5G: The great warehouse enabler
Greater bandwidth can accommodate up to a million sensors and grease the skids for technology adoption in warehouses.
Next generation wireless connectivity is coming to market, and it could bring big benefits to warehouse connectivity.
5G, the Fifth Generation Wireless System, is the successor of 4G and will employ 30 GHz to 300 GHz frequency signal ranges to support faster data transfer with less interference and interruption.
With a tremendous jump in speed and performance, 5G networks will reduce latency, improve computing and offer a digital infrastructure to support mass adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT). The greater bandwidth can accommodate up to a million sensors within a square kilometer at speeds at least 10 times greater than anything else available.
"Now is the time for supply chain operations to develop a base competency about 5G. ... There are several areas where it will offer some significant benefits and be a big enhancement to existing functionality," Andrew Stevens, Research Direct of Supply Chain Technology at Gartner, told Supply Chain Dive.
Experts say 5G will improve the performance of everything from sensors and robotics to cloud-based data solutions. In the process, it will also open the doors to new functionality such as real-time 3D modeling and augmented reality.
The challenges of warehouse tech adoption with 4G, Wi-Fi
While many warehouses are eager to adopt IoT, they often lack the infrastructure to support it and optimize performance.
A study by the Business Performance Innovation (BPI) Network found half of executives at large enterprises said IoT will have a significant impact on their business within three years, but less than 2% have a clear vision with implementation underway. Costs and complexity were cited as common concerns.
Many warehouses piloting automation, robotics and IoT devices rely on wired systems and various types of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections that aren't very well-coordinated with interference, overlap and insufficient security. The lack of flexibility limits warehouse design and adds to the cost, maintenance and complexity of the systems, Marie Hogan, Head of Broadband and IoT, Business Area Networks for Ericsson, told Supply Chain Dive.
"This is the ideal time for companies to really assess the value of 5G not only as a technology enabler but for its potential in all parts of the supply chain."
Research Direct of Supply Chain Technology, Gartner
While Wi-Fi may suffice for homes or office applications, it's not quite suited to support a mass IoT deployment where hundreds or even thousands of devices communicate in a warehouse.
"Wi-Fi was never really designed to support all of these things ... 5G will organize a lot of these types of applications in a more layered and a more robust and cost-effective way," David Mindell, CEO and Founder of Humatics, told Supply Chain Dive.
5G promises greater bandwidth, lower latency and improved performance
Communications service providers such as Verizon, AT&T and Sprint are rolling out 5G infrastructure across the country with many experts saying it will be mainstream by 2020. It's a welcome development as the demand for IoT grows. Bain predicts the IoT market will double by 2020 as cloud solutions and infrastructure create a framework for easily repeatable deployments.
5G could solve many signaling problems that have occurred with the 4G, Wi-Fi and other networks that have typically served warehouses, said Serhad Doken, executive of emerging technology incubation and innovation, 5G Ecosystems at Verizon.
"5G could provide ubiquitous coverage for a large warehouse rather than dealing with seven different short-range wireless standards. It can cover a very large warehouse area with one single wireless access medium, which is secure and handles all of those privacy issues," he told Supply Chain Dive.
5G will also help close the gap on disparate systems to create a real-time supply chain with complete visibility from manufacturing to store shelves. And it could cut costs by reducing the complexity and the need for hardwiring — making IoT installations easier and faster. "I expect small warehouse operators and shipping centers are going to be able to take advantage of this technology and improve their workflows," Mindell said.
An enabler of warehouse disruption
In addition to bridging the gap in connectivity, 5G will also support next-level computing. Warehouses will be able to use 5G signals to build centrally-controlled networks that can move more precise data even faster and enable warehouses to reduce the complexity and cost of their connectivity.
5G will also enable new video analytics capabilities, Doken said. This could include real-time full video capture of products being shipped, the truck being filled, how many boxes, what the boxes contain and what the inventory is as it is being shipped. Through cloud-based applications, the video feed could instantly be processed into real-time 3D asset models that enable warehouses to determine the optimal positioning, path and timing of movements.
"It's also going to make it more granular, whereas in the past, we had a good idea about what it is, but now we're going to have the exact measurements or the whole picture is going to be much clearer," Doken said.
"5G could provide ubiquitous coverage for a large warehouse rather than dealing with seven different short-range wireless standards."
Executive of Emerging Technology Incubation and Innovation, 5G Ecosystems, Verizon
5G connectivity will also improve the performance of robots in warehouses. Whereas many mobile robots now follow inflexible paths in warehouses, the highly precise positioning enabled by 5G will enable them to more easily operate and know where they are. A report by Transparency Market Research said 5G will significantly drive adoption of robotics platforms and make them faster and safer.
Warehouse managers should think of 5G as less of a technology play and more of an architecture that could have broad influence across many parts of the supply chain, Stevens said. They can prepare for 5G rollouts by continuing to pilot new technologies, especially those that leverage IoT to streamline workflows and improve visibility in the supply chain.
"This is the ideal time for companies to really assess the value of 5G not only as a technology enabler but for its potential in all parts of the supply chain," Stevens said.
This story was first published in our weekly newsletter, Supply Chain Dive: Operations. Sign up here.
Follow Craig Guillot on Twitter