Chemicals giant BASF has put itself at the forefront of an independence movement among German companies determined to set up their own cellphone networks and wean themselves off commercial phone companies.
Later in January, Germany’s Federal Network Agency will start awarding the first next-generation 5G frequencies to industrial companies that want to set up transmission masts in their factories. Siemens, VW and Daimler also plan to invest in factory networks. The companies don't want to entrust their networks, along with the priceless associated data, to big network operators like Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, and Telefónica.
Germany is expected to auction 5G licenses in the first quarter of 2019 and has set a deadline of Jan. 25 for submissions. Telecoms firms, and perhaps United Internet, will bid for national frequencies, whereas the companies are eyeing local networks for their plants to link hundreds if not thousands of machines and vehicles with one another.
A 5G wireless network will mean data speeds 100 times faster than today, with information transmission in near-real time. For a company, a local 5G network is like having Wifi, but then at lightning speed and with much greater volume - think train tunnel instead of a copper wire.
“We need our own 5G frequencies so that we can determine the security and availability of the networks,” said BASF executive Matthias Fankhänel. “We want to set the rules of the game and be able to control the 5G network ourselves.”
If the network goes down, BASF wants to be able to respond immediately rather than having to wait for a telecoms firm to help.
The size of a small city
Fankhänel, the head of Global Engineering and Maintenance at BASF, plans to give the company’s internal logistics a serious upgrade with the help of ultra-fast 5G. It’s already testing a self-driving fuel tanker truck, a so-called Automated Guided Vehicle, to supply gas to facilities across the huge plant in Ludwigshafen.
At present it’s still limited to driving at 30 km/h and is monitored by video cameras by a member of staff who can hit the brakes at any time if something starts going wrong.
BASF wants to use more such vehicles and at higher speeds to transport gas from its own freight station to the 150 fuel-charging points throughout the plant. The necessary video surveillance will only be possible with 5G.
“In the future, when we use 20 or more vehicles, we’ll only manage the massive data transfer with 5G technology,” he said. Other technologies such as Wifi weren’t an option. “We can’t guarantee a safe, fast connection with that,” he said. Wifi could lead to images being shaky or cutting out.
BASF aims to use 5G to cover the entire 10-square-kilometer plant, which is the size of a small city with 39,000 workers, 2,000 buildings, 230 kilometers (143 miles) of rail track, 106 kilometers of road and 2,850 kilometers of pipes.
Some of the factory equipment is up to 50 years old. One of the 5G network's first tasks will be to hook up sensors monitoring each of the 30,000 pumps at the plant. If a pump stops working properly, motion sensors will pick up the vibration and alert maintenance technicians. The workers will be aided by data goggles that provide 3D images of the equipment as it should be, making it easier for them to repair it.
Bottlenecks will then be a thing of the past. “With 5G two AGV transporters will be able to drive linked to a single cell tower while 50 technicians work with the data goggles at the same time.”
Jürgen Berke is a reporter for WirtschaftsWoche, our sister publication. To contact the author: [email protected]