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The transformative capability of 5G is no longer mere speculation. Today, there are already concrete examples of the “fourth industrial revolution” that is taking place, as new connective technology is enabling every industry it touches to work with greater efficiency and flexibility.
On the shores of the Yellow Sea, the Port of Tianjin is one of the busiest container ports in the world. Massive container ships, some as long as four football fields, with the capacity to carry thousands of standard-sized 20ft-containers (TEU), dock there every day. In 2018, 16 million TEU of goods passed through en route to destinations all over the world. But while the port may appear similar to others, with stacks of containers, enormous cranes, and a constant hum of activity, look a little closer, and there is something different: There are far fewer people involved in repetitive manual jobs than one might expect from an operation of this size.
This is thanks to a partnership with ZTE and Tianjin Unicom, a Chinese telecom, which uses 5G to remotely control much of the port’s ground operations. Instead of crane operators sitting in cramped cabins, high in the air, they can work from comfortable offices and remotely operate the loading and unloading of containers. Once unloaded, the goods get where they need to be aboard a fleet of driverless autonomous vehicles. Even customs paperwork is transmitted over 5G systems, so inspectors can access the documents they require, wherever they are.
The automation of the port’s operations is possible due to an advanced 5G network that provides the required high bandwidth, low latency and high-reliability connectivity. The cranes are operated with just 20ms latency between what the cameras see and what appears on the operator’s screen. Every autonomous truck is able to access a highly detailed map of the port and transmit high-definition video back to the operations centre with just 10ms between the operations centre issuing a command and the truck receiving it. And, since CCTV and other security functions of the port operate using 5G, port operators can be confident in the reliability of working remotely.
Tianjin’s transformation into a smart port has made it a safer and more productive workplace. Remote working has reducdreduced the number of situations where human workers interact with heavy, potentially dangerous, machinery, and the efficiency of operations has increased by 20% since 5G was introduced in 2018. The port is also now transitioning all of its existing network-dependent operations to 5G and, since 5G requires much less physical infrastructure than fibre, maintenance will work out cheaper too.
5G is transforming industry. Vastly reduced data transfer speeds and hyper connectivity is helping to make manufacturing facilities more intelligent and automated. Sany Heavy Industry, the world’s fifth- largest construction company, is using its own private 5G network to process the enormous amounts of data it collects using sensors, high-definition security cameras, and autonomous vehicles. Partnering with ZTE and local mobile operators in China, Sany Heavy Industry built a 5G-powered Multi-Access Edge Computing (MEC) platform. Unlike a centralised model, MEC allows data to be analysed, processed and stored in real time on the “edge” of the cloud, as close as possible to where it was collected. This means the computing of traffic and services is much closer to the customer or end user. Sany Heavy Industry’s MEC platform enables the company to offload computational tasks from sensors and equipment on the ground, while still maintaining low latency, since there is no need to process the data via a private cloud.
The increased connectivity and reduced latency of 5G will also have a major impact on productivity. Xinfengming Group, a chemical manufacturer, partnered with ZTE to embed 5G technology in its filament production process. Now, autonomous trolleys transport products and goods around Xinfengming’s factories, and high-resolution video is streamed over 5G to monitor production processes. The company’s MEC platform uses an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm to inspect filaments and spot any problems, without needing to upload the full, unfiltered video feed to Xinfengming’s video centre, thus speeding up the process.
MEC and 5G also has tremendous application in the medical sector. In China, ZTE and China Mobile launched the country’s first 5G medical MEC platform. Medical information can be stored and managed remotely on the edge of the cloud, allowing healthcare professionals across the country to access big data—such as sending and receiving large, high-resolution files like medical X-rays—without needing to physically be at the hospital. ZTE has also cooperated with pathological laboratories and telecoms in China to deliver remote pathological diagnosis services. The analysis of tissue specimens is incredibly time sensitive, but using 5G-enabled high-definition video conferencing enables doctors in different locations to diagnose without needing to transport samples.
The intersection of 5G, AI and the Internet of Things is already creating AI-enabled factory floors. The GSMA, an industry body that represents mobile operators, believes 5G could pave the way for “dark factories” —completely automated, human-less factories that would never need to switch on the lights. But 5G has the potential to evolve beyond the factory to enable an intelligent and productive ecosystem of connected devices, utilising the information gathered to drive big data-driven decisions across workforce places and processes. According to a 2020 study by IHS Markit, 5G would contribute US$13.2 trillion in global economic output in 2035.
Unlocking this social and economic value requires a coordinated, multi-stakeholder approach. All actors in the 5G ecosystem—operators, developers, device providers, policy makers and customers—must cooperate in an open and transparent manner to unlock this potential. Done right, the 5G industrial revolution heralds a future that is fast, stable, secure and versatile.
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The 5G transformation will have a profound impact on our society and our lives as individuals, helping us stay safe, learn more, and care for our planet. But this transformation requires much more than new technology. It requires us to work together.
This article was produced by (E) BrandConnect, a commercial division of The Economist Group, which operates separately from the editorial staffs of The Economist and The Economist Intelligence Unit. Neither (E) BrandConnect nor its affiliates accept any responsibility or liability for reliance by any party on this content.
ZTE Corporation is a global leader in telecommunications and information technology. Founded in 1985 and listed on both the Hong Kong and Shenzhen Stock Exchanges, the company has been committed to providing innovative technologies and integrated solutions for global operators, government and enterprise, and consumers from over 160 countries across the globe. Serving over 1/4 of the global population, the company is dedicated to enabling connectivity and trust everywhere for a better future.