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British Sugar Wissington and Virgin Media O2 Business launch UK's first multi-site private mobile 4G network with Nokia

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A West Norfolk factory is a pioneering partner to switching on the first multi-site private mobile network of its kind in the UK.

The network is now operational at British Sugar’s Wissington site and will provide dedicated, secure 4G connectivity for all of the firm’s manufacturing facilities, as part of a major ‘factories of the future’ upgrade encompassing drones and 'AI'.

British Sugar has teamed up with Nokia and Virgin Media O2 Business to switch on a first-of-its kind private mobile network, spanning multiple factory sites across a large geographical area connecting Norfolk, Suffolk and Nottinghamshire.

British Sugar Wissington site.
British Sugar Wissington site.

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 sites.

The network will connect multiple IoT (Internet of Things) devices, which means British Sugar will be able to revolutionise 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.

Following a multi-million-pound investment, British Sugar will create 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 makes for increased security and control in a complex factory setting where introducing WiFi is challenging due to a highly metallic environment.

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 easily upgradable to 5G where necessary, as British Sugar looks to introduce more complex processes. This includes robotics to streamline production even 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 very 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 in 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: “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.”

Chris Johnson, head, global enterprise business at Nokia, added: “By working in partnership with Virgin Media O2 Business, we’re enabling industry leaders such as British Sugar to innovate and modernise its processes.”

The 4G network is now operational at Wissington, and benefits are already being realised.

Nick Smalley, programme manager at British Sugar, commented: “During testing we were encouraged by the early results seen and as we have begun to roll out the targeted priority use cases to our users, they have been quick to feedback the time savings they have seen – with new plant commissioning, plant testing and day-to-day diagnostic processes being highlighted in particular.”

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

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