5G, industrial internet helping transform heavy industries

A worker operates a robotic arm on a houseware production line at a digital workshop in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province, in February. ZHU HAIPENG/FOR CHINA DAILY

The labor-intensive iron and steel industry, as a symbol of the second industrial revolution, was often associated with images of workers toiling away in mills, sweat pouring down their faces.

But now, at a steel company in Xiangtan, Hunan province, a completely different picture is taking shape, which offers a peek into how cutting-edge technologies such as 5G and the industrial internet are transforming the traditional heavy industry.

In the control room of Hunan Valin Xiangtan Iron and Steel Co, four technicians operate joysticks to remotely control bridge cranes moving back and forth in a nearby high-temperature plant. Via a big screen that features a real-time video of plant operations, the employees monitor the processes and all the equipment moves in an orderly fashion.

“Previously, the control center had to be placed within a steel plant to allow it to control the process without a time delay. We had to work in an environment with searing temperatures, loud noises and dust. But all of this has changed due to the 5G network,” said Liu Jiwen, who is in charge of the company’s 5-meter plate production facility.

According to Liu, 5G’s low latency and large bandwidth mean the control center can now be located in a cozy room outside the mill, and one employee can remotely operate multiple bridge cranes simultaneously, significantly boosting efficiency.

The plant is one of the 2,400 5G+industrial internet projects currently under construction in China, as the nation beefs up its industrial upgrade drive in an attempt to facilitate the marriage between digital technologies and traditional sectors.

The industrial internet refers to the convergence of industrial systems with the power of advanced computing, analytics, sensing and new levels of connectivity.

Such jargon used to be only known to telecom industry insiders. But now, the term has wider resonance with people from a wide range of sectors, with front-line workers such as employees at the above Hunan Valin Xiangtan Iron and Steel Co particularly benefiting from the technology.

Thanks to the growing application and integration of 5G and industrial internet technologies, factories in China are increasingly going digital, internet-connected and smart, experts and company executives said.

Using machine vision technologies, automatically inspecting industrial products, or workers harnessing 5G-enabled unmanned electric locomotives in underground mines to carry gold ore are all examples of industrial production becoming more efficient and safer in reality, they added.

Zhao Zhiguo, spokesman for the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the nation’s top industry regulator, said the industrial internet has been applied in 45 sectors such as manufacturing, healthcare, energy, smart ports and mining. It not only helps enterprises boost quality and efficiency as well as reduce costs, but also drives the coordinated and efficient operation of upstream and downstream industrial chains.

“The industrial internet has been widely used in companies’ research and development, design, manufacturing and operation management, with 5G accelerating its influence in key areas of production,” Zhao said at a news conference last month.

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