Ericsson bigs up its first fully-automated smart factory

Kit vendor Ericsson has announced it’s going to build a smart factory in the US to make some of its 5G gear.

This will apparently be Ericsson’s first fully-automated smart factory and is expected to be up and running in early 2020. Since we’re only at the stage of announcing plans half way through 2019, Ericsson might want to get a shift on if it’s going to hit its deadline. This initiative is being positioned as part of a broader US investment strategy announced last year.

So what exactly is a fully-automated smart factory? Do you just flick the switch and leave it to it, go and have a beer, and when you come back pick up all your shiny new gear? It’s probably a bit more complicated than that and inevitably 5G has a big part to play. Fast, secure, reliable wireless communications enable things like automated warehouses, connected logistics and automated assembly, packing and product handling, and the use of autonomous carts.

In other words automation in this context seems to refer to what we generally assume it to mean these days: reducing headcount. Apparently this new factory will only employ around 100 people, which doesn’t seem like a lot, and presumably a lot of them will be there mainly to make sure the machines don’t become self-aware and try to take over the joint.

“We continue to focus on working closely with our customers and supporting them in the buildout of 5G globally and in North America,” said Fredrik Jejdling, Head of Networks at Ericsson. “With today’s announcement, we conclude months of preparations and can move into execution also in the U.S. In addition, we are digitalizing our entire global production landscape, including establishing this factory in the U.S. With 5G connectivity we’re accelerating Industry 4.0, enabling automated factories for the future.”

The new factory will make Advanced Antenna System radios for 5G but it also seems to have symbolic significance on a couple of levels. Firstly, as Jejdling was keen to stress, it shows how into the US Ericsson it, which is very wise since it’s Ericsson’s biggest market and it’s not going to face competition from Huawei or ZTE there anytime soon. Secondly it’s a showcase for smart factory tech in general, which Ericsson is touting as a key 5G use-case. Expect to see stage-managed factory tours in the media by this time next year.

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