From AI to drones: dedicated 4G network will connect four ‘factories of the future’
London, 25 January 2022: British Sugar and Virgin Media O2 Business have switched on a first-of-its kind private mobile network, spanning multiple factory sites across a large geographical area. The new private network will provide dedicated, secure 4G connectivity for all of British Sugar’s manufacturing facilities, as part of a major ‘factories of the future’ upgrade.
The custom-built private O2 4G network has been created to give British Sugar the reliable, speedy and secure connectivity it needs to implement next-generation manufacturing techniques at all four of its sites, spanning three counties. The network will connect multiple IoT (Internet of Things) devices, which means British Sugar will be able to revolutionise its production process, introducing innovations like artificial intelligence (AI), automated production lines, robotics and drones. This will help increase productivity, boost efficiency and also improve health and safety on site.
Following a multi-million-pound investment, British Sugar will create four ‘factory of the future’ sites, automating the manufacturing process for sugar and other co-products. Part of this will be relying on AI to monitor operations in real time and predict maintenance and potential downtime in advance. This reduces disruption, cuts down on wastage and can deliver cost and energy savings – helping avoid unnecessary emissions. Using a 4G private network also makes for increased security and control, and enables seamless, high-bandwidth connectivity in a complex factory setting where introducing WiFi is challenging (due to a highly metallic factory environment with a requirement for both indoor and outdoor coverage).
The private network switch-on is part of a major smart upgrade to British Sugar’s factories, delivered through a seven-year partnership with Virgin Media O2 Business – which has brought in Nokia as a strategic partner on the project. As part of this, British Sugar will fully embrace the Industry 4.0 ecosystem, with more than 15 different digital manufacturing use cases in plan. The new private network has been designed to be future-ready and easily upgradable to 5G where necessary, as British Sugar looks to introduce more complex processes that will benefit from the higher speeds and lower latency of 5G. This includes robotics to streamline production even further, automated (driverless) ground vehicles, and connected drones that can cover a large area and can monitor tall structures such as silos and lime kilns remotely and safely.
Paul Hitchcock, Head of Factory Organisation at British Sugar, said: “We have been very pleased to work with Virgin Media O2 Business to install and launch our private mobile networks – the first of which is now live at our Wissington site in Norfolk. This work will help us progress in our ‘Factories of the Future’ project, using the latest technology to ensure that our sites are operating as efficiently as possible.”
Jo Bertram, Managing Director, at Virgin Media O2 Business, said: “Announcing the switch-on of the first multi-site private mobile network is a huge milestone for us at Virgin Media O2 Business, but it’s also a significant step for British manufacturing as a whole – taking us that bit closer to Industry 4.0, and all the benefits this offers. Private networks like these are a big part of building the connected factories of the future, so British manufacturing can keep pace with the rest of the world. By continuing to invest in smart tech, connectivity and innovation – and with a 5G upgrade in the plans – British Sugar is blazing a trail for the industry. We couldn’t be prouder to be their trusted partner.”
Chris Johnson, Head, Global Enterprise Business at Nokia, says: “By working in partnership with Virgin Media O2 Business, we’re enabling industry leaders such as British Sugar to innovate and modernise its processes by leveraging the capabilities of private mobile networks across multiple factory sites. Our secure, low-latency, high-capacity and extensible Nokia DAC solution combined with Virgin Media O2 Business’ managed services expertise creates the best platform for manufacturers to start their digital transformation journey, implement new innovative use cases and seamlessly upgrade to 5G as and when required dictated by business need, whether alongside 4G or replacing it – ultimately allowing these businesses to reap the benefits of Industry 4.0 early and for years to come.”
The 4G private network is now operational at British Sugar’s Wissington site in Norfolk, and benefits are already being realised. Nick Smalley, Programme Manager at British Sugar commented: “During testing we were encouraged by the early results seen and as we have begun to roll out the targeted priority use cases to our users, they have been quick to feedback the time savings they have seen – with new plant commissioning, plant testing and day-to-day diagnostic processes being highlighted in particular.”
The new private network will also provide connectivity across British Sugar’s other factories: Cantley in Norfolk, Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, and Newark in Nottinghamshire. It will cover a total area of 2.17km2.