Industrial Automation

Planning an OT Network for Your Warehouse? Here’s Where to Start

Steven Huck

Change is coming—and fast—for material-handling environments. It’s only a matter of time before your warehouse will require an OT network to acquire, transmit, orchestrate and manage data. Find out how to prepare.



McKinsey predicts that industrial trends like digital twins, robots and devices that handle their own programming will be commonplace in the future. While many industrial facilities are charging forward with digitization initiatives, however, most warehouses still lack basic Industry 4.0 applications and principles, such as dedicated OT networks. Your warehouse or distribution center may fall into this group, and that’s okay for now. But change is coming—and fast.


Why is it that material handling may have lagged behind manufacturing in terms of digitization? First, it’s not often considered a true industrial production facility. Nothing is likely “produced” within your walls. Instead, material handling involves the process of moving finished product from point A to point B in a timely manner. Without the same maintenance and engineering resources dedicated to manufacturing, it is common to assume that warehouse automation and digitization is less critical.


In addition, it’s often considered a cost center. The sector sees slim profit margins and cost-sensitive competition. Cost reductions are made whenever and wherever possible.


If your facility still operates primarily through manual processes, then an OT network probably doesn’t seem necessary. After all, there are many other time-sensitive priorities and KPIs to focus on: inventory accuracy, carrying costs, time to ship, etc. But there’s an essential link between OT networks and these priorities—networks are often what make it possible to establish, track and improve on these KPIs.


If your warehouse uses basic technology like handheld scanners or wearable devices, you may be slowly moving in the direction of establishing a dedicated OT network but assume you have time to spare before automation and digitization truly take hold.


The rise of e-commerce, tight labor markets, high real estate costs and increasing demand for faster delivery are pushing warehouses to explore new technologies like autonomous robots, automated inventory identification systems and artificial intelligence. As a result, it’s only a matter of time before your warehouse will require an OT network to acquire, transmit, orchestrate and manage operational data.


So far, many warehouses have been able to get by without dedicated OT networks. When needed, they extend their IT network into the warehouse. But piggybacking off IT networks isn’t a good long-term strategy. The networks aren’t designed to support your warehouse’s material-handling systems or future use cases.


How do you expect your warehouse to function in the future?

You may not need a dedicated OT network today, but what about three years from now? A decade from now? What are your long-term goals?


You need an OT network if you envision your warehouse and workers being able to do things like:

  • Pinpoint in real-time where a product is within the warehouse

  • Understand exactly how long it takes for a product to move from receiving to storage and out the shipping door

  • Discover when, where and why bottlenecks occur in the material-handling process, and track improvement over time

  • Create more accurate demand forecasts and financial reports

  • Decide whether to store more or less to maintain a desired revenue stream

  • Identify inadequate technology or opportunities to improve dock space and personnel management

  • Reduce return rates by improving order-picking accuracy

  • Determine which products go out of stock most often so you can better prepare for demand


Whether you’re a large corporation or a small, independent warehouse serving a small region, the connected warehouse will become the standard. The material-handling facilities that capitalize on the data hiding within their processes and systems will quickly rise to the top, making better, faster and more informed decisions than their competitors.


The early stages of network planning involves people

Once you’re ready to automate, we established a helpful path you can follow to create your connected warehouse. But if you don’t have a dedicated OT network yet, now isn’t the time to discuss technology, automation or connecting warehouse systems.


There are planning steps you should take long before you think about this level of digitization. This blog focuses on one of the most important: involving the right people.


To set your warehouse’s OT network up for success, it’s critical to bring the right people together from the start so you don’t have to revisit decisions or make guesses about what would be most beneficial.

Depending on your warehouse, this group of stakeholders should include:


  • IT workers who will have thoughts, concerns and opinions on how data is collected, orchestrated, managed and translated into insights and analytics

  • Warehouse management and leaders who rely on metrics to make decisions

  • Facilities personnel who support warehouse functionality, efficiency and safety

  • Automation team members (if they exist) who manage day-to-day support and integration


This list may look intimidating, but there’s a reason these teams should come together. Historically, they tend to work in siloes and, in some cases, rarely collaborate with or speak to one another. Bringing everyone to the same table unites the siloed information, processes and goals that often exist within warehouse teams. All parties can understand the bigger picture and see how their individual actions and goals impact business outcomes.


Connecting stakeholders helps in other ways, too, by addressing animosity that can build up between teams over time due to miscommunication and differing goals. It also helps warehouses save money. For example, we’ve seen OT teams work twice as hard or spend twice as much money just to get around IT because they didn’t want to involve the IT team—which isn’t good for the company or the bottom line. This not only impacts business performance, but also sabotages the robust connections necessary to move data collected from sensors and machines to people on the warehouse floor and then to the back office for budgeting, planning and decision-making.


We can help you start your journey

Even if today’s goal involves only minor automation, future planning is critical when establishing your OT network. If your warehouse will deploy automated guided vehicles (AGVs), automated conveying systems and gantry robots in the next decade, for example, then installing a backbone network that supports only what you need now—and not later—will lead to a costly rip-and-replace scenario down the road. Someday, that step will come. And the time to start planning is now.


Just as Industry 2.0 brought electricity and assembly line production to industrial environments and required overhauls to facilities and processes, the technologies that make up Industry 4.0 and Industry 5.0 (big data, AI, robots, etc.) will demand the right infrastructure before they can be implemented.


Belden can help you decide what kind of network you need based on the technology you want to install today, tomorrow and a decade (or longer) from now. We can also help you identify the stakeholders who should be at the decision-making table when network discussions begin, as well as help facilitate collaboration between IT and OT teams to make sure everyone speaks the same language when it comes to goals and methods.


Learn more about how you can boost warehouse productivity with a robust network solution.


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