Telco and (Small) Enterprise: Overcoming the Great Disjunction

August 3, 2022

Written by Alex Lawrence

In conversations during the late twenty-teens, there was a clear consensus inside the telecoms world that 5G was going to be ‘the enterprise G’, with uptake largely driven by enterprise use cases; remote surgery, remote-controlled vehicles, low-latency robotics, you name it. Four years into the 5G era the situation is very different, with 5G becoming the fastest generation to deploy to consumers but little traction in industry.

In separate interviews 6GWorld recently spoke with two representatives of very different worlds. Niall Norton, General Manager at Amdocs Networks, is a telecoms industry veteran. Meanwhile Matt Blakeley is the Network Development Manager at the Smart Manufacturing Alliance, designed to support over 6,000 manufacturing SMEs in the UK’s Cambridgeshire region. Both are thinking about making other industries smarter, but from very different viewpoints.

It got us wondering: Is a meeting of the minds possible any time soon? This article, the first of two, explores mindsets and priorities from a manufacturing viewpoint. The second will explore the work going on from the telco perspective, asking to what extent it matches up with current or future enterprise needs, and whether there is anything else necessary to close the gap between the two viewpoints.

The Manufacturing Position

Blakeley has been recently spending a good deal of time learning about 5G applications for enterprises. He’s acutely aware of the gap between the telecoms companies and their prospective buyers.

“Some of the manufacturing sector is probably still in 3G land and just about getting their head around what 4G is and what it means. They’ve got fibre – and some of them haven’t even got fibre, they’ve just got a broadband connection in a remote part of the county,” he explained.

“How do you get those remote manufacturers, in market towns that sometimes don’t have any sort of fibre network – how do we start saying 5G’s the solution for them, and how do they start looking at that? How do we start introducing that as a concept without melting their minds?”

It’s useful to be aware that, while we hear announcements about major manufacturers adopting 5G private networks, it has not yet become common enough to be unremarkable in any country.

“The bigger industries – the car manufacturers, the Rolls Royces of this world, are all over it. They’ve got the budget to invest in it, but 5G’s still struggling to trickle down into that SME space. You mention 5G and first thing they’ll start thinking is ‘I don’t want another outbreak of COVID-19 in my workforce’ and ‘it doesn’t work when you’re on the train so why would it work in my factory?’ and all that kind of thing,” Blakeley said.

The reason for this is that smaller manufacturing firms can often consist of very few people. IT personnel will tend to be responsible for everything from managing the software to supporting and replacing hardware, database management and more. Specialists who understand the nuances of telecoms are understandably rare in companies focussing on other priorities than connectivity.

Indeed, skills shortages are something Blakeley highlights as a challenge across manufacturing industries. Speaking about a recent demonstration of robotics, he noted that it was “really interesting, but a huge shift from where a lot of SMEs are. If you think of robotics, it’s computer coding; it’s not engineering skills.

“I’ve chatted to people across numerous areas of manufacturing who say that computer skills actually are one of the biggest shortages that we’ve got. Computer programming and engineering combined is a really valuable skillset, but if we are producing people like that in this country, they’re going and doing other things, not working in manufacturing.”

Prospects

The pandemic, Brexit, and logistical shocks from events such as the war in Ukraine have certainly not created an easy time for the UK’s manufacturers in the last few years. That operational and financial background is interacting with the development of Industry 4.0, advanced telecoms and other elements combining business and technology.

“We’ve got a changing landscape of innovation and market opportunities coming to us,” Blakeley notes, in a gentle understatement.

“The more agile and aware you can be of that and forward thinking, then the more successful you’re going to be. That comes to everything from workforce to flexibility of your production line and your workshop.”

The workforce issue is definitely a focus for the manufacturers Blakeley meets, where employers are in a competition to retain skilled workers. This is one area where automation and digitalisation can create a very positive outcome for even relatively small businesses.

