Automation and digitization initiatives are occurring in most asset-intensive industries. Supply chains and logistics top the list of those benefiting the most. With the expansion of e-commerce, driven by the global pandemic, the sector has been in the spotlight.
In 2016, a DHL survey relieved that 80% of warehouses were not automated and only 5% were fully automated. Automation in these spaces has since increased; however, the sector still has potential to exploit. Whether adopting full automation or semi-automation, there are core technologies for warehouse operators to begin their digitization journey. The industrial private wireless networks are one of them.
In manual warehouses, there are many redundant, time-consuming tasks that are good candidates for automation. For example, according to Logistics IQ, order picking operations consume more than 50% of the time spent on orders, and only 25% of that time is spent on value-adding order picking operations. The rest of the time is spent on searching (10%), writing (5%) and walking (60%).
The ultimate goal of digitization is for all warehouse subsystems to communicate with each other to provide a complete view of their operations. Automation solutions for these facilities include sorting and grading systems, conveyor belts, storage, retrieval or data capture systems using barcode scanning, and guidance systems to direct automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).
Concrete applications of automation for the transport and logistics industry
Automation of warehouses
Cost pressures, tighter SLAs (service level agreements), booming e-commerce markets and global developments (such as COVID-19) have pushed warehouses to use more robots and automated systems that increase productivity and reduce costs.
2. Internet of things
Situational awareness is vital within a warehouse. This is achieved with a large number of connected sensors that measure and monitor temperature, energy consumption, health of workers and machines, and much more!
3. Digital twin and advanced analytics
Leveraging information gathered from data sources within the warehouse and the entire supply chain helps companies create a digital twin of operations. Advanced analytics improve operational decision making and productivity.
4. Global asset tracking and condition monitoring.
This is vital for knowing the estimated time of arrival of assets at warehouses, diagnosing supply chains with opportunities for improvement, and offering additional services to customers, such as visibility throughout the supply chain. Accurate location inside warehouses unleashes a multitude of asset and personnel tracking and tracing use cases.
Starting point: connectivity
Thinking strategically, a good starting point is connectivity. Almost all digital technologies require robust, reliable and predictable connectivity in order to connect tablets, sensors, robots and employees to cloud-based software systems that analyze and optimize workflow.
Connectivity is a key part of the digital platform, which, along with the cloud configuration, must be ready to support the various use cases and applications that will come down the road. Activity in many warehouses and logistics centers tends to be highly changeable and they need a flexible network that adapts.
For third-party logistics operators, configurations often change with vendor contracts. This type of agility and flexibility will require robust wireless coverage, complemented by wired networks for fixed infrastructure.
Until recently, wireless technology options have had limitations in terms of performance, reliability and compatibility with an end-to-end automated warehouse. Operators have long relied on private radio, such as TETRA or P25, for voice communications, but these systems are incapable of handling data or video.
Sensor networks use narrowband protocols that consume little bandwidth and support low-power sensors over short distances, such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) for geolocation, medium-distance mesh networks such as Zigbee, or longer distances, with LPWAN technologies such as Sigfox for sensors. None of these technologies, however, can transfer more than very small amounts of data.
For higher bandwidth data applications, the main wireless technology has been WiFi. The recently standardized WiFi 6 offers a performance improvement over WiFi 5 and supports an increasing range of devices, but it only supports mobility at walking speed and is therefore not a good solution for AGVs, for example. WiFi technology can overcome some of these shortcomings, but it is expensive. It takes a lot of engineering to understand how WiFi signals will propagate in a typical warehouse.
A convergent communications network
Over the last decade, industries have used LTE cellular technology as an alternative to all of these wireless technologies. Both 4.9G/LTE and 5G support high-bandwidth applications currently covered by WiFi, but also support high-speed mobility and better coverage than WiFi. This is especially important for warehouses with high ceilings and outdoors, environments where WiFi coverage is difficult to design for.
4.9G is the latest version of the LTE wireless standard, which is already used in many asset-intensive use cases in industry. Any enterprise can install a private wireless network based on 4.9G/LTE or 5G, just as they could install a WiFi network. Small cell access points are similar in size to a WiFi access point, although fewer are needed to provide coverage for an indoor or outdoor space. They can be connected via Ethernet or, in remote outdoor locations, by point-to-point microwave.
A private wireless network differs from WiFi in that it has a central system, which provides the necessary functionality to manage and operate the entire network. The mobile gateway processes user data traffic and determines the quality of service (QoS) for devices and applications. It assigns the IP address to the devices and performs the integration between the private wireless network, the Internet and any other network.
Industry 4.0 digitization and automation is being adopted in many industries, from manufacturing and rail to aviation and ports. Many of these technologies are being used for other applications, such as autonomous vehicles and robots, remote control of machinery, the use of IoT sensors and data analytics to optimize processes and do everything from setting maintenance schedules to identifying safety issues.
Digital transformation means something different for every company. It is important to understand the objectives and develop a long-term digital strategy to achieve them.