Warehouse operations have undergone a revolution in technological advancement, integrating robotics in the process of fulfilling orders for online retail companies. But those warehouses are falling behind in one area—their internet connections aren’t strong enough. Liz Young reports in The Wall Street Journal:
The new robots, drones and other technology tools filling the country’s distribution centers are finding one thing all too difficult to reach: a fast and reliable internet connection.
Robots that wheel through warehouse aisles to find and pick goods need a high-speed link to keep them on the right track. Autonomous forklifts require a signal to direct them as they move pallets from loading docks to storage racks. Self-driving trucks must maintain a GPS tie to get them on the right path from a manufacturing plant to a warehouse.
As companies upgrade their operations with increasingly sophisticated machines, many are finding the internet connections they have in place fall short of the needs of new, high-powered automation technology. For some, that can mean expensive and time-consuming upgrades to get logistics sites up to speed, industry experts say.
Companies frequently have “already selected technology to go deploy before this ever comes up,” said Nick Leonard, senior vice president of product for Norfolk, Va.-based logistics software provider SVT Robotics. “Often sites are running essentially their phone infrastructure or just basic internet for email browsing.”
The roadblock to automating highlights one of the challenges companies face as they add more technology to their logistics operations, from automating container terminals to using artificial intelligence to track shipments. The rapidly developing automation technology can help speed up operations and lift some of the burden off human workers, but the tools have a new set of requirements such as access to far more electrical power and a strong internet signal.
Building that capability can be particularly difficult for industrial operators that are located in rural areas far from existing infrastructure, or those in urban areas where there are heavy demands on the power grid.
Leonard said that upgrading a warehouse’s internet can be as simple as calling the internet provider to increase the bandwidth or as complicated as installing fiber-optic cable lines, antennas and server rooms, depending on the type of automation being added and the existing connections.
“That can get very expensive, in the millions of dollars, to solve those challenges,” Leonard said.
Some operators are installing private networks that run on high-speed 5G wireless cellular technology, which can provide faster and more stable internet than traditional Wi-Fi networks, experts say. About 45% of transportation executives and 35% of manufacturing executives surveyed by research firm Gartner last year said they planned to invest in 5G in the next 24 months.
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