Accelerating Industry 4.0 realization: How to create a 5G lighthouse smart factory

To transform operations in the production and delivery of 5G equipment, a Lighthouse approach was achieved

By David Hart October 10, 2023
Courtesy: Ericsson


Learning Objectives

  • Learn about the evaluation methods and processes Ericsson used to identify its initial list of smart manufacturing use cases.
  • Understand how Ericsson refined its initial use case list — focusing on the cases that would deliver the largest impact with the simplest implementation.
  • Review the approach the company used to successfully implement its factory use cases.

5G insights

  • While working to deliver 5G equipment, one manufacturer applied Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0) standards to achieve a streamlined manufacturing facility.
  • To achieve Industry 4.0 initiatives, Lighthouse status was obtained.

In 2019, as carriers were beginning to roll out 5G technology, Stockholm-based Ericsson set its sights on becoming a powerhouse in the production and delivery of 5G equipment. Unfortunately, in the late 2010s, industry circumstances were threatening its very ability to produce quality 5G products.

During the previous two years, many companies in the 5G equipment space faced component shortages, making 5G radio production very difficult. Long lead times and overseas shipping translated into higher risks for producing faulty products. Simultaneously, Ericsson planned to produce a new series of 5G radios. The team realized that bringing production closer to their customers in the U.S. would shorten lead time from order to production, reducing the risk of surplus inventory due to changing customer demand.

As the team at Ericsson looked at how they would face the current industry shifts, they were left with one conclusion — they must become part of the Global Lighthouse Network. In other words, it needed to build an industry-leading equipment production factory, meeting the World Economic Forum (WEF) standards and applying Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR or Industry 4.0) standards to embrace vision, innovation and responsibility across production networks to unlock value and prioritize environmental sustainability.

The yearlong process — spanning 2019 to 2020 — to create a Lighthouse-worthy smart factory had its share of hurdles, but ultimately, the team at Ericsson completed a 5G smart factory in Lewisville, Texas, that was worthy of Lighthouse status and an example to equipment manufacturers across the globe.

Achieving 4IR Lighthouse status for a 5G smart factory

The WEF’s Lighthouse status is only provided to a select few companies around the world. Companies looking to nominate a facility for this status must follow very specific steps to become a Lighthouse. Among the requirements are to show impactful change in operational models, deploy integrated technology use cases at scale, and enable more efficient processes with industrial internet of things (IIoT) and increased workforce engagement.

Meeting the Lighthouse requirements for the 5G smart factory was a unique situation because the team was dealing with a greenfield factory. This meant the team was working on 4IR status at the same time as the factory construction, equipment installation and startup. Also, they had to train a team that had very little factory experience and they had to implement brand-new technology throughout the factory.

However, to begin the 4IR processes, they first had to identify use cases in their current production processes that would best benefit from 4IR practices. So, in mid-2019, the Lewisville team implemented several strategic steps to identify those use cases.

Figure 1: At the Lewisville, Texas, facility, technicians have the capability to use Microsoft Hololens glasses equipped with cameras that transmit their perspective to remote engineers. These engineers can then overlay arrows or provide work instructions directly onto the technician's visual field. Courtesy: Ericsson

Figure 1: At the Lewisville, Texas, facility, technicians have the capability to use Microsoft Hololens glasses equipped with cameras that transmit their perspective to remote engineers. These engineers can then overlay arrows or provide work instructions directly onto the technician’s visual field. Courtesy: Ericsson

Identifying use cases

The first step was to develop a performance monitor with daily and weekly reports. The team had to know what went awry at other facilities to make sure those mistakes didn’t occur at the Lewisville location. Ericsson’s team visited existing “brownfield” sites and interviewed the engineering teams to identify where current issues existed. The discovery process included speaking to operators on the factory floor, including process engineers and quality engineers, and then working to identify major causes of downtime and delay in the production process.

The Ericsson team also visited other factories to test which pieces of equipment worked well and which did not. If issues existed, the team sought to highlight those problems and ensure they were visible in real time — even before the weekly “morning reports” came out. The visibility helped the team identify defect rates and other equipment performance metrics. Any area demonstrating a higher-than-expected defect rate warranted further investigation, often presenting specific use cases where 5G technology could help.

Finally, the team examined areas within the workforce where employees were engaged in repetitive tasks, offering the potential for automation. For instance, if an individual’s position primarily involved being stationed at a particular spot on the production line and repetitively pushing buttons to allow product access, an excellent opportunity existed for process automation and potentially, using technologies such as vision systems to replace the role.

Ericsson could then transition the worker into a higher-value position with the objective of enhancing the product’s value proposition while simultaneously reducing the labor force required for production. This strategic realignment allows reassignment of its existing personnel into performance-enhancing roles, thereby optimizing the overall process while providing opportunities to upskill the current workforce.

