Industrial Automation

Futureproof Technologies for Material Handling: It All Starts with the Network

Maher Alali

Although some may say it’s an overplayed example, the pandemic still serves as a good illustration of how quickly—and unexpectedly—things can change in material handling environments.


Thanks to the predictability of annual peak seasons, many material handlers are prepared to cope with increased demand during a specific period of time. What they weren’t ready for, however, was the abrupt shift in demand and increase in ordering online spurred by COVID-19. In some cases, machine utilization rates in these environments went from 75% to 85% up to 150% or more, practically doubling productivity requirements nearly overnight.


According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau Annual Retail Trade Survey (ARTS), e-commerce sales increased by $244.2 billion, or 43%, in 2020. Because most warehouses didn’t have the infrastructure, equipment or operations to handle this increase in workload, many material handlers had to scramble to find makeshift ways to respond when demand hit.


This unforeseen situation serves as a valuable lesson in the importance of futureproofing.


What Is Futureproofing?


When it comes to your industrial network, futureproofing means making sure you have the right equipment, hardware, setup and design in place—including everything that connects your digital assets—so you can handle increases in demand.


For material handlers specifically, futureproofing means preparing infrastructure, assets and operations to handle constant peak workloads, unpredictable and variable shifts in demand, and emerging futureproof technologies and data. No matter what customers want, your network needs to be running 24/7 to respond. Bandwidth should always be available—and that’s what futureproofing can accomplish.


In addition to preparing for increased consumer demands, futureproofing also means preparing for more data. Digital transformation, IIoT and Industry 4.0 are all about capturing and using data to make decisions. Futureproofing now will prepare you for these inevitable transitions—and to manage the data that will come along with them.


Planning Now for the Future


Planning for the future sets your warehouse up for long-term success. It can ensure time savings, cost savings, efficiency, fewer errors and even improved safety.


This especially holds true with network infrastructure. Having a flexible network that will be able to support your operations as you adopt new futureproof technologies, initiatives and processes helps reduce downtime. It also helps you avoid pricey and forced upgrades when you’re on a time crunch and searching for a solution to bring operations back online in the midst of a problem.


It’s a little like buying a laptop. You can choose a more inexpensive option that offers less RAM or a slightly more expensive laptop that has more RAM. (RAM improves computer speed and allows you to use more programs or browsing tabs at once.) While the cheaper option seems more attractive upfront—and able to meet your current needs—you’ll likely regret your decision a few months or a year down the road when you find yourself doing more work online and programs are slow to load, files take a long time to open and you have to close certain programs before you can open others.


In retrospect, spending a little more upfront would’ve met your needs at the time of purchase and your future needs as they changed and expanded. Instead, you’re now feeling the effects of not planning for the future and are faced with a dilemma: buy a new laptop, try to install more RAM on the laptop you have or suffer through the slow performance?


From our perspective, this is the most common mistake material handling facilities make when designing their networks: They plan for current workloads, demands and requirements without giving any thought to what the future may bring.


Many material handlers ask about new automation systems or other futureproof technologies, but they don’t extend these same questions to their industrial networks—the infrastructure that will support their futureproof technologies and operations.


While no organization can predict future networking needs, one thing is certain: In most cases, demand placed on networks and operations will only increase in the future, not decrease.


The Role Your Network Plays in Futureproof Technologies


Your network design—the way your digital assets are connected—is a key component of futureproofing. The network backbone needs to handle increasing amounts of data generated as a result of more orders and amped-up operations.


For example, choosing a redundant network design with robust network hardware can help futureproof operations and maximize throughput. It allows for simpler networks, provides greater process transparency, reduces downtime and supports IT/OT convergence. The hardware you choose should be able to perform well in any circumstance.


For example, Hirschmann’s industrial switches are designed and programmed so that, even when they’re utilized to their highest potential (100% utilization), its mean time between failure (MTBF) is still 30 to 35 years.


In addition to selecting the right network design and hardware, finding a partner that can help you navigate this path is critical to ensure success.


Belden’s solutions architecture team can help you design and futureproof your material handling network. Our in-house experts understand futureproof technologies and best practices to futureproof your infrastructure.


Our digital automation consultancy can also support futureproofing from an operations perspective, helping you come up with realistic ways to manage legacy equipment and create a digital roadmap for the future. It starts with a network assessment or digital maturity assessment so we can better understand your operation’s workflow and processes and identify challenges and uncover opportunities.


When you’re considering futureproof technologies, the question should always be: “What network infrastructure do I need to deploy so it can support our workloads in the future?” Belden is here to help you find the answer.


Related Links


Boost Warehouse Productivity with a Robust Network Solution

Material Handling Networks: Solutions for Poor Performance

3 Common Network Failures in Material Handling Environments