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5G Ushers in New Era for Manufacturing

In Jingzhou, Hubei Province, China Midea has opened a new washing machine factory that uses 5G to deliver a fully interconnected manufacturing process. Built by China Mobile and Huawei, the factory-wide 5G network enables end-to-end digitisation, advanced logistics, automated robotics, real-time production line monitoring and quality checks using artificial intelligence.

At the new factory, a washing machine comes off the production line every 15 seconds, which is three seconds faster than the second fastest factory in the industry, according to Midea. Compared with a traditional washing machine factory in the Midea Group, output has been doubled, the inventory has been reduced by 50%, and the production cost per product has been cut by 30%.

Midea says it has achieved quality improvements, while making the factory safer and more sustainable. Midea uses 5G’s low latency and multi-access edge computing to collect data on the factory’s processes, which is analysed by the manufacturing execution system. That analysis can be used to make predictions and subsequently optimise the entire manufacturing process. Controlled in the cloud, 5G-connected robots and automated guided vehicles (AGVs) can easily be redeployed and reconfigured, thereby making the production lines more flexible, and helping to streamline the supply, production, distribution, warehousing and shipment processes across the plant. Midea’s new factory also uses 5G-connected sensors, instruments and cameras to help it manage energy consumption, track environmental factors, increase safety and maintain site security.

When it went live in August 2022, Midea’s new factory had 2,500 5G connections and more than 1,000 automated machines (in the production and logistic lines). “Each production phase is seamlessly connected through 5G terminals with faster automated machine operations that streamline the complex workshop pipelines,” says Wang Liang of Midea. “It is a benchmark not only in Midea Group, but also in the home appliance manufacturing industry.”

Midea’s holistic deployment of 5G marks a complete departure from the traditional approach to connecting a factory, in which a large number of fibre-optic network cables and Wi-Fi routers are installed, resulting in high costs, long deployment periods, and inflexible infrastructure that is difficult to upgrade or expand. Noting that 5G is more reliable than Wi-Fi, Midea says its AGVs and other connected equipment are less likely to be impacted by unstable signals.

The decision to build 5G into the factory from the start has also saved time and money. China Mobile estimates this approach reduced the whole construction period by at least 60 days. “Traditionally, communication networks are not rolled out until a factory and production lines are completed, which can be a lengthy process, and hence does not meet client expectations,” says Zhang Fei of China Mobile. “China Mobile wanted to find a faster way to accomplish this.”

Before building the network, China Mobile and Huawei ran 3D modelling simulations in the cloud drawing on data from high-precision lasers to map out the real-world environment. “The modelling precision rate reaches 99% and the simulation matching degree rate exceeds 90%, ensuring the deterministic rate for each access terminal,” says Eric Bao of Huawei. This precision modelling helped to ensure the 5G network would meet Midea’s performance requirements.

5G Factories To Become Commonplace In China

China’s government is encouraging the manufacturing sector to deploy thousands of 5G factories, as part of a programme that will run
between 2021 and 2025, according to Huawei. Midea, China Mobile and Huawei have developed and released official guidelines on building 5G networks and applications in the home appliance industry in Hubei. The guidelines are designed to improve the standard of construction, intelligence and digitalisation of a 5G fully-connected factory.

The Midea Group was honoured in 2022 as a pioneer of Industry 4.0 technologies with two factories, Midea Heifei and Midea Jingzhou, included in the Global Lighthouse Network of the World Economic Forum (WEF), showing the Group’s efforts in achieving both production efficiency and sustainability.