In the past decade, warehousing technology has made significant leaps. Industry experts often point to cloud computing, wearable devices, or even advancements made in large machinery. While all these developments have culminated in more organized, more productive warehouses, there are some emerging trends such as wireless connectivity that could take center stage in the years ahead.
Wireless connectivity technologies may not get as much attention as wearables for augmented reality or an autonomous forklift. However, they offer foundational support for warehouses to remain at or reach peak efficiency.
Wireless connectivity is the foundation for warehouses to advance with automation. Here is a look at what to know about connectivity in the industry and where it's headed.
Current warehouses have weaknesses
The Wi-Fi that many warehouses use is on a fixed infrastructure, so any physical obstacles that come between the router and the device can block the signal. These obstructions to the reception can lead to machinery not being able to perform at its highest capability.
In many circumstances, Wi-Fi may be able to function, yet can fail in locations notorious for poor reception.
Many of the essential items in a warehouse actually hinder Wi-Fi connectivity and robot functionality. For example, Wi-Fi cannot “see” through large machinery, racks, or walls.
As wireless technology improves to overcome these limitations, operators will notice many of the same productivity increases that have been seen in other industries.
At the other extreme, range can pose a huge problem as well. In a vast warehouse, if a signal cannot extend down a long corridor, the machines at the end of this hallway will not be able to connect. Warehouse managers are looking for solutions to both obstruction and range.
M2M capabilities expand vastly
Machine-to-machine (M2M) wireless connectivity aims to alleviate some of the challenges of traditional fixed infrastructure. Options such as fiber-optic cables, Ethernet, cell towers, and wireless access points may lead to recurring complications in the warehouse.
When these fixed infrastructure elements attempt to send signals through fixed objects, the line of sight (LOS) can become compromised, and maintaining a connection can be unsuccessful.
Creating a sturdy LOS warehouse-wide requires establishing an ecosystem for M2M devices to communicate and coordinate. This could vastly improve the safety and efficiency of shop-floor workers and greatly decrease the prospect of robots harming people or other equipment.
The shift from 5G to mesh networks
There is a common view that 5G will forge the way for wireless connectivity in the years to come. While the applications for home use and other well-contained locations may make this viable, the same cannot be said for large or cavernous workplaces.
They include open fields, underground mines, or warehouses. Using 5G in warehouses is like transmitting Morse code. Much like the way Morse code sends out a signal in dots and dashes in a direction, 5G sends a singular message in one direction as well.
A mesh network is an alternative that allows each transmitter and receiver in the sequence to listen and to simultaneously send out signals to the next in line. With a kinetic mesh network, the message stays intact, and the process is much faster, similar to one-on-one direct messaging online.
By deploying network nodes across the warehouse, reception can remain uninterrupted, and LOS can remain unbroken as a result of the signal passing through multiple touchpoints. Mesh networks also allow shop-floor managers to do an array of predictive maintenance on their robots and machinery before they have the chance to break down.
Connectivity of the future
An effective M2M communications ecosystem calls for a minimization of disruptions and reduction of errors across the warehouse. Smooth and sturdy networks capable of upholding and providing for the infrastructure within the warehouse can achieve this goal.
The wireless technology that underpins people, machines, and devices is the lifeblood of the warehouse, and without it, robots and warehouses can come to a grinding halt.
About the author
For more than 25 years, Todd Rigby has been deploying communications systems and technologies across multiple industries. He has successfully helped numerous companies with various digitization and Industry 4.0 initiatives. These efforts have improved safety, productivity, asset utilization, and output, he said.
Rigby has firsthand experience with many different communication technologies and their application to various industrial use cases. He is the subject-matter expert in the U.S. for mining, heavy construction, agriculture, material processing, manufacturing and warehousing at Rajant Corp., a leading industrial wireless mesh networking company.
Rigby has helped to develop Rajant's partner sales channel throughout the U.S., Canada, Central and South America, Australia, and Africa. Before his employment at Rajant, Todd ran a prominent Trimble heavy construction dealer and was Rajant's very first reseller partner.