COVID-19 Could Accelerate Wireless Industry 4.0

Ed Gubbins – Principal Analyst

Summary Bullets:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic could accelerate investment in wireless solutions for the digital, ‘big data’ transformation of enterprise verticals sometimes called ‘Industry 4.0.’
  • Changes made in response to both social distancing and recession-induced workforce reductions could last long after the threat of the virus subsides.

The COVID-19 global pandemic is already expected to transform society in fundamental and irrevocable ways that we can’t yet fully predict. One effect of this transformation may be to accelerate initiatives to deploy cellular network technologies, such as LTE and 5G, to fundamentally reorder industrial operations across a range of enterprise verticals. This trend is already underway, as enterprises investigate the benefits of wireless networks that provide more reliability, and lower latency, than WiFi. However, the sudden and severe disruption that COVID-19 has wrought could force near-term changes among enterprises that lead to lasting practices. For example:

  • General Automation: Factories that were once filled with human employees are no longer safe working environments in a pandemic, forcing a sudden production halt for many companies. Factory and industrial-site managers will need to explore their options for using robots to revive production, and those that had already considered automating some factory operations are likely to fast-track those efforts now. Mobile robots, which can be especially helpful in moving parts and inventory, can’t practically be connected via cable, and WiFi best-effort connections aren’t reliable enough to trust with this function; therefore, cellular technologies like LTE and 5G will be useful. Even stationary robots will benefit from wireless connections, because – especially in the uncertain environment of a pandemic – factory managers will want the flexibility to reconfigure their production spaces quickly without having to re-do cabling. In addition, wireless connectivity makes it easier for companies to explore the use of numerous sensors to optimize everything from inventory and maintenance to energy efficiency and security.
  • Remote Maintenance/Inspection: As human resources are stretched thin and employees are confined to their homes, more companies are likely to investigate using wireless technologies to enable remote inspection of facilities and equipment that was once done in person by humans. This concept is already being tested by the oil and gas industry, in which drones are being used to remotely inspect pipelines, flare stacks, and other assets in places that aren’t easy for humans to reach. But in a pandemic, a common factory floor can become an inhospitable environment for humans, greatly expanding the need for drones.
  • Public Safety/Smart Cities: As more government investment is devoted to ensuring the safety of citizens from the virus, having rich data on public activity and mobility will be greatly useful. We have already seen, to some extent, how useful existing cellular networks can be in providing that data; for example, mobile network data analytics have been used to gauge how well people are adhering to social distancing. Going forward, some cities may want more tailored solutions that use mobile networks or wireless technologies to gain greater visibility into, and influence over, public activity.
  • Downsizing for an Economic Downturn: Beyond the virus’s direct effects – such as the need for social distancing – are the ripple effects, including an economic recession that will force widespread downsizing of companies across many industries. Companies that are forced to downsize their human workforces will be eager to find ways to make up for lost productivity by automating whichever tasks they can. That automation can be enabled in part by wireless networks, for the reasons described above.

The COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly spark significant changes in society, government, and industry before it subsides as a public health threat. Once it does subside, some of the changes made during the pandemic period may fade away with it, but some will surely remain. The use of wireless Industry 4.0 solutions ushered in by the virus is likely to be lasting because (a) it will educate industries on the value of these wireless solutions and (b) industries that made investments in these solutions will want to monetize the investments they made – and the lessons they learned – for as long as possible.

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