Exploring accessible and affordable 5G Open RAN options for manufacturing

06 March 2024

A new £4.7 million project developing ways to make 5G Open RAN more accessible and fit-for-purpose for the manufacturing sector has been launched by an industrial consortium of expert partners.  

The Factory of the Future Open RAN (FoFoRAN) project aims to explore ways manufacturers of all sizes could benefit from open radio access networks (Open RAN), a concept of mobile network architecture that provides the use of non-proprietary subcomponents from a variety of vendors. It enables different companies’ technology to work together, instead of using only one single supplier. 

The programme, which has secured £2.7 million as part of the government’s Open Networks Research and Development Fund, is also being match-funded by industry, bringing the project total to £4.7 million. It is being led by research engineers at AMRC North West, part of the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) innovation cluster and a member of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

BAE Systems, Dassault Systèmes, aql, Productive Machines and SafeNetics, are partners of the project alongside the support of the Royal Air Force and British telecommunications company Telent, which are affiliate partners on the project.  

Dr Aparajithan Sivanathan, head of digital technology at AMRC North West, based in Samlesbury,  Lancashire, highlighted a big demand for manufacturers of all sizes to have greater connectivity, a higher bandwidth and near-zero latency of 5G to function effectively – alongside the need to help open up the telecoms supply chain so different companies can provide different parts of the 5G infrastructure. 

“The current choice of manufacturing industries for 5G deployment is single vendor solutions, but it’s an option that in some ways, is inflexible and does not address all the unique requirements of advanced use cases of connected manufacturing and is unaffordable for smaller manufacturing businesses,” he said. “Individual manufacturers need the freedom to choose components that are fit for purpose, have network  vendor options, equipment suppliers and services at varying costs. 

“Open RAN has the potential to be more affordable, interoperable, secure, reliable and provide the capabilities needed in industry. We are excited to build on our research in Open RAN in the hope of creating further innovative solutions in these areas.” 

An investment of £88 million, as part of the government’s Open Networks Research and Development Fund, has been allocated to 19 different projects and will trial an array of new mobile technologies, designed to increase the resilience of the UK mobile network, enhancing competition and innovation within the 5G telecoms supply chain and ensuring the country is not overly reliant on any one form of technology. 

Planned to run until March 2025, the FoFoRAN project aims to:

  • Deploy an Open RAN network from scratch;
  • Extend and test a partially existing highly interoperable network, comprising components from different vendors to explore the interoperable characteristics;
  • Use an existing functional single vendor network as a benchmark;
  • Compare a true Open RAN approach with a highly interoperable network approach;
  • Build and test native 5G, high performance devices with manufacturing communication interfaces.

The project focus areas will help to determine how it compares with the current commercial-off-the shelf single vendor network deployment and will assess technical characteristics, performance and any potential deployment challenges – as well as helping to identify if it’s possible to standardise network services for digital manufacturing use cases.

AMRC North West is one of the leaders in exploring 5G connectivity in the manufacturing sector and has its own digital manufacturing connectivity testbed, developed as part of the 5G Factory of the Future programme. Consortium partners in FoFoRAN bring a wide array of additional knowledge and proficiency to the project including cyber security, use cases, as well as software and network solutions.  

Professor Adam Beaumont, chairman of aql, said: “We’re a UK regulated fixed and mobile network operator whose mission is to enable innovators get to market quicker by leveraging our reliable, secure suite of communications capability. 

“We’re keen to demonstrate how our open access, open standards infrastructure can support and deploy shared fixed and radio technology alongside powerful analysis and performance reporting so we can prove our capability. Looking to the future, our vision is to build more ‘trust tech’ into the community, leveraging our significant experience and track record in cryptographic authentication. We see this project as a great proving-ground for validating strong layered security models for connected devices and communication infrastructure.”

James Leadbetter, team leader within Factory of the Future, BAE Systems, said: “We’re delighted to be part of this project. Projects like 5G FoFoRAN are increasingly important so that we can understand ways to engage and expand our supply chain further and discover new solutions that help us drive more efficiency and effectiveness into the manufacturing sector in line with our core business drivers.”

Marc Overton, Managing Director, EURONORTH, Dassault Systèmes, said: “As a pioneer in virtual twin technology, Dassault Systèmes is proud to join forces with industry leaders in the consortium aimed at exploring accessible and affordable 5G Open RAN options for manufacturing. 

“We believe in the power of collaboration to drive innovation, and this initiative underscores our commitment to leveraging cutting-edge technologies to empower the manufacturing sector. Together, we are not just embracing the future of connectivity, but shaping it to be inclusive and sustainable for all."

Erdem Ozturk, founder and chief executive officer of Productive Machines, said: "Productive Machines develops remote access to an online digital twin to predict the machining process prior to manufacturing and avoid harmful chatter vibrations. This online optimisation and the ability to adjust parameters on the fly enable increased productivity, reduced waste, and better quality parts from anywhere in the world."

David Lund, director of SafeNetics, added: “FoFoRAN presents new challenges for the telecoms security, where the challenges extend far beyond the bits and bytes of communication, to the sensing and control of Operational Technology, and resilience of manufacturing processes.” 

The 19 projects in the Open Networks Ecosystem Competition will help to deliver on the UK’s ambition to be a global leader in telecoms research and development, through investment in cutting-edge open hardware and software. 

Digital Infrastructure Minister for the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology, Julia Lopez, said: “UK expertise is driving forward new tech innovations which will allow us to deliver everything from advanced healthcare to sustainable energy systems. Reliable mobile connectivity is a vital part of our lives, creating new opportunities for people and businesses across the country.

“Some of the biggest names in business and industry have offered their support for this project, serving as a major validation of our position as a global leader in telecoms technology and underpinning our efforts to roll out greater connectivity in every corner of the country.”

To find out more and keep up-to-date on the project, visit: amrc.co.uk/foforan

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