BT aims to reign in industry where connectivity is king

In the latest part of its drive to evolve from a telco to a techco, BT unveils range of 5G-enabled robotics systems and reveals how it is driving the evolution of advanced communications in industrial applications

To support businesses in industry and manufacturing with what it says will be the platforms of the future, BT has unveiled a range of robotics and connectivity systems that it says the sector can rely on.

Making the announcement at its Martlesham Heath research facility, BT said its stake in the ground for the sector was that connectivity and security were the key enablers for the remote management and automation of machines and assets, in particular with private 5G and the internet of things (IoT) unlocking new opportunities and business models.

Marc Overton, managing director of BT’s recently created Division X unit, said: “Connectivity is king and without connectivity, machines don’t communicate – you can’t get the data off them and you can’t make business decisions. So instead of talking about mobile and broadband solutions, I am asking [customers]: who connects your machines? Where are your machines? What condition are your machines in? How productive and sustainable are your machines and how secure are they?

“This is absolutely critical for companies to understand. It all starts with connectivity and all finishes with security. It’s all about productivity and it’s all about efficiency.”

Whether the technological solution is based around 5G, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) or the IoT, BT said the aim was to provide the enterprises that it supports with positive business outcomes and a return on investment.

Looking into the realms of technology for robotics and autonomous systems, BT said it saw a place for its connectivity solutions as fundamentally being able to increase ability and safety, especially in hazardous environments, offering flexibility between human and machine interfaces so that operations become more efficient, with added scalability.

This point was reinforced by BT networks research director Maria Cuevas, who said connectivity was “so much more than sending information from A to B”. She added: “It’s actually about augmenting the capabilities of anything that you’re connecting to the network. Connectivity can power the world of robotics. We are ensuring operational integrity for businesses today – and that’s a real business value delivered to an operation of robots through connectivity.

“Robots need to perform complex tasks and they won’t always know when to perform them. So, combining the power of whatever the processing power of the robot might be, with potentially processing existing anywhere else on the planet – potentially on an edge compute server within the factory, but it could be somewhere on the network or it could be a public cloud – we are able to augment the capabilities of the role of the robot.”

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Overton noted that in addition to the technological capabilities and advantages that can be gained through evolution in the communications solutions that BT supplies, conversations with clients were firmly focused on business transformation and business overcomes. It was all about what you could do differently with the network – and this was bringing into to play different people from organisations. That is to say not just traditional IT-focused decision-makers and those traditionally responsible for procurement, but also CFOs, COOs and now line-of-business managers.

“It’s about how [people] make themselves more efficient and competitive,” said Overton. “It’s not just about connecting stuff, because that’s what the CTO does, or the CIO. They connect systems. But it’s how do you use that to a competitive advantage? How do you reduce the number of people you need to employ? How do you increase your efficiency? How do you increase productivity? Those are business levers and what the lines of business are really excited by.  

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“And what we’re finding is that the CEO is often the one banging the table so that we really get after it. Which is a very different approach and creating, dare I say it, healthy tension with the CEO and the CIO who doesn’t control the levers. The whole issue of who does what on the board is being transformed.”

Overton added: “A CEO or a CIO coming into a board meeting and saying, ‘I re-platform everything and it’s going to cost a number of millions’. He or she needs a business justification to show what the business outcome, the business benefit is at an ROI [return on investment] level. And so he or she has to engage with the lines of business.

“So they need that sponsorship, and they need to educate lines of business that this stuff is not an R&D experiment – it’s not in the science lab. It is actually what has been seen in other sectors, in other countries, in other industries. The conversations we’re having at a more strategic level are really starting to help get visibility. I just see the lights going on.”

But it will be technology that drives the business outcomes and for Cuevas, it comes back to what is available and ready today with 5G. “Even though we tend to talk about speed and latency and capacity, for me, actually, the real difference in 5G is the flexibility that the new architecture provides,” she said. “So you know, that it’s all becoming cloud-native software-based, and what’s behind it is the agility to be able to deploy the right capabilities, the right scale for the right customer and business problems, and to be able to effectively support all the different use cases that businesses you know require.

“I don’t believe there is going to be a single use case that will be the silver bullet for 5G private networks, or robotics or manufacturing, because every customer is different – they have their specific needs, and they are going to need multiple things from us.

“So coming back to what is the killer capability in 5G, for me it is the flexibility to meet all of the different requirements on a single system and to evolve them as well. The network becoming effectively software-driven is enabling us to make it more dynamic and evolving and [for customers] not having to buy a new box from vendor X. Because any more scalable capacity or any new feature, [they are] actually able to evolve it all the time.”

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