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5G production lines can even build themselves

Futuristic factories can use the network to run AI-powered systems
Dec 21,2018
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SK Telecom employees demonstrate smart factory technology that runs on a 5G network at the Smart Manufacturing Innovation Center in Ansan, Gyeonggi, on Thursday. [YONHAP]
ANSAN, Gyeonggi - As hockey-puck shaped auto parts move from left to right on a conveyer belt, a camera scans them from 24 different angles. The scans are automatically analyzed, and a robotic arm at the end of the conveyor belt is told to remove any parts that have defects.

This complex screening process, which takes roughly eight seconds from start to finish, is one of the 5G-powered smart factory solutions offered by SK Telecom showcased at a demo production line in the Smart Manufacturing Innovation Center in Ansan, Gyeonggi, on Thursday. The center serves as a test bed for technology used to digitize manufacturing run by a public-private body dubbed the Korea Smart Factory Foundation.

“Korean mobile carriers commercialized a 5G network at the beginning of this month through mobile routers, but it’s still hard for many individual customers to fathom what the network has to offer as it doesn’t work on smartphones,” a spokesperson from SK Telecom said. “This demo plant shows a glimpse of how 5G can actually change manufacturing.”

The machine vision technology introduced at the center is the same solution that is already being used at a factory belonging to local auto parts maker Myunghwa, SK Telecom’s first customer for its 5G network and smart factory solution. Though the parts at the demo production line are mock-ups, Myunghwa is actually using a similar technology to screen its auto parts, the carrier said.

But where is 5G involved?

SK Telecom said the 5G network’s high-speed and low-latency traits make this system work. 5G can be up to 20 times faster than the currently prevalent 4G long-term evolution.

Once the camera takes 24 images of a part, the data is sent to a cloud server with artificial intelligence that can analyze whether the part has defects based on the images. After analyzing the part, the server then tells the robotic arm at the end of the conveyor belt how to sort the components. As all this data analysis and transmission needs to be done in a matter of seconds and without delay, the next-generation network is necessary, according to the mobile carrier.

“It’s important that 5G offers fast enough speeds on wireless internet, which means factories can start eliminating internet lines,” said Chang Hong-sung, head of the Internet of Things (IoT) and data business group at SK Telecom. “Going wireless gives factories the flexibility to move machines around production lines and [make more use of space.]”

Chang added that the 5G-powered machine vision can also double screening efficiency.

SK Telecom introduced four other smart factory technologies tested at the center. The one most likely to be commercialized by the second quarter of next year is a multifunction collaborative robot.

The robot is used mainly to move things around the factory on workers’ demand. It has a cart-like body and a robotic arm. It can store objects it needs to deliver inside its body and drive itself using a three-dimensional sensor. Orders are given by an AI server on a 5G network.

Another solution is called Smart Base Block. It helps companies create modular production lines that work like building blocks. Each module, roughly the size of a telephone booth, contains robot arms that perform different roles.

By combining the modules - with different ones in charge of production, inspection or packaging - companies can quickly build new production lines depending on their needs. The modules can move themselves autonomously and dock together without the need for human intervention.

5G is used in making each component used in the modules, including sensors and robotic arms, work wirelessly. The network also transfers big data collected from each module to a central computer so that the company can analyze the efficiency of the production process. Each module sends about 200 different pieces of data each second, according to a spokesperson from the Smart Manufacturing Innovation Center.

There were wearable gadgets provided at the center as well. Smart glasses applied with augmented-reality technology enables workers to check on information about parts they are making and machines they are using in real time. Workers can also check production manuals through the glasses. 5G helps keep the information offered through the glasses up to date.

SK Telecom did not specify the price of the 5G-based smart factory solutions it offers, but said it will sell 5G network, smart factory solutions and 5G-enabled devices in an all-in-one package to companies, especially small and midsize companies, so they can more easily digitize factories.

To take leadership in the smart factory movement, SK Telecom also started an alliance to standardize smart factory solutions together with 18 other partners including Samsung Electronics, Microsoft and Bosch on Thursday.



BY KIM JEE-HEE [kim.jeehee@joongang.co.kr]