By Sara Castellanos of the Wall Street Journal
Samsung Electronics Co. is testing how 5G wireless networks can speed up connections at its chip-making factory in Austin, Texas, a pilot that aims to prove 5G is more than a buzzword. The company is experimenting with the new technology to show what ultra-fast speeds can do at its Austin chip factory
The company has teamed up with AT&T Inc. ’s communications division to develop a customized 5G network to experiment with how it could be used in chip manufacturing.
The fifth generation of cellular networking, 5G is designed to replace current 4G technology, also known as LTE. The ultrafast speeds and reduced lag that will come with 5G will buttress new applications such as augmented reality and self-driving cars. Peak download speeds using 5G are expected to be about 100 times as fast as with 4G.
The transformation that will come from widespread commercial 5G deployments in manufacturing, logistics, transportation and energy is still about a decade away, experts have said. That’s partly because it will take time to roll out the infrastructure to achieve full 5G coverage.
In the meantime, Samsung and other companies are testing 5G’s potential in limited pilots to show what the technology can do.
“We’re still in the experimentation phase, but we’re hopeful there’s value,” said Alok Shah, vice president of networks strategy, business development and marketing at Samsung Electronics America, the company’s U.S. unit.
Factories will be a big beneficiary of 5G connections, said Andre Fuetsch, chief technology officer for AT&T Communications, AT&T’s biggest division.
“We see 5G being a great solution for solving a lot of the Wi-Fi issues that typical factories have today,” he said. The technology, for example, could be used on manufacturing floors to power more reliable connections for computer-vision-scanning equipment that checks product quality.
AT&T has also rolled out consumer 5G networks in about 20 U.S. cities.
Samsung Electronics America and AT&T have invested millions of dollars in 5G innovation at Samsung’s chip-manufacturing facility in Austin. Thousands of employees work at the chip factory, which is the size of about 10 football fields, Mr. Shah said.
Chip-making uses a lot of water and toxic chemicals; 5G could help chip factories cut waste and alert workers to safety hazards.
For example, 5G would allow more sensors to be installed to detect air quality, Mr. Shah said. Streaming real-time data from the sensors over 5G networks would mean that a control center can immediately detect serious air-quality hazards and move people out of harm’s way. Sensors in factories today can’t rely on existing wireless networks to pass along warnings to a control center, Mr. Shah said.
“Being able to put thousands of sensors within a relatively small space is hard for other [networking] technologies to support,” Mr. Shah said. Certain networks can only support a finite number of devices. Fifth-generation wireless networks could support 1 million devices per square kilometer, up from about 100,000 devices per square kilometer with 4G LTE, he said.
Sensors on pumps and valves could also stream data about water usage over 5G networks so the facility can improve the efficiency of its water usage in real time and reduce waste.
Using 5G connections, workers could also learn how to repair equipment on the factory floor through augmented and virtual-reality headsets without any buffering or lags.
Other companies including New York Times Co. and German engineering firm Robert Bosch GmbH are testing 5G in pilots. The market for 5G, including related network infrastructure, is forecast to grow to $26 billion in 2022 from $528 million in 2018, according to research firm International Data Corp.
The tests are often “showcase demonstration pieces,” useful for proving that 5G could generate revenue through new services or make processes more efficient, said Jason Leigh, research manager for mobility and 5G at IDC.
“The sooner you can get something tangible, it makes it easier to have that discussion at a C-suite and board level about what 5G really is, and it’s not just this fad,” Mr. Leigh said.
Write to Sara Castellanos at [email protected]
Last September, AT&T and Samsung created the US’s first manufacturing-focused 5G “Innovation Zone” in Austin, TX. The zone, designed to test 5th generation wireless broadband technology, will be on Samsung Austin Semiconductor’s 160-acre campus in north Austin. The site will feature AT&T’s 5G wireless technology along with Samsung’s 5G network equipment, according to an announcement Wednesday from the two companies.
Technology experts say 5G — which is essentially ultra high-speed wireless connections — will not only power future waves of mobile devices, but also will evolve technology in other industries like automotive and health care. Companies expect 5G to be up to 100 times faster than the current 4G networks.
“This collaboration with Samsung Electronics America and AT&T will help us test how a 5G network can improve mobility, performance and efficiencies within our plant,” Sang-Pil Sim, president of Samsung Austin Semiconductor, said in a statement.
South Korea-based Samsung has operated in Austin since 1997. About 3,000 employees work in the 2.45 million-square-foot Austin chip making plant. Samsung has invested $17 billion in its Austin campus through the years.