Create Your Own Path to an Automated Warehouse
Automated warehouses address many of the challenges involved with moving, protecting and managing products in material-handling environments.
If you’re considering a new automation system or network upgrade, then these five design tips will point you in the right direction.
They don’t need to be followed in a certain order. Instead, you can deploy them however it makes sense for your operations.
1. Connect Your Fixed Assets
Material-handling environments incorporate all kinds of fixed assets that sit in one place to do their jobs: conveyors, sorters, inline scanners, printing and labeling stations, etc. These pieces of equipment act as your warehouse workhorses, so it’s important that they can connect to the network to support efficient use of resources.
The best way to make sure your fixed assets can connect to your network is to start with a plan: pinpoint the location of each fixed asset and the cable routing required to connect it. This proactive approach will also allow you to protect against downtime by designing a redundant data path if one line goes down.
If you start your automated warehouse journey by connecting your fixed assets, then you can be flexible with the location of your backbone network and successfully layer mobile assets and remote connectivity on top of these systems.
2. Add Your Mobile Assets
In addition to fixed assets, an automated warehouse has several mobile assets that move throughout the building—either manually or on their own—to complete tasks. They add another level of complexity to automated warehouses as they interact with and navigate around fixed pieces of equipment.
Mobile assets often include automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRSs), automated guided vehicles (AGVs), autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and mobile scanning devices.
Because they’re mobile, these assets rely on wireless connectivity to operate and send data instead of physical cables. Signal strength is crucial to eliminate interruption as they move from one spot to another. Understanding where the equipment is expected to operate allows you to plan where your Wi-Fi access points should be and what antennas you’ll want to use.
A simple study of Wi-Fi networks currently running in the area can help you decide which channels to use so you avoid interference. Generally, you’ll want to avoid using this network for other general traffic so your mobile assets don’t have to compete for bandwidth.
3. Build a Backbone Network
Another critical component of an automated warehouse is the OT backbone network. Think of it like the secure highway that supports digital traffic flow throughout your industrial enterprise.
The OT backbone network brings data together from the fixed and mobile assets in your warehouse. It also establishes secure zones and connects IT and OT systems for resource efficiency.
Redundancy, availability and security are crucial priorities for a backbone network. Your network needs to be:
- Secure so data can be transmitted back and forth without being impacted by a cyberattack or human error
- Redundant so there’s a secondary operating system that can take over if the primary system goes down
- Available so people and devices can access what’s on it
Fortunately, these three priorities can complement one another.
4. Enable Remote Connectivity
In addition to a backbone network and assets, an automated warehouse needs to support secure remote connectivity. This is essential not only for employees and third parties working in different locations, but also for onsite workers who cover lots of ground across large warehouse floors (hundreds of thousands of square feet—or more).
In a space that size, it can take several minutes—sometimes up to half an hour or longer—to get from one side of the building to the other. When there’s a network issue, this delays troubleshooting and extends downtime.
Remote connectivity lets the right people immediately connect to the network segment where the issue is to see what’s happening—and often correct problems at the same time.
5. Visualize and Manage Dataflow
Once your assets and network are up and running, there’s one more thing left to do: Make sure you’re prepared to monitor network resources and data to improve situational awareness.
Network monitoring helps you understand how devices and systems connect and provides a data log that details every event that occurs on the network. It also helps you visualize your network design so you can understand the state of your network at a glance, including physical and logical dataflows.
Other Tips for Designing an Automated Warehouse
In addition to the five design tips we mentioned above, there are a few other best practices we recommend following on your automation journey. These suggestions are based on our decades of expertise and involvement in warehouse automation projects of all types and sizes.
- Assign a project manager at the start of the project to help you build out a scope of work and manage budgets.
- Find partners you can trust and involve them early. They can be a resource, helping you plan an effective strategy, pinpointing potential problems and supporting your goals. Some vendors even offer project management services.
- If you’re upgrading an active facility, then make sure you communicate with your employees so they understand what’s happening—and why.
- Create and store accurate documentation that details how devices are configured, how they’re connected and where they’re located. Keep the documents up to date as new technologies are deployed.
Our team is here to help you automate your warehouse—and make sure it’s running efficiently.
If you’re not sure where to begin, a network assessment from Belden can help. First, we learn more about your operation’s workflow, processes, challenges and opportunities. Then, we conduct an in-depth audit of your current network and create a business plan to help you reach your warehouse automation goals.
Belden's Solutions Consultant, Mike Fisher, helped me write this blog, and he is a tremendous resource who can address any of your automated warehouse questions. If you want to know more about this topic, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Mike (email@example.com).