Figure 2: The first 5G radio device rolled off the lines in March 2020. Courtesy: Ericsson

Figure 2: The first 5G radio device rolled off the lines in March 2020. Courtesy: Ericsson

Improving operational efficiency

One of the major issues the team uncovered was in their ability to collect actionable data on factory processes. At other factories, teams and equipment were often siloed, which prevented teams from enacting holistic solutions to factory problems. Efficient data collection is one of the best practices noted in Industry 4.0, enabling organizations to act on real-time insights and establish historical patterns. Ericsson’s USA 5G smart factory’s success hinged on integrating data from those isolated islands of equipment while consolidating data sources for visibility. Robust data governance ensured standardized data labeling, aligned timestamps and consistent data definitions, allowing for the fostering of a reliable and comprehensive dataset.

Because the company’s operational model relied on cross-functional teams organized around IoT development, use case development and information technology (IT) platform management, they used agile methodologies and daily stand-up meetings to promote efficient cross-team communication, swift issue resolution and iterative development. Furthermore, the teams strictly followed a minimal viable product (MVP) approach, testing and refining use cases to drive rapid progress.

Additionally, cross-functional expertise played a pivotal role in accelerating delivery and ensuring the success of Industry 4.0 initiatives. Front-line operators’ insights were incorporated to integrate the voice of the customer, while stakeholder engagement with IT, procurement, IT security, operations management and finance fostered trust-based partnerships.

Foundational training also played a critical role in the project’s success, ensuring the project team was well-versed in both manufacturing and Industry 4.0 concepts. Before the start of the 4IR transformation, much of the team was relatively new to the intricacies of factory operations. Teaching professionals new skills can be difficult, but the new team was eager to learn the skills necessary for the smart factory to run smoothly. First, each team member had to familiarize themselves with the existing factory processes to gain insights into potential areas of improvement.

Furthermore, the team underwent comprehensive training on the fundamental concepts of the 4IR and how they could contribute to enhancing factory operations. These trainings paved the way for continuous learning and capability building, allowing team members to contribute effectively to the project’s roadmap. This training also played a crucial role in upskilling and reskilling the current staff, a key component of Industry 4.0. Today, factory personnel collaboratively manage the smart factory’s roadmap with input from all employees.

Throughout the transition to a 5G smart factory, the team discovered the importance of effective communication. The team held multiple stand-up meetings throughout the day to streamline and expedite the resolution to specific challenges. This allowed for a seamless flow of information throughout the supply chain while also facilitating swift problem-solving.

Leveraging 5G technology to build 5G equipment

Upon identifying use cases, Ericsson assessed the potential of 5G technology to enhance these use case scenarios. This would help Ericsson enable the latest in IIoT technology and deploy multiple 4IR use cases at scale — each a requirement to achieve Lighthouse status. The combination of 5G’s low latency and high data speeds enable real-time decision-making and action, the use of millimeter wave networks allows increased low latency, resulting in very high round-trip data speeds.

Private networks, in contrast to Wi-Fi networks, ensure stable and reliable connectivity, minimizing the risk of data interference and loss. The team understood that the choice of connectivity influences the breadth and accuracy of data collection, thereby directly impacting the efficacy of these use cases.

Private 5G networks enable the integration of additional sensors, such as vibration and heat sensors, onto existing hardwired machinery. This integration enhanced data collection and enabled the extraction of valuable insights to optimize performance, without completely overhauling the existing infrastructure.

Thanks to 5G-enabled low latency and fast round-trip data speeds, Ericsson’s production team could more effectively use information to make decisions and act to improve production or to remove problems. For example, the Lewisville team was able to leverage augmented reality to repair equipment with the help of equipment experts. The team was able to share video, audio, and annotations with minimal lag so they could address equipment malfunctions as soon as possible.

How to power better outcomes

The factory’s shift to smart manufacturing has yielded substantial enhancements in operational efficiency. In one notable example, the factory used digital twins to improve and optimize the smart manufacturing accelerator line. Through the implementation of this digital twin, the line saw a 25% improvement in throughput, a 30% improvement in waste and error and a 50% decrease in unplanned downtime.

Smart factory improvements also afforded the factory team with a holistic view of production processes. For the first time, Ericsson gained the ability to comprehensively monitor the entire radio product process from a data-driven perspective. Furthermore, the cost-effective storage and streamlined retrieval of data allows for enhanced research efficiency for process engineers.

Ericsson’s achievements with its 5G smart factory have solidified its standing in the industry, especially in the United States, positioning the company as a pioneer in manufacturing innovation. The project’s success played an instrumental role in establishing a dedicated Industry 4.0 team within Ericsson, with plans to integrate Industry 4.0 principles across its global facilities.

After starting the construction in 2019, Ericsson applied for Lighthouse status in late 2020 and the Lewisville factory achieved Lighthouse status in 2021.

Author Bio: David Hart is director business development at manufacturing Ericsson North America.