Recent news reports suggest that supply chain normalization might not be attainable in 2023. Plagued by compounding delays and perpetual labor shortages, the global supply chain is in a predicament that requires multiple solutions.
In response, innovators are reimagining how warehouses and distribution centers approach supply chain adversity. Potential solutions currently making the news include autonomous drones and mobile robots like Boston Dynamics’ Spot the dog. However, these applications are very task-specific. To maximize return on investment and improve the entire supply chain, stakeholders need to look at technologies that can impact efficiency and productivity across multiple functions and tasks. One often-overlooked technology is wireless network connectivity.
It comes in many forms and flavors. Different types of wireless networks will be better suited for particular locations than others. Traditionally, supply chain management has been seen as consisting of two distinct types of flow: products and information. But with the emergence of the industrial internet of things, both are dependent on the mission-critical reliability of wireless communication. Breaks in connectivity or loss of data result in redundant processes and breakdowns in the supply chain. That said, businesses have several options from which to choose from when selecting reliable supply chain networks.
5G wireless connectivity is garnering much attention as it rolls out nationwide. Its higher throughput is a welcome improvement to anyone sporting a smartphone. Carrier-based 4G/5G networks are designed to support smartphones. Approximately 80% of the bandwidth in those networks is dedicated to the downstream flow of data, which works great for a personal smartphone. But in the commercial world, where clients or end points generate most of the data, that allocation of bandwidth doesn’t work. Therefore, 90% of the time, the network will struggle to meet the demands of the business.
Is Private LTE a Good Choice?
Organizations should utilize private long-term evolution (LTE), a standard for wireless broadband, for non-critical voice communications, texting and e-mail. But with inherent limitations built into the protocol, Wi-Fi isn’t a great choice for supply chain communications. Client devices can only have a single connection — one access point. This means there’s no redundancy for fixing the plant if an AP fails. Second, mobility is a challenge because a mobile client loses connection as it roams. There’s no way to eliminate the problem, so a company using the network will lose data during periods of lost connectivity.
In addition, Wi-Fi APs can only transmit data as fast as their weakest client connections. If there are mobile Wi-Fi clients working in the same area, the devices will dramatically restrict throughput. These clients can turn down the transmit power on the whole network and add a bunch of APs to minimize variability, but this just exacerbates the frequency by which they’re losing connection due to roaming. Wi-Fi is a great network for offices where managers can monitor and reset their network connections as needed. But when applied to a large plant or manufacturing floor with unmanned clients, it's simply not a great option.
Mesh Networks Are the Key
By definition, mesh networks diversify and disperse a wireless signal across the operating area via multiple redundant connections, so machinery and devices have many connections to the network. When a worksite manager owns the network, they have ultimate control of coverage and capacity, whereas a 5G network inherently has productivity constraints. Reliability is essential to ensuring that workers have the necessary wireless coverage for information flow. Redundant connectivity ensures high, consistent throughput, and eliminates networking issues. In addition, redundant mesh networks enable machine-to-machine (M2M) communications.
M2M increases network redundancy, coverage and capacity by various levels, depending on the design. While running an M2M industrial system a mesh network, the shop floor operator can deploy various applications simultaneously. These include video surveillance, machine control and automation, worker tracking for efficiency and safety, autonomous vehicles, and even monitoring the health of the warehouse’s equipment. Equipment insights protect against technical malfunctions and extend the lifespan of devices. Proper mesh networks also allow managers to perform predictive maintenance and other analytics on machinery.
With multiple tiers of redundancy in a network, business operations are never restricted or stopped. Because productivity restrictions or work stoppages get compounded the farther you go down the supply chain, mesh networking is the best choice for mission-critical supply chain networks. It has more throughput and continuous connectivity.
At a time when multiple supply chain issues threaten to hamstring operations, hiring more workers or spending more time on tasks is not a solution for many organizations. Rather, the focus for site managers and industry leaders is likely to be on identifying and implementing technology to unsnarl supply chain snags. A top-tier network that ensures connectivity and enhances the industrial internet-of-things ecosystem can vastly improve any fixed plant’s connectivity, and make organizations more productive and competitive in the marketplace.
Todd Rigby is director of sales at Rajant Corporation.
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