Why 5G is the Secret to a Successful Warehouse Automation Strategy

March 21, 2024
As warehouses become increasingly automated, they need reliable and flexible connectivity to integrate automated systems while bolstering security and having the capacity to scale.

Though warehouse automation provides across-the-board benefits to manufacturers—ranging from lower costs to increased productivity—in some warehouse environments a critical component to ensuring its long-term success is missing. That component is reliable connectivity. 

At the granular level, warehouses are harsh environments for wireless networks. Wireless networking technology like Wi-Fi often requires more access points as the size of the space increases. This is a major challenge as the average size of warehouses continues to balloon. Additionally, the complex network of beams, steel racks and posts in most warehouses can create “dead zones” that prevent access to a reliable Wi-Fi signal. 

To achieve seamless connectivity with the growing number of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), forklifts, tablets, security cameras and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices, operators are turning to 5G due to its ability to offer more bandwidth and lower latency compared to Wi-Fi. According to a report by Vecna Robotics, which surveyed more than 1,000 supply chain professionals across industries, 5G tops the list of high-priority technologies. According to the survey, 41% of respondents are planning to implement 5G technology. 

5G offers several possibilities for warehouse operators looking to digitally transform their operations. Following are a few key benefits operators can expect to see from the use of 5G communications in a warehouse: 

Real-time software and data updates: Successful automated operations hinge on the ability to collect data from an array of automation devices to gain meaningful insights into their business processes. Many warehouses that continue to use legacy Wi-Fi find that such networks are not sufficient to support real-time software and data updates without significant downtime periods. With 5G’s high speed connectivity and lower latency, warehouses can not only instantly deliver updates to technology such as AMRs, but also scale quickly as business needs grow. 

Built-in security protections: As warehouses and other industrial operations become more connected, they have increasingly become targets of cyberattacks. According to the latest research from Statista, the average cost of a data breach in the U.S. is now $9.48 million dollars, and breaches are on the rise as attackers grow more sophisticated in their methods. Warehouse operators need to implement security controls in their warehouses to secure critical company data being shared in real-time or risk being victimized next. Private 5G networks add another layer of security due to their complex network of firewalls and encryption and provide built-in security protocols that can regulate access to legacy devices and safeguard their data by ensuring only approved members can connect to the network. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, which operates with an unmanaged and unlicensed structure, can leave systems exposed and introduce security vulnerabilities. 

Multi-level safety architecture: The sustained connectivity provided by 5G wireless can greatly improve warehouse operations by enabling multi-level safety, which creates smart, adaptive safety fields and intelligent path planning for AMRs and other devices. A communications system dropping out, even temporarily, can result in confusion and increased safety risk in an environment where people and machines are in constant movement. With 5G’s connectivity, operators have full access to the location of warehouse robots and their current tasks. Furthermore, 5G’s connectivity allows AMRs to navigate smoothly around static and dynamic obstacles while safely running at speeds tuned to their environment, enabling them to maintain their load capacity to deliver maximum throughput. These networks also enable robotic systems to dynamically adjust safety zones in real time.

Eliminate downtime and disruption costs: Poor connectivity can create additional costs, including those associated with maintenance and business loss. Wi-Fi can meet some operator needs, but it’s not built to handle the hundreds of new devices continually being introduced into warehouse environments. Additionally, it requires a DIY installation, provides a relatively small coverage area and is vulnerable to downtime, resulting in hundreds of work hours wasted. The average cost of network downtime is around $5,600 a minute, according to research group Gartner. 5G networks, however, provide plenty of capacity and include network design, installation and management. 

Human/robot collaboration: Tight, narrow aisles, heavy-duty infrastructure, and the fast-paced work style common to warehouses can all create tensions if operators can’t navigate or perform their roles properly. If poor connectivity makes automated systems unreliable, unpredictable or even dangerous, human workers may not feel comfortable working around them. With its greater levels of reliability compared to Wi-Fi, 5G not only increases efficiency but helps foster a sense of trust between human workers and robots by reducing safety risks. The more comfortable humans become with robotic systems, the more their own productivity will increase. 

Josh Kivenko is chief marketing officer at Vecna Robotics.

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