Three Top Tips for Better Warehouse WiFi

Where WiFi is concerned all warehouses and distribution centres are the same, right? They certainly all look the same – or similar – from the outside; large square/rectangular metal buildings with an entranceway at one end. And you could go as far as to say that the majority of warehouses look the same on the inside too; boxes, racking, forklift trucks…you get the picture.

So building WiFi for warehouse automation must be the definition of the ‘cookie-cutter’ approach – simply take the design of an existing warehouse or distribution centre and apply it in your own, adding or subtracting access point hardware based on the relative square footage.

If only it were that easy!

In fact, the design and installation of warehouse WiFi is one of the toughest and most nuanced of all network infrastructure projects and can a leave the uninitiated scratching their heads at under-performing, or outright failing networks.

Having seen – and overcome – our fair share of warehouse network conundrums, we have put together a quick-fire list of our three ‘top tips’ for creating better warehouse wireless in the hope that it will save a few furrowed brows or premature hair loss (from all the head scratching!).

Top Tip #1: Fully understand the scope of the project (both immediate and future)

Truly understanding the scope of the infrastructure project in relation to the business needs, not just for now but in the future too, should always be ground zero.

Armed with this information, any changes to the warehouse space or to the business’ operations as whole – whether 6 months, or year’s down-the-line – will be less likely to negatively impact the network infrastructure and eliminate ghastly unforeseen and unbudgeted costs.

Designing the network with business growth and operational change in mind is the most effective route to a return on your WiFi investment

In many ways, this is as much about your network solutions provider as it is about your own internal management. Ensure that your chosen provider is asking the right questions about your business goals as early as possible in the consultation phase and keep this pithy mantra in mind: Functionality for today, flexibility for tomorrow!

One thing is certain: change

The reason for making this our number 1 ‘top tip’ for warehousing is simple; not only are warehouses – and the supply chains that feed them – constantly evolving beasts, but the technology that underpins warehouse and supply chain automation is also developing at an incredible rate.

We want our warehouse customers to be able to benefit from the very best technology now and in years to come, without having to rip-and-replace perfectly functional networks.

Although you may not want, or be able, to think too far ahead with your warehouse plans, it really does pay to do so wherever possible…both in budgetary terms and with regards to efficiency.

Top Tip #2: Design and build for resilience

I know that we just said that understanding the business needs was ground zero, but we may have to use some artistic license and create, what we’ll call, ‘ground zero 2’.

Equally as important as ‘Top Tip #1’, is to consider the degree of criticality…

How critical to your business will the wireless network be? 

N.B: What we were talking before was primarily ‘network hardware’ and ensuring that you and your business procure, not just for today but for tomorrow, but now we are diving into the complexities of design considerations.

Here goes!

In the event of failure…

Ask yourself the following question:

If just one of your access points was to go down, would the warehouse still operate unaffected? 

If the answer to this question is a firm ‘no’, or is in any way uncertain, it is important to apply a cost equation to the possible event of network downtime. Set expectations early about downtime and its cost to your supply chain – this should be offset against your initial investment.

Of course, with warehouse automation comes a great deal of advantages for the modern, just-in-time supply chain, but it does also bring with some potentially vulnerabilities. In the event of system failure, it is likely that you will no longer be able to move or transfer stock or, at the very least, day-to-day operations will become somewhat difficult…Ensign Communications recently helped a customer whose distribution operation was losing £90,000 per week due to technical difficulties – you can read the full case study here.

But, if an AP goes down can’t we just swap it out?

In the event of simple hardware failure one could argue it would be a simple swap-out job and the warehouse will be back online without much – if any – disruption.

However, given the types of environments, even a single access point swap-out may require a lifter, or forklift with a basket (more than likely), and thus the time and logistics involved can be thought of as both direct and indirect costs to the business.

Whether it’s just a small area of the warehouse which cannot be accessed for a number of hours or it is 20+ people on a production line who cannot continue to work, the cost implications off non-resilient networks should be a primary concern.

So what’s the solution?…

Without getting too detailed, it’s all in the design. A good network solutions provider will be able to design your network with resilience in mind – as long the right questions are posed early on.

In very ‘basic’ terms, the coverage will need to overlap from neighbouring access points and failover to separate network cabinets. A WiFi survey conducted with access points on low power will also allow for a power increase in the case of an access point failure – for more information on this, give us a call.

Top Tip #3: Consider the RF impact of your stock

To what degree will your stock effect RF penetration (cell size) and RF attenuation (signal strength)?

WiFi is just WiFi, right? As we said in the opening to this article, the cookie cutter approach to wireless really does not work for warehousing (or any business-grade WiFi, really), and stock levels – or more accurately, the ‘types’ of stock – is one of the main reasons for this.

Ready for a quick lesson?

Radio Frequency 101: If we were to give a crash course on WiFi, it’s likely that RF propagation would be on page one. Having an understanding of how those invisible radio waves ‘act’ in a variety of environments is what informs network architects as to the best possible design of a network.

With the presence of metal racking almost a certainty, that must be our ‘baseline’ for RF interference. This understanding of stock ‘types’ is a question which, again, should be asked even before a WiFi survey is undertaken.

Inventory at the time of survey

In addition to the RF impact of stock, it is also highly-important to consider the maximum likely stock level at any one time. Ensuring that the network is designed to perform in a fully stocked warehouse will eliminate any nasty surprises which will invariably occur if the network was designed at anything less than 100% capacity.

A wall of cardboard boxes full of containers of a fluid, for instance, is essentially a barrier to business-critical WiFi. Design for maximum capacity and maximum density!

Warehouse Wireless; design for success

So there you have them; our top three tips for warehouse network designs which have ‘success’ written all over them.

There is certainly room for, at least, another five tips here so keep an eye out for the follow-up to this blog post.

If you’d like to know more about Ensign Communications and our supply chain solution please get in touch!

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