by Rowan Litter | 01/08/2021
If you are ever driving through farmland, construction or forestry sites or even by a neighbor who enjoys keeping their lawn in tip-top shape, then you will recognize the iconic image of a yellow buck across a green background, the logo of Deere & Company, better known as John Deere. John Deere specializes in manufacturing agricultural, construction, and forestry machinery equipped with advanced technology. These products would not be possible without efficient manufacturing facilities, and as more advanced technologies rollout each year, John Deere is recognizing the need for modernization in manufacturing and a transition to “Industry 4.0.” Much of this modernization requires strong, secure and reliable connectivity, especially on the shop floor. Traditionally, the technologies in John Deere’s facilities have connected through WiFi networks and extensive routes of Ethernet that run throughout the facility infrastructure. However, when the company heard that the FCC had approved the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band as additional spectrum for commercial licensing, John Deere saw an opportunity to develop private networks enabling their manufacturing plants to become connected smart factories. When discussing John Deere’s plans to purchase licensed spectrum for five manufacturing facilities in last summer’s CBRS PAL auction, Manager of Advanced Manufacturing Innovation, Craig Sutton, said they knew two things going into the auction, “we are going to be adding more connected devices on the shop floor and we foreshadow that this will continue to accelerate…the other thing that we knew is that the type of data that we collect is going to be more complex. We are starting to see the need to collect audio and video analytics, or collect data on robots, more efficiently and do more real-time instantaneous feeds of information to optimize productivity for decision-makers in the factory.”
There were a few different routes Sutton and his team considered as they were thinking of the networking future of John Deere’s facilities. One direction was to expand the current deployment of WiFi and Ethernet. Running more Ethernet can be expensive to scale and it is complex, adding more wires which reduces flexibility. Upgrading to WiFi 6 is another path the company was considering, but this would not be a solve-all solution. Therefore, the company is looking to complement the existing networks in these facilities with a private network on the CBRS band, which provides higher bandwidth and reduced latency that will help prepare John Deere manufacturing to deploy 5G in the future. As Sutton states, “we already flood our factory floors with WiFi drop points. We are also up against the limits of current WiFi and we are already seeing some limitations, particularly in rural areas that lack access to connectivity. So we knew that Ethernet and WiFi alone might not be the infrastructure that would give us the ability to meet that future vision and accelerate the availability of 5G.”
As stated earlier, a driving force for adopting licensed spectrum in John Deere’s manufacturing is to support the implementation of more advanced devices and technologies into operations. These devices include smart phones, ‘walkie-talkies’, connected torque wrenches, switch devices, Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines, milling machines, and robots on the shop floor. In addition, private networks could enable emerging technologies of interest to enhance a variety of applications such as camera vision machine learning (CVML) that can analyze video data in real-time, remotely controlling machines through the cloud, and processing massive data in real-time to create actionable insights. Sutton sees the potential of these technologies as, “How awesome would that be if you are a factory manager, and not only do you see how your factory is running, but you have a version of a crystal ball about here are how things are going to change in the next few hours.” Some of the facilities in which these networks will be deployed have outdoor space as well and the company aims to incorporate seamless connection throughout both settings. VDC’s upcoming report, Private LTE in the Enterprise, explores the private LTE market and more application opportunities for CBRS/Private LTE across multiple sectors.
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