Throughout last year and into 2021, nothing comes close to the vaccine and healthcare heroics that have helped us through the COVID-19 pandemic.
In our business though, the supply chain and logistics sector was an important member of the supporting cast of pandemic heroes. With impacted site capacity, increased customer demand and social distancing becoming essential considerations, immense pressure was put on logistics operators to deliver.
According to EY and Fortune, 94% of Fortune 1000 companies have experienced supply chain disruption due to the pandemic. This disruption has truly tested organizations’ resilience and ability to cope with stress to the system.
But our business ensured that globally-integrated manufacturing kept running, personal protective equipment (PPE) was delivered to healthcare professionals, supermarket shelves were stocked and home deliveries were fulfilled – all despite immense spikes in demand under testing conditions.
One likely outcome of these challenging times will be to accelerate logistics automation, with, for example, automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) and automated picking systems (APS) increasingly being deployed to maintain cost-effective service continuity. And while the use of automation and robotics in the logistics sector isn’t entirely new – particularly where physical safety, well-being and health concerns are a priority – the ability to operate uninterrupted, regardless of social distancing and other constraints, represents a major advance.
Reduced cost, increased productivity
The potential benefits of automation are attractive – some estimates predict that it can save logistics operators as much as 70% in overall warehousing operating costs, while also improving customer service and operational flexibility.
It’s not just warehousing that is at the forefront of automation. Ports are an essential part of the logistics journey with cranes, trucks and lifts all needing to co-exist safely. Indeed, cargotech leaders such as Kalmar are pursuing development of automated stacking crane systems. The use of air cargo is also ripe for enhanced levels of automation, as is rail containerization logistics.
Elsewhere, automation pioneers include Alibaba-owned Cainiao Smart Logistics, which is using advanced robotics for its warehouse systems; Dematic – a leading German supplier of integrated automated technology – has a Multishuttle system for automated storage and retrieval of cartons, small parts or other stored goods. It stores, buffers and sequences products between bulk stock and other functions such as picking and order assembly.
In the U.S., Provectus Robotics has developed AGV usage in the agriculture and food processing industry. Here, AGVs are used as autonomous ‘mule trains’ to shuttle bulk storage containers between a processing plant and outdoor warehousing. In addition, continuous, vehicle-based video feeds permit monitoring in real time – providing complete control and oversight of operations. This application solves a specific problem: very high summer temperatures at the plant made it difficult to recruit and retain staff, so adopting an autonomous unmanned solution was a logical answer.
No compromise on connectivity
Importantly, successful deployment of automated systems relies heavily on the connectivity available on site, with the shared common theme among these examples being their deployment of private wireless broadband networking.
As a stepping stone to pervasive and remote automation (and paving the way for Supply Chain 4.0), connectivity and performance need at a minimum to be industrial grade. If logistics operators are to unleash the full potential of automation and remote operations, the combination of reliability, high bandwidth and low latency is absolutely critical.
And of course, in logistics, we are often dealing with very large areas – ports, airports, warehouses, industrial parks, which present their own set of coverage challenges. This highlights one further attribute of offers with private wireless: mobility. In order to make logistics more flexible, dynamic and pervasive throughout warehouses and sites, it needs to provide new levels of mobility – no matter where.
This brings discussion of the comparative merits of Wi-Fi and private LTE wireless broadband into play.
Wi-Fi deployment for coverage in such expansive areas is complex – and from experience, likely insufficient in terms of continuous service. We all occasionally experience ‘dropped’ Wi-Fi – and this level of reliability is simply inadequate for AGVs, APVs, cranes and driverless vehicles, where mission-critical reliability and low latency are essential.
When operating large-scale complex machinery remotely there can be no compromise on connectivity. Response needs to be real-time, with pervasive coverage and instantaneous levels of network response.
In recent tests, a U.S.-based port authority compared private wireless deployment based on a handful of LTE radio points, transmitting over a mix of shared and dedicated spectrum, with service to over 200 existing Wi-Fi access points. It found that the private LTE system delivered superior coverage and reliability.
If one also factors in lower total cost of ownership (TCO) of a less infrastructure-heavy private wireless network over Wi-Fi, the business case becomes increasingly compelling.
Deploy for now, plan for the future
Warehouses and logistics facilities can be outfitted relatively quickly with high-performing LTE private wireless networks that extend not only to every corner of the location, but which can also communicate with other local operations and to the broader supply chain. In doing so, this provides a platform for all present and future smart processes in the warehouse.
Over time, digital logistics will ultimately need to connect hundreds of devices from handhelds and tablets to VMCs, sensors and video cameras. Operators will want to combine data, voice, video, IoT and positioning services over a common infrastructure, and they won’t want to deploy multiple network technologies that require complex integration.
In time, with further IoT adoption, virtual devices, machines and people will connect not only to one another but also to the cloud. Robots and other automated systems will rely on this edge computing connectivity to take direction from software that determines where they move and carry out tasks including packing, assembly, inventory and cleaning.
With the case for warehouse automation growing – as a counter to cost pressures, tougher SLAs, booming e-commerce markets and events such as COVID-19 – we will inevitably see logistics make more use of automated systems to increase productivity and reduce costs. As more and more companies choose this new capability, they need to ensure the right kind of connectivity is in place – not just for now but also for the future.