Edge Computing Meets 5G: Rethinking the Intelligent Supply Chain

Edge computing is poised to get another shot in the arm with the impending realization of private 5G networks.

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John FryerJohn Fryer

Edge computing is transforming the manufacturing landscape from a traditional, centrally controlled environment to one where data is increasingly gathered and processed in real time, at the network edge—where manufacturing work is performed. Now, edge computing is poised to get another shot in the arm with the impending realization of private 5G networks. Improvements in networking will also make private networks more accessible, introducing exciting new possibilities for connecting and automating the extended supply chain for smaller manufacturers.

Near Edge vs. Far Edge

An interesting development in recent years has been the distinction between the “near edge”  and the “far edge.” While the near edge is focused on automating processes or performing analytics within a facility, the emerging far edge extends its reach to interact with business partners or even, in some cases, with end consumers in the case of “smart” consumer products (for example, a printer that autonomously orders new ink consumables as they are depleted).

Cloud- or fog-based, service-oriented applications can now be hosted discretely on small appliances that can be deployed rapidly and cost-effectively throughout the supply chain. Indeed, in-transit use cases are quickly emerging as a key area of focus for industrial Internet of thing (IIoT) deployments in the supply chain.

The Impact of 5G

To achieve the full potential of edge computing to optimize the supply chain, connectivity is essential. Yet many of the far-flung and/or remote locations where edge computing is required may not be easily accessible to existing connectivity options. Or those options may not provide the bandwidth, latency and security required for mission-critical operations at the far edge.

Private, wireless 5G networks can fill that void, offering performance, availability and security that eclipse the capabilities of existing 4G and LTE networks. This opens the door to a wealth of mission-critical IIoT applications at the far edge, connecting disparate business partners in ways that dramatically improve supply chain efficiency.

5G also offers advantages at the near edge. A private 5G network could be just the ticket to provide robust connectivity throughout a manufacturing plant or campus, reducing cost and complexity and simplifying management and scaling. Instead of having a patchwork of Wi-Fi networks linked by Ethernet, a campus can have a single, private 5G network that is centrally controlled and managed. Private 5G networks also offer inherent security advantages that may expand the types of data that can be gathered, stored or analyzed at the edge, including at remote locations.

Changing the Equation

So how will 5G change the value equation for the supply chain? One area of tremendous potential is in-transit applications. Having the ability to collect and analyze data in real time at various stages of the supply chain has tremendous potential for improving inbound and outbound transit efficiency. For example, real-time analysis of traffic patterns at the edge could enable automatic redirection of delivery vehicles to avoid delays—with no intervention by human dispatchers required. The real-time nature of 5G presents a strong opportunity to improve applications like this, which currently exist in some embryonic form, to scale out more broadly, rapidly and cost-effectively.

Here’s another, even more sophisticated, example: a dairy that implements a “farm to fridge” business model. Real-time analysis of downstream grocery store data reveals that consumers are shifting from buying ice cream to cottage cheese. The dairy can redirect a greater quantity of milk from the ice cream plant to the cottage cheese plant in real time—even while the milk is in transit. This allows the dairy to optimize its supply-demand dynamics with a speed and effectiveness that was previously impossible. 5G provides the speed, bandwidth and reach to notably improve supply chains.

Closing a Crucial Gap

In this way, edge computing and 5G networks can bridge the greatest gap in the supply chain— the separation between producers and consumers. The more complex the distribution network, the more difficult it is for the manufacturer to assess a consumer’s needs. By enabling data from IoT devices in the consumer’s home (or car, or wearable tech) to form a direct link to the manufacturer via edge-based analytics, producers will have insights that provide a far greater understanding of consumer demand and product use trends, resulting in more successful and customer-friendly products over time.

Ultimately, the combination of 5G connectivity and higher intelligence at the edge will lead to completely automated functions that help reduce the tidal wave of data and decisions that we humans are faced with in the digital age.

Real-World Use Cases

There are many high-value use cases for 5G capabilities in a wide range of industries.

In the oil and gas industry, edge computing systems can be deployed at remote pumping and distribution sites, connected via 5G to centralized automation systems. For example, monitoring pipelines to detect and communicate data anomalies in real time can help automation control systems respond rapidly to address potential issues. While many of these sites currently have some limited form of connectivity, such as cellular or satellite, these cannot accommodate the large volume of rich data that 5G can handle.

In the food and beverage industry, monitoring and optimizing temperature and other environmental controls in transit is a tremendous use case for edge/5G deployments. Gathering rich data onboard refrigerated trucks via 5G and feeding it to analytics engines at the edge allows real-time, automated control to ensure the quality of perishable products, reducing food loss. The same edge platforms can also aggregate and analyze data over time, revealing insights to drive continuous improvement.

In consumer goods manufacturing, 5G can help replace centralized production analytics with distributed edge systems connected to supply partners via a private network. The advent of appliance-like edge platforms with integrated 5G connectivity will make it easy and cost-effective to include smaller, less technologically sophisticated suppliers, creating a truly intelligent, end-to-end supply chain. Or imagine a use case where edge data from a retail location reveals where your product appears on the shelf in relation to other products. This level of insight could help optimize your merchandising strategy with the retailer to improve sales.

The 5G Edge is Coming

While the integration of edge computing and 5G networks hasn’t yet made a major impact in the marketplace, expect this to change soon. The power of 5G to create secure, software-defined networks that combine high bandwidth and performance with unmatched flexibility is too attractive for manufacturers to ignore. Combining these networks with highly available, easily managed edge platforms engineered for manufacturing and industrial locations where IT skillsets are absent is a catalyst to rethinking manufacturing networks. It could be the missing link for realizing the truly integrated and intelligent supply chain that will improve manufacturing efficiency.

John Fryer is Senior Director of Industry Solutions at Stratus Technologies.

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