanism and other enhancements can, together, significantly improve the data transmission reliability.
Note that latency and reliability are not only a matter of radio access networks; edge computing and network slicing are often needed to support the use cases that require URLLC capabilities. Enterprises need to choose the architecture options and perform end-to-end optimizations according to their deployment requirements.
URLLC Use Cases
At the beginning of 5G standardization, 3GPP studied the requirements of automation in vertical domains, which were included in the 3GPP TS 22.804 technical report. Meanwhile, vertical sectors also discussed and raised their requirements for 5G URLLC capabilities through relevant industry organizations. Some typical use cases and requirements were summarized by the NGMN (Next Generation Mobile Network) Alliance, as shown in Table 1.
Table 1: Typical URLLC use cases and requirements.
Source: Omdia, based on NGMN Alliance information
These applications have been broadly deployed in advanced manufacturing sectors and powered by Intel Xeon Scalable processors. For example, an electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer has built a lights-out factory for EV and parts production. Through collaboration with the system integrator and the 5G solution vendor, the carmaker has replaced the Ethernet-based connectivity solution with a 5G system, reducing the number of hardware units, lowering costs, and lessening the maintenance workload. Before 5G was deployed the cable dragging/loss issues led to an average of 60 hours of downtime per month. The 5G system with URLLC capability can eliminate that loss while providing the same SLA (service level agreement), enabling an additional production of around 3,600 vehicles per month.
In Germany, established carmakers and emerging EV manufacturers have also actively deployed or tested industrial 5G solutions. The combination of 5G systems with URLLC, edge computing, and network slicing can enable a true Industry 4.0 factory, “resulting in tremendous flexibility improvements, enhanced connectivity, and a complete reimagining of what safe human–robot collaboration can look like,” according to the head of production lab at a well-known German carmaker.
URLLC Enables Industries to Benefit from the Global 5G Ecosystem
These 5G URLLC capabilities provide industrial players with a unique solution that combines high reliability, low latency, and deployment flexibility to support the digital transformation of industry. Intel has worked with its ecosystem partners, like QCT, to create opportunities for telecom players to explore new market segments and also to enable industrial players to manage the complexity in the design and implementation of URLLC services.
According to the latest data from Omdia, the number of global 5G subscribers is expected to reach nearly two billion by the end of 2023, and that total will be up to 6.8 billion by the end of 2027. Meanwhile, 5G technology is evolving with more advanced features. By integrating 5G into their production processes, industrial players can benefit from the economies of scale and continuous technology evolution of 5G systems. These advantages could become a great booster for industrial digital transformation.
Industrial players integrate 5G into their production processes because they need a balanced performance, flexibility, and a cost-effective solution. Intel technology is helping industrial players to transform their lab applications into commercial deployments. For example, QCT OmniPOD is a private 5G network solution powered by fourth-generation Intel Xeon Scalable processors, which have built-in accelerators, advanced security technologies, and performance features that include Intel Advanced Matrix Extensions (AMX) and Intel Advanced Vector Extensions (AVX) 512. The QCT OmniPOD, comprising a 5G Core (5GC) network, a 5G radio access network (5G RAN), and a management platform (OAM), serves as the foundational base underpinning a range of 5G use cases.
As of July 2023, QCT has deployed its OmniPOD solution for 28 customers across a wide range of verticals in countries including Japan, South Korea, Germany, Singapore, the US, and Taiwan. Deploying across multiple verticals means gaining hands-on experience about the drivers, challenges, technologies, and the culture of the various verticals. Key customer verticals for QCT include manufacturing (the leading vertical by deployments), smart tourism, smart campus, smart healthcare, smart agriculture, smart sport, and smart city, which are all powered by Intel.
QCT has deployed the Intel Xeon Scalable processors to power its own 5G x AI Open Lab where local ecosystem partners and enterprises can collaborate and test creative 5G use cases that combine the benefits of AI and private 5G technologies.
Built into the core of the Intel Xeon Scalable processors are 5G-specific signal processing instruction enhancements that support RAN-specific signal processing while delivering up to two times capacity gains for vRAN. Once the processors are paired with Intel’s complementary suite of platform ingredients—including accelerators, ethernet adapters, persistent memory, and software toolkits—a complete set of network solutions exists to build upon.
QCT’s OmniPOD, coupled with Intel’s broad ecosystem, provides optimization for multiple workloads and performance levels, with a wide range of cores, frequency, features and power-consumption levels, and best-in-class portability. Its advanced, comprehensive software development tools, libraries, and software kits simplify the development of optimized software for all RAN workloads—signal processing, packet processing, control plane processing, and emerging applications powered by artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML) algorithms. QCT’s enterprise-grade private 5G network solution powered by Intel will continue to evolve to provide advanced 5G features and empower industries’ digital transformations with accelerated qualification and shortened time to deployments.