Ericsson invests $50M in ‘open RAN ready’ 5G factory – Fierce Network

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  • Ericsson is investing $50 million to expand its Texas factory

  • During a tour, we saw production in action and heard about open RAN, AI and more

  • An AT&T exec present at the event also discussed the operator’s network plans

Ericsson is expanding its four-year-old 5G factory in Texas in order to accelerate U.S. production of radios and baseband units in the face of rising demand for its kit. Interestingly, Ericsson stated most of the equipment produced at its flagship facility in Lewisville, Texas is “open RAN ready.”

The vendor invited media and analysts to tour its expanded 5G factory, which was built just before the COVID-19 pandemic with a $100 million investment and immediately began production of mmWave radio equipment. Now, Ericsson is investing an additional $50 million to expand the production of massive MIMO radios and open RAN compute hardware.

Production manager Matt Hume said Ericsson wants to be able to capture all the 5G infrastructure demand of the Tier 1 North American operators. AT&T most notably recently inked a $14 billion contract with Ericsson, but an operator executive present during the recent tour indicated AT&T is planning to give some of its radio business to another vendor.

5G building blocks

Before we get into that though, come have a look around with us. 

The factory operates 24/7 and employs roughly 160 floor workers and 500 people altogether. Roughly 20 people were working on the floor during our tour of a surface mount assembly line.

We watched the production of circuit boards for Ericsson’s massive MIMO radios. The boards are lightweight but large – about as wide and tall as the door of a mini-fridge. Hume said the assembly of each one involves tens of thousands of components sourced from various partners and countries. The brains of the boards are Ericsson’s custom application specific integrated circuits (ASICS), designed in Austin, Texas, about 220 miles south of the Lewisville 5G factory.

The boards travel down an assembly line comprised of massive machines made by a variety of manufacturers. Ericsson engineers write custom code to enable the machines to work together. The pick and place machines automatically place components onto the boards, moving them from side to side horizontally so that one side can pick while the other side places. Once all the components are soldered into place the boards head into a giant oven that bakes them at about 400 degrees Fahrenheit to seal all connections.

Robotic arms put the finishing touches on the boards after they emerge from the oven. Hume said that although several parts of the process have been automated this year, the staff size has remained the same. He said that since the factory’s processes are always changing, he doesn’t like to hire people with traditional manufacturing backgrounds, but prefers to find workers who bring an open mind.

Ericsson has also developed its own training process for the factory workers. Employees work in teams, and Hume said his fastest team to date is a group of 11 who joined Ericsson together after leaving their jobs at a local burrito restaurant.

In addition to stationery robots on the assembly lines, Ericsson uses automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and automated mobile robots (AMRs) to move supplies and equipment on the floor. Employees tell these robots where to start and finish their errands, and the machines find their own way without the benefit of a wireless network connection.

Private 5G networks

A private 5G network has played a key role in the factory’s sustainability efforts, which have won international recognition.

Two mmWave radios are mounted on the factory ceiling and Hume said the team temporarily connects various pieces of equipment to the private 5G network as needed. The factory also has a private CBRS network which connects building systems such as HVAC, lighting and water. This year both private 5G networks will transition to C-Band spectrum, Hume said.

Feedback from the building systems connected to the CBRS network has enabled the factory to reduce energy consumption by 25% and water usage by 75%, according to factory head Daniela Pires. She said Ericsson has the only factory in North America to win both LEED Gold Certification and to also be designated as a Sustainability Lighthouse by the World Economic Forum.

After the factory tour, Ericsson shared information about private networks developed for customers using hardware and software made by its subsidiary Cradlepoint. Cradlepoint CMO Donna Johnson highlighted private 5G networks built for Toyota Materials Handling, Cummins and Hitachi, and noted that the Toyota network uses CBRS spectrum.

Open RAN ready

“The majority of our products that we produce here are open RAN-ready,” Pires told the audience, underscoring the commitment Ericsson made to AT&T when it secured a $14 billion contract to update the operator’s network with open RAN gear.

During the event, AT&T SVP and CTO Technology for Network Services Igal Elbaz joined Ericsson Group CTO and SVP Erik Ekudden onstage to discuss open RAN.

Elbaz said AT&T’s open RAN initiative has four pillars: open hardware, cloud migration for distributed units, introduction of new radios from new vendors, and a single platform management layer that can orchestrate hardware and software from multiple vendors.

The open hardware refers to the open interface equipment Ericsson is building. Elbaz reminded the audience that AT&T wants 70% of its network traffic on open interfaces by the end of 2026.

The migration to cloud RAN is beginning, with a handful of cloud RAN sites already live south of Dallas. Elbaz said attempts to bring cloud infrastructure into telco central offices had been disappointing, so the approach has changed.

“We have gone into regional zones for a couple of the big cloud providers,” Elbaz said.

Ericsson developed the cloud RAN sites for AT&T, and Elbaz said Ericsson will remain AT&T’s single Distributed Unit (DU) vendor for now.

“On the DU side, the baseband side, we are walking with Ericsson,” Elbaz said. “That is our plan for the next couple of years.”

Mixing it up

On the Radio Unit (RU) side, AT&T is preparing to invite other vendors to its network.

The operator already named Fujitsu as a partner when it announced its $14 billion open RAN investment. Elbaz noted: “We are speaking with various radio vendors and will announce something probably later this year.”

Elbaz said an announcement about the platform management layer could also come this year. Ericsson is AT&T’s primary vendor for this part of its network.

Open RAN will make it easier for application developers to access the network, Elbaz said. “People should have a place where they can come and pitch their idea and put their application on top of the architecture,” he said. “Ericsson started to build the architecture, and I was amazed by the number of engagements already … we have seen a couple of interesting things around generative AI.”

The role of AI

“AI is already everywhere in the networks, enabling new levels of automation and performance, including energy savings,” said Ericsson’s Ekudden. He listed AI-based air interfaces, context aware sensing and AI-assisted positioning as three current applications, and said AI would be a much bigger part of 6G.

Elbaz said AI could also have a role to play in dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). “You cannot ignore the fact that in some way or shape you are going to have DSS,” Elbaz said. “That’s another way these [AI applications] can help.”

Operators still don’t know what AI will do to the demand side of their businesses. Asked how the technology will impact bandwidth requirements, Elbaz replied “That has yet to be seen.”

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