While the preferred means for implementing 5G protocols are still under discussion, real-world tests are taking place already in limited locations. Full-scale adoption is expected to begin by 2020 and continue for four or five years, according to the Pittsburgh, Pa.-based Matsco.
5G commanded a bright spotlight at January's huge CES 2018 consumer electronics and technology trade fair in Las Vegas (and even more so at CES 2019), with a number of major telecom, mobile-network and hardware brands devoting significant space to the topic on their stands.
One key factor with the new gigahertz frequencies that will be used in 5G networks is that the resulting signals will require a directional line of sight, from point to point. "Because of material absorption at microwave frequencies," Matsco said, "weakened signals will not pass through walls or travel around corners."
Creating new demand
That means there will be a need for a massive number of new microcell towers, routers, and flat-panel arrays with antennas. Each such device will require an antenna, a chip, a chip board and a housing. Matsco estimates the need will be for anywhere from 10 to 100 times the current number of such stations.
These smaller "micro base stations" will be needed in everything from homes and offices to airports, stores and stadiums. This proliferation of network nodes will translate into a need for a corresponding number of network device housings, which has grabbed the attention of firms such as Covestro, the world's biggest supplier of polycarbonate (PC) resins and blends, and of other materials such as polyurethanes, adhesives and coatings.
"These housings are going to need to be either aesthetically pleasing or blend into the environment," says Matsco, noting that they will need to be optimized for signal transmission by being thinner but without sacrificing durability. "They are going to need to last for years."
Just as with the voice-activated smart speakers – such as Amazon Echo or Google Home – some will be used indoors and demand excellent V-0-rated flame retardancy, low smoke density, alluring finishes, and sleek, compact, thin-wall design. Many others will be installed outdoors, requiring toughness and impact resistance, including at low temperatures, and superb resistance to chemicals, weather and ultraviolet light. There are efforts now, for example, to figure out how to seamlessly integrate such antennas into street lights.
Given the volumes required, they will need to be molded, as opposed to machined or fabricated, which tips the scales firmly in favor of plastics over metal, Matsco said. These 5G signals won't be able to communicate through metal, and the electronics inherent in such devices also are likely to need the passive heat management capabilities of advanced plastics such as thermally conductive polycarbonates.
Connected devices offer promise
5G may be hogging the spotlight, but there are numerous connected electrical and electronic applications that also benefit from the properties of materials such as Covestro's Makrolon® PC, Apec® high-heat-resistant PC, and Bayblend® PC/ABS blends.
Drones, for example, need to be durable, lightweight and impact resistant, while also housing electronics that must dissipate heat while compressed in a small form factor. Total drone sales are expected to rise 20 percent in 2018 to reach record highs of 3.7 million units, driving a 17 percent increase in revenue to $1.2 billion, according to the Consumer Technology Association's latest market data.