John Deere Sows the Seeds for Private 5G

The company plans to run its own cell networks for its wireless factories

3 min read

aerial view of large building complex

An aerial view of John Deere Harvester Works, Deere’s combine factory located in East Moline, IL.

John Deere

It’s been almost four years since Qualcomm and other telecommunications companies started hyping 5G networks for factory deployments. In Moline, Ill., heavy machinery manufacturer John Deere is finally turning that hype to reality inside a factory that churns out its X9 1100 combine. The agricultural giant plans to roll out a private 5G network next year in this plant, and has already designed its own 4G LTE network from the ground up to get familiar with running its own private cellular network.

Unlike many other companies testing 4G and 5G networks in their manufacturing facilities, Deere will control as much of its deployment as it can—it will both own the airwaves and operate the cellular network. Most companies deploying private cellular networks have elected to use a telecommunications equipment provider or a carrier to manage their network.

Deere has not. Instead, it spent half a million dollars on 50 megahertz of spectrum in five U.S. counties where it has manufacturing plants, and has boosted its networking staff by about 20 percent—teaching newcomers and existing networking staff how to manage both Wi-Fi and cellular deployments.

This way, Deere gets its own private telecommunications network that employees can secure and manage, giving priority to certain types of traffic over others. Security was a big reason behind Deere's decision to operate its own network because the company saw a market advantage in managing the cellular network using the same security principles it uses in its enterprise network.

Deere has combined two big stories happening in the manufacturing sector. The first is the shift from wired to wireless factory infrastructure, and the second is the switch to a private cellular network. Deere has moved from about 85 to 90 percent of its factory connections having wired Ethernet—with the rest using Wi-Fi infrastructure—to a private LTE network. It plans to upgrade the LTE network next year to 5G.

Tracy Schrauben, a manufacturing emerging technologies manager at John Deere who handles the operations technology, said that the company moved from wired to wireless to help cut costs, add more sensors, and reduce the time it takes to rearrange work stations when manufacturing needs change. Avoiding the need to drop an Ethernet cable can save two weeks on a model changeover.

Having wireless connectivity can also make it easier to deploy sensors where it may have once been impossible. Deere is adding wireless sensors to welding stations and using newly collected data from those stations to help build an algorithm to ensure “perfect” welds on each piece. With use cases like this in the future, Schrauben said that Wi-Fi “simply could not keep up with the demands” she anticipates having in the future. Her colleague on the IT side, Jason Wallin, principal architect at John Deere, said that he plans on boosting the number of wireless sensors by 200 percent.

Plus, switching to wireless has already cut costs. Wallin says the current cellular network cost about 75 percent of the wired infrastructure it replaced. Some of that is in equipment savings, as the entire LTE network replaced 100 Wi-Fi access points with 14 LTE microcells. Wallin says those microcells are more than the plant currently needs, but the number of devices on each cell will only increase.

Schrauben and Wallin are ready to begin the 5G deployment, but they are still waiting on more supported devices. Today equipment vendors are selling the microcells, but finding equipment that operates on the particular spectrum band Deere purchased and uses 5G radios can be tough.

Analysts expect private telecom networks to become popular in more factory and enterprise environments as other companies seek the security and flexibility that Deere has found. Telecom analyst firm Analysys Mason expects that the number of private 4G and 5G networks will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 65 percent between 2021 and 2027 to reach 39,000 total networks worldwide and spending of US $7.7 billion in 2027.

Private 5G for manufacturing is expected to get a boost in the coming few years because of the June launch of new 5G features designed for the Internet of Things. In June, 3GPP, the standards organization behind cellular 5G, approved Release 17 of the 5G standard. This means that equipment makers, chip firms, and end-device companies can now incorporate these features into devices. Release 17 will help make 5G work better for constrained devices that don’t have the battery and computing power of handsets and laptops, offer real-time location for devices on the network, provide prioritization through time-sensitive networking, and more.

Schrauben is especially excited about real-time location tracking for devices, but also acknowledges that it will be a few years before she can count on a huge number of sensors and handheld equipment that will support the standard. And thanks to Deere’s owning its network, she’ll be in control when the agricultural giant deploys it.

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