Blakeley gives a concrete example of a business which “brought in automation and it’s allowed them to increase their hourly rate of pay for welders, because they’re not doing the monotonous straight-line welding any more – the robots are doing that 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Instead, they’re doing the skilled, high-end stuff, which they’re charging a premium to their clients for. So they’re using their skills and they’re feeling more valued.

“The business owners are deriving more value out of the business, so the profits are increased and therefore they can increase the hourly rate to reflect the skilled work the welders are putting in. Bizarrely they’ve now increased the number of welders they have on their books as well, because they’ve got more work coming because their capacity has gone through the roof.”

Logistics too offers some promising opportunities, as companies are viewing this with a new degree of significance.

“They want to track goods through their own factories, knowing where stuff is on its production line,” Blakeley said.

He observed that part of this stems from the pandemic, when remote operations became much more the norm. Having the capability to monitor remotely for whatever reason proved its worth.

At least as importantly as a service telecoms was made to handle, the asset tracking extends up and down the value chain. Downstream is perhaps obvious. “Customers expect an Amazon-style service where I can see when my delivery’s been shipped. I can see it’s four stops away, and it’s three drops in between me and arriving on my doorstep.”

The same applies upstream, too. “There’s this really important concept of ‘time on the water’,” Blakeley explained.

“Imagine you know that something’s coming from China, it’s on the boat, but then you get a panicked phone call from customer that says ‘I need these things in two weeks’. Rather than hitting the panic button and going into mass production or sending a huge order over to somebody else, you can see that they’re on the water and they’re going to be there in three days. So don’t panic. We’re all right.”

One big problem

While it looks like this is a great opportunity for telecoms networks to play a role supporting the connectivity demands of many of these SME manufacturers, ”5G is a long way from 98% of SME manufacturers. 5G is not even on their radar.”

The reason is twofold.

Partly it’s a lack of information filtering down to the manufacturers themselves from suppliers. Blakeley gives an example he has recently seen where 5G has been shown to perform more reliably than Wi-Fi to help robots navigate a warehouse – an important issue as the robots stop if their connection drops, for example during handover from one hotspot to the next.

“Why would a robotics seller say, ‘Yeah, this will work as long as there are no issues with your network and your network’s absolutely robust’? If there’s any sort of doubt, it’s going to push a business to say, “We’re going to hold off on that for now until we’ve got something more robust.””

The other element is simply that SME is a problematic area for telecoms providers, insofar as the target customers are unlikely to have telecoms expertise in-house to understand the value propositions.

Indeed, Blakeley nods as 6GWorld reports some of the observations from our interview with Thinknet 6G in Bavaria. While German industry as a whole is much more automated than in Britain – “We are now where Germany was in the nineties,” Blakeley estimates – industrial decision-makers out there are often confused about the difference between public and private 5G, and do not expect to be able to run private 5G where it hasn’t rolled out publicly.

This is not unique to telecoms – it’s a factor of the complexity facing manufacturers these days, in terms of the opportunities over and above the simple manufacturing and the skills they require.

“Industry 4.0 is the whole business, it’s everything,” Blakeley explained, “From your account system and your website linking through to your dispatch box, to your manufacturing process and your floor. It just feels really overwhelming to many people.”

To address this the Smart Manufacturing Alliance has a programme they are working on in collaboration with the University of Cambridge and the Institute for Manufacturing. It’s called “Digital On A Shoestring”.

“You don’t have to make a hundred-thousand-pound investment,” Blakeley said.

“It could be as simple as some sensors and a little bit of software. That’s a couple of hundred pounds and it gets you starting on that journey. You can start improving quality, reducing tolerances of product that’s coming off your production line, and get more comfortable with what you need and what the opportunities are.”

For those keen to encourage 5G and beyond in a manufacturing environment, Blakeley sees real opportunities. However, it won’t be as straightforward as offering connectivity.  

“Can 5G make a difference? Absolutely. But do we need to see more automation to encourage that to happen?

“It’s almost as though the two need to go hand-in-hand; the rollout and development of 5G networks within a manufacturing landscape, and the automation.”

Photo by Sam Moghadam Khamseh on Unsplash

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