Schneider Electric adds private wireless to smart factories

NTT Group is leveraging its partnership with private wireless startup Celona to build on-premise private networks for Schneider Electric, which will use its own edge infrastructure to process data captured from the factory floors in Lexington, Kentucky and Lincoln, Nebraska.

Schneider Electric has developed a ruggedized edge data center called EcoStruxure to process factory data. These are designed to cut Schneider’s carbon footprint by consuming far less power than the manufacturer would use in a traditional data center.

NTT's Shahid Ahmed, group EVP, new ventures and innovation, said the prefabricated Schneider infrastructure is the size of a mini-fridge, and that the addition of the Celona core network hardware and software does not increase the physical footprint.

“We are including our private 5G core right at the edge by the conveyor belt,” Ahmed said. Although the core is 5G-ready, he said the networks will launch in LTE due to a lack of 5G capable devices for factory use cases.

“You start talking to customers and you realize devices are a big challenge,” Ahmed said.  “I would love to see machine-vision cameras natively support 5G without a gateway.”

Machine-vision cameras can be used to detect jitter on the production line or employees who are not wearing safety gear. In addition to smart cameras, Schneider Electric plans to explore the use of private 5G to manage autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) and augmented reality (AR) solutions that can help workers perform equipment maintenance.

Some devices are likely to connect to the private networks using 5G gateways when the networks are upgraded. Celona marketing director David Callisch explained gateways supplied by vendors like Inseego or Sierra Wireless connect to smart devices over Ethernet, and use CBRS to connect to the private networks. Celona’s routing capability gives the enterprise visibility of the devices on the network despite the fact that they are “behind gateways,” Callisch explained.

Schneider Electric’s networks will use General Authorized Access CBRS spectrum, with either Google or Federated Wireless providing the Spectrum Access System, Callisch continued. Celona will provide all core, radio and orchestration hardware and software through NTT, which is designing the networks and overseeing deployment.

Private means private

NTT's Ahmed said factories are highly protective of their data and are unwilling to send it to public clouds for processing or analytics. That’s one reason for the interest in private 5G in the manufacturing space. If factory automation data goes to carrier networks or public clouds, “IP could end up in the wrong hands,” Ahmed said. He added factories are not just trying to protect their process optimization algorithms, but also data about how products are manufactured. 

“Most factories want operational data inside the walls of the factory itself,” said Ahmed. This makes it harder for two different factories within a single company to share best practices, he added. This is a problem NTT is trying to address through its partnership with ServiceNow. The two companies are trying to offer customers a workflow automation platform that leverages artificial intelligence and can be shared across locations.

Schneider Electric is a prime example of a company with multiple factories that could share information about process automation. Ahmed explained that first NTT needs to stabilize the private networks in Kentucky and Nebraska and ensure device integration, then digitize workflows and after that it will address data integration.

Lighthouse factory

Schneider Electric’s Lexington factory has been designated a 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) Advanced Lighthouse by the World Economic Forum (WEF). The Global Lighthouse Network is a WEF initiative in collaboration with McKinsey, which recognizes factories for making durable shifts toward customer centricity, supply-chain resilience, speed and productivity and eco-efficiency.

“Schneider Electric is proof of IIoT’s power to positively impact the bottom line and further sustainability goals,” said Annette Clayton, president, and CEO of Schneider Electric, North America, in a statement. “Being part of the global Lighthouse network allows us to share our knowledge.”