Industrial Automation

Material Handling Networks: Solutions for Poor Performance

Maher Alali and Mike Fisher

As material handling environments become more automated and rely on technology like robotics and automated guided vehicles to improve productivity, speed and accuracy, their networks become vital to operations.


You can think of a material handling network like the central nervous system. Without it, a material handling facility can’t control and coordinate the activity happening inside.


When a material handling network suffers from poor performance, you can expect problems like:


  • Unexpected downtime
  • Difficulty communicating with technology systems and controls
  • Lengthy delays in shipping
  • Lack of data to support informed decision-making
  • Costly miscommunication
  • Strained relationships with suppliers and customers
  • Decreasing sales and revenue


Based on what we see every day in the field, we identified five of the most common causes of poor network performance in material handling environments. Does your material handling network have any of these characteristics?


1. A Flat and Unsegmented Network


Flat networks allow all your devices to interact with one another. While some devices do need to communicate, not every device needs to talk to every other device on your network.


This level of “over-connectedness” can magnify security problems. The unsegmented network becomes a single point of failure. If something goes wrong—a link failure, a device malfunction, etc.—then the entire operation stops, including receiving, picking, packing, shipping, etc. If one device is compromised, then all devices are compromised. An attack anywhere on your network puts the entire organization at risk.


A flat network limits visibility and restricts your ability to control what can be done on a device-by-device basis. It also makes it impossible to prioritize bandwidth for specific devices, systems or applications.


We recommend creating a segmented network that brings enterprise IT and industrial OT together to optimize the exchange of data and maintain cost and resource efficiency while also keeping them both strategically protected.


This approach ensures conditional and appropriate flow of data. For example, some data may flow only from plant to office or office to plant while other data may need to move in both directions. It can be achieved by creating segments within the network that are connected through a mutual firewall between the IT and OT where the OT network is part of a demilitarized zone (DMZ) on that firewall.


This additional network security layer ensures that no direct network communications are established between untrusted and trusted security zones. By segmenting the network into smaller, more manageable subnets, you can improve network performance, limit excessive traffic, improve security and control the impact of outages.


When your OT network is properly segmented, then a device or link failure impacts only the zone it supports—not the entire operation.


2. Inadequate Network Design


A poorly designed network is one that lacks a robust infrastructure to support equipment, systems and applications. It isn’t capable of handling large amounts of data or automated operations, and it slows down every aspect of material handling.


As a result, a poorly designed network can become overloaded with data that can’t be processed in a timely manner. This creates network latency and workflow delays, leaving employees with no choice but to fill orders manually.


When designing your material handling network, it’s important to follow the right steps to create a reliable, futureproof network.


In addition, it’s important to choose hardware that meets or exceeds performance requirements. This includes not only devices like edge switches, but also cabling and connectivity.


3. Poor Cable Termination


If cables aren’t terminated correctly, then your network can’t operate as fast as it should. Workers may also experience dropped connections and downtime.


Occasional termination mistakes are bound to happen, especially when an industrial Ethernet network installation involves the installation of potentially hundreds of cables (or more)—each with eight conductors. Poor performance can be the result of termination issues like excessive untwisting, crossed wires, nicked conductors, etc.


A good quality control program is critical to ensure proper termination and validate that cables are terminated correctly.


You can also choose connectivity solutions designed for faster, easier and more reliable termination, such as Belden’s DataTuff Industrial REVConnect® Connectivity. The connectors use a universal cable manager and single tool to establish a reliable termination without having to separate each of the four pairs. As a result, rework rates drop significantly when using this connectivity solution.


4. Cable Runs That Are Too Long


Cable length is another important consideration to ensure excellent performance in a material handling network. Ethernet cable, for example, has a distance limit of 100 m (328 ft) per TIA standards. If cables extend beyond that length, then performance begins to suffer.


If you know your application requires longer cable runs, then look for extended-reach cables that offer low insertion loss, are well constructed and are designed to operate under higher temperatures.


In addition, be sure to adhere to proper distances as dictated by standards and protect cables from strain and interference to limit damage over time and prevent performance degradation.


5. Weak Wireless Connections


When wireless network connectivity isn’t strong, then your mobile assets, such as AGVs, barcode scanners and automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRSs), can’t connect to order management and warehouse management systems. This communication collapse slows down and complicates processes. And what good is your mobile technology if it isn’t working?


Signal strength is crucial to eliminate interruption as assets move from one spot to another. Ultra-fast roaming access points help minimize roaming time while changing connections between access points. To ensure consistent wireless connections, also be sure to use high-performance cables to create communication links to and from wireless access points. The network should also be designed in accordance with the IEEE 802.11 standard and operate at 2.4 GHz or 5.0 GHz with very high bandwidths.


How Does Your Material Handling Network Perform?


How do you know if one of these problems is impacting your network performance?


Partnering with Belden to conduct a network assessment and wireless site survey is a good place to start. We’ll learn more about your 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 material handling goals.


To learn more about what our network assessments can do, find out how Belden helped a new material handling facility overcome consistent network struggles by identifying practical actions to mitigate downtime and network failure issues.


To complete every aspect of your material handling network design, ProSoft, a Belden Brand, also offers access points with ultra-fast roaming capability to support fast connections from one access point to another.


Our Solution Account Managers and Solutions Consultants are here to support you. If you want to know more about this topic, email me ( or Mike (