AT&T really, really wants 5G to play a role in the future of manufacturing.
This isn't a complete surprise; AT&T has long worked to sell LTE-based connectivity, tracking and processing services in the manufacturing space. But now, here at the outset of 5G, AT&T is working hard to make 5G a new talking point in the discussion of the "factory of the future."
AT&T's latest gambit in this arena is the company's move to join MxD. Formerly known as DMDII, MxD is a nonprofit venture initially funded by the US Department of Defense (DoD) to help foster innovation in the US manufacturing space. It brings together government, academia and industry, both large and small, to solve problems in the manufacturing industry.
Chandra Brown, CEO of MxD, said the nonprofit launched five years ago with an initial injection of $60 million in funding from the DoD. Today, the effort counts 10,000 visitors per year to its 100,000-square-foot manufacturing innovation center, funded in part by around 300 paying members (MxD also posts a second $60 million, five-year investment recently announced by the DoD). AT&T is one of MxD's newest members, and plans to use that membership to create a space on MxD's manufacturing shop floor to show off the potential of 5G in manufacturing.
"We just signed this agreement," Brown said of AT&T's membership with MxD. "So AT&T in partnership with MxD will be coming out here [to Chicago] over the next few months and bringing in equipment and hooking everything up. And we will be walking through various use studies with various potential customers. So I don't have the final layout for what specific equipment is going where."
However, Brown is not surprisingly in alignment with AT&T that 5G will play a major role in the factory of the future. "We have a pretty robust membership here, around over 300, and they were asking us about 5G. So there is a demand pull," she said. "They know that this is going to be a critical piece of their digital revolution. So the good news is that 5G is getting more attention in the manufacturing side."
However, exactly what role 5G will play remains a bit ambiguous, partly because AT&T hasn't yet set up its MxD demonstration.
But MxD certainly isn't AT&T's only effort to cultivate the 5G manufacturing opportunity. Last year the operator announced that its vendor Samsung would build a manufacturing-focused 5G "Innovation Zone" in Austin, Texas, with the goal of providing "a real-world understanding of how 5G can impact manufacturing and provide insight into the future of a Smart Factory."
Just last month AT&T offered a first look into the results of that effort, which is located in Samsung's semiconductor fabrication facility. "The 5G Innovation Zone showcases the power of 5G technology to unlock greater efficiencies and higher performance in the manufacturing industry," Samsung's Mark Louison, senior vice president and general manager of the company's Networks Division, said in a statement from AT&T. "These use cases will help us determine how 5G can bring high impact innovations to manufacturing and help pave the way for the smart factories of the future."
Specifically, AT&T said it is demonstrating a few key use cases at the Samsung plant, including:
- 5G sensors that can track employees to help first responders find them more quickly in an emergency.
- 4K video and IoT data streamed through 5G that can keep track of the acceleration, position, temperature, humidity and gas flow rates of equipment.
- Wireless augmented reality glasses that can help virtually train hundreds of employees.
Of course, AT&T isn't the only big wireless company hoping to breathe life into the 5G manufacturing opportunity. For example, Nokia's "factory of the future" in Oulu, Finland, sports all sorts of 5G-connected robots and video-powered automation. Ericsson, for its part, has promised to build a "smart factory" in the US next year to construct some of its 5G equipment for the market, and also separately inked a "collaboration" agreement with Swedish manufacturing giant ABB to "accelerate the industrial ecosystem for flexible wireless automation," including for 5G. Qualcomm too has been talking for years about how 5G technologies could speed up the IoT space and manufacturing process.
To be clear, the 5G manufacturing opportunity will likely take years to develop, considering manufacturing companies don't upgrade their equipment every few years like smartphone users tend to do. That said, the 5G industry is certainly pushing hard on the idea that 5G technology will play a starring role in the "factory of the future," though it remains to see whether those efforts will ultimately bear fruit.