British Sugar and Virgin Media O2 Business have switched on a first-of-its kind private mobile network providing dedicated, secure 4G connectivity for all of British Sugar’s manufacturing facilities, as part of a major ‘factories of the future’ upgrade.

The custom-built private O2 4G network has been created to give British Sugar the reliable, speedy and secure connectivity it needs to implement next-generation manufacturing techniques at all four of its factory sites, spanning three counties in the UK. The network will connect multiple IoT (Internet of Things) devices, which means British Sugar will be able to revolutionize its production process, introducing innovations like artificial intelligence (AI), automated production lines, robotics and drones. This will help increase productivity, boost efficiency and also improve health and safety on site.

Factory of the future

Following a multi-million-pound investment, British Sugar is creating four ‘factory of the future’ sites, automating the manufacturing process for sugar and other co-products. Part of this will be relying on AI to monitor operations in real time and predict maintenance and potential downtime in advance. This reduces disruption, cuts down on wastage and can deliver cost and energy savings – helping avoid unnecessary emissions. Using a 4G private network also helps increase security and control, and enables seamless, high-bandwidth connectivity in a complex factory setting where introducing WiFi is challenging (due to a highly metallic factory environment with a requirement for both indoor and outdoor coverage).

The private network switch-on is part of a major smart upgrade to British Sugar’s factories, delivered through a seven-year partnership with Virgin Media O2 Business – which has brought in Nokia as a strategic partner on the project. As part of this, British Sugar will fully embrace the Industry 4.0 ecosystem, with more than 15 different digital manufacturing use cases in plan. The new private network has been designed to be future-ready and easily upgradable to 5G where necessary, as British Sugar looks to introduce more complex processes that will benefit from the higher speeds and lower latency of 5G. This includes robotics to streamline production further, automated (driverless) ground vehicles, and connected drones that can cover a large area and can monitor tall structures such as silos and lime kilns remotely and safely.

Paul Hitchcock, Head of Factory Organisation at British Sugar, said: “We have been pleased to work with Virgin Media O2 Business to install and launch our private mobile networks – the first of which is now live at our Wissington site in Norfolk. This work will help us progress our ‘Factories of the Future’ project, using the latest technology to ensure that our sites are operating as efficiently as possible.”

Jo Bertram, Managing Director, at Virgin Media O2 Business, said: “Announcing the switch-on of the first multi-site private mobile network is a huge milestone for us at Virgin Media O2 Business, but it’s also a significant step for British manufacturing as a whole – taking us that bit closer to Industry 4.0, and all the benefits this offers. Private networks like these are a big part of building the connected factories of the future, so British manufacturing can keep pace with the rest of the world. By continuing to invest in smart tech, connectivity and innovation – and with a 5G upgrade in the plans – British Sugar is blazing a trail for the industry. We couldn’t be prouder to be their trusted partner.”

The new private network will provide connectivity across British Sugar’s factories: Cantley in Norfolk, Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, and Newark in Nottinghamshire. It will cover a total area of 2.17km2.

(Press release first published here.)