Tailor-less custom-made suits, wines from drone-plucked grapes ... 5G gives IoT teeth
For the first time in her life, Louisa Traore, 29, a private school English-language teacher from Pretoria, South Africa, tried to get a suit custom made. What encouraged her was her presence in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, in East China, and the idea that she can get a suit made without the help of dressmakers.
All she needed to do was stand in an intelligent, sensor-rich, 5G-enabled fitting room. Measurements like that of her waist, wrist circumference and height were taken automatically, without any physical contact, using optical high-tech. The data was then transferred electronically to robot-couturiers back in the factory.
A mightily impressed Traore said: "I can't help but feel all this is like a fairytale. The smart fitting room is like a fairy stick－it has revolutionized tailoring procedure, which used to involve a sales assistant, tailors, factory workers. Now, all their time-intensive tasks can be finished by machines within minutes."
Tech industry insiders said life-enhancing developments are coming to China on the back of innovations in 5G, internet of things or IoT, big data, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, augmented reality and the like.
More specifically, the integration of IoT and 5G is promising to spawn a plethora of lifestyle-transforming applications across several industries. IoT refers to the internet-linked network of smartphones, wearables, industrial machines, kitchen appliances and similar devices.
Liu Duo, president of the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology, a government-backed research institute, said the advancement of 5G has greatly boosted applications for the IoT in the country.
"In the 5G era, IoT will be dominant. It has made the 'internet of everything' a reality," Liu said at the World IoT Expo 2019 which ended last month in Wuxi.
Just a few years ago, IoT was no more than a mere concept. Since the beginning of this year, however, it has become a mainstream technology, and sped up applications in a wide range of industries, not just in fashion but even in manufacturing, agriculture and healthcare.
For instance, at an intelligent warehouse of menswear major HLA, staff no longer take much time to find the needed garments from a mountain of piled-up clothes. The 5G-enabled IoT dispatches smart robots to identify and clutch the needed, e-tagged garments.
Such innovative applications are also smartening work at vineyards in Wuxi. Farmers no longer need to pluck the grapes. Using a smartphone, they can remote-control unmanned aerial vehicles (or drones) to do their job.
"Such applications have widened mainly due to 5G as it has higher bandwidth and lower latency. 5G can transmit a vast amount of IoT-generated data to users in a jiffy," said Wei Chenguang, deputy president of the China Mobile Research Institute.
In addition, 5G is driving the integration of artificial intelligence, cloud computing and big data toward becoming reality sooner than later, Wei said.
Experts said the past several decades have witnessed the rapid development of IoT in China. A report from the China Economic Information Service said the country's IoT industry reached a market value of 1.2 trillion yuan ($168 billion) last year. And income from services offered by the IoT industry was up 72.9 percent year-on-year (but specific figures were not available).
Charlies Dai, a principal analyst at Forrester, a business strategy and economic consultancy, said favorable government policies and increasingly fierce market competition are driving IoT's evolution in the country.
"The Chinese government has unveiled a string of strategic IoT initiatives for the nation's digital transformation. IoT was also included in its 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20), which will steer China's economic and social development between 2016 and 2020," Dai said.
Such efforts will put China in the driver's seat with respect to the adoption and use of IoT technology, he said. By 2022, China is expected to spend $300 billion annually on IoT and surpass the United States as the world's largest IoT market, said a report from market consultancy IDC.
Last month, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology unveiled a guideline, which urged efforts to accelerate the IoT development and deepen the integration of informatization with industrialization.
"China is opening a new window on the development of large-scale IoT and also creating an opportune period for related parties to map out and gain a lead in the field," said Wang Zhijun, vice-minister of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
Wang said the ministry will ramp up efforts in nurturing sectors such as the industrial internet and will help link needs with the demand to drive commercialization of IoT.
Accenture said in a report that IoT promotion will bring new opportunities to the manufacturing sector. It will greatly boost the sector's management and efficiency. It will also facilitate the transformation of traditional manufacturing industries.
The industrial internet, for instance, has witnessed rapid development in the past few years, and the assembly and production lines have started to take root in the country.
"Accelerated steps on the industrial internet are of significance to China's advanced manufacturing amid fierce competition from abroad," said Yang Chunli, a researcher at the China Center for Information Industry Development, a Beijing-based think tank.
The MIIT estimated there are more than 50 industrial internet platforms with regional or sector-wide influence in the country. Also, an increasing number of applications are being commercialized with each platform owning 1,500 apps on average.
Many existing Chinese companies have already beefed up their presence and gained momentum in the industrial internet segment, with improved efficiency and management via introduction of new technologies in the assembly lines.
For instance, SAIC Maxus Automotive Co, a subsidiary of carmaker SAIC Motor Co, allows customers to customize vehicles on their platforms with the help of the industrial internet.
Wang Rui, vice-president of SAIC Maxus, said the company's compound annual growth rate has risen by over 60 percent because of the platform, despite the overall downturn in the global vehicle industry.
CosmoPlat, another industrial internet platform widely considered a global leader in smart manufacturing, is playing an important role in large-scale customization of the manufacturing sector.
The platform, developed by Chinese home appliance giant Haier Group, allows the industrial internet to engage in every step of manufacturing, from design to sales.
In addition to making Haier's own factories more flexible, the company said at the Wuxi conference that the industrial internet system is empowering companies by bringing them closer to consumers and suppliers.
Data showed the platform has attracted 320 million users and 3.9 million enterprises covering electronics, textiles, equipment, construction, transportation and chemical engineering.
Though 5G has given an edge to China in IoT development, Zou Debao, a senior analyst from CCID Consulting, which is part of the MIIT, said large-scale commercialization of IoT needs more efforts and does not depend only on 5G.
"It is not fair to say that the commercialization of 5G network can bring real economic benefits to the large-scale use of IoT," Zou said, adding that it acts like a supporting role rather than a decisive one.
To enable large-scale IoT applications, more accelerated efforts are needed to develop independent upstream sensors and apply them soon in the sector, Zou noted. "In addition, the IoT industry also requires concerted efforts of telecom carriers and product suppliers to promote it."