In a new paper, the Progressive Policy Institute, working with the National Spectrum Consortium, projects that applications of 5G will create 309,000 manufacturing jobs in the United States over the next 15 years. That’s only a small part of the 4.6 million jobs that 5G is expected to create over that period, according to the paper, “The Third Wave: How 5G Will Drive Job Growth Over the Next Fifteen Years,” which I co-authored with Elliott Long.
The application of 5G to manufacturing is especially important because the new communications technology has the potential to jumpstart a lagging sector. Yes, it feels funny to call manufacturing a lagging sector, but that’s the only way to describe it. Even before the pandemic, labor productivity decreased in 18 of the 21 NAICS 3-digit manufacturing industries in 2019, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Output grew at a crawl.
The benefit of 5G is that it allows a much faster digitization of the physical transformation processes that lie at the heart of manufacturing. A 2019 McKinsey analysis observed that “[f]or decades, factory automation has relied on programmable logic controllers (PLCs) that were physically installed on (or very near) the machines they controlled, and then hard-wired into computer networks to ensure precise, reliable control under extreme conditions. If 5G consistently meets its performance promises, the PLC could be virtualized in the cloud, enabling machines to be controlled wirelessly in real time at a fraction of the current cost.” Not only will costs be lower, but flexibility will be improved.
In 2018, the domestic manufacturing sector spent $8 billion on telecom and broadcast services, according to figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That may seem like a lot, but it’s only about 0.1% of the total value of manufacturing output. Manufacturers are just now figuring out how to use wireless on their factory floors to boost competitiveness and create jobs.
Part of the problem is that previous generations of wireless just did not have the capabilities to handle the volume of data and the reliability needs of manufacturing. Accelerating the application of 5G to manufacturing and other physical industries should be a top goal of policymakers in 2021.