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Next-generation wireless communication technology lies in various bandwidth and frequency realms.

Source: DHL

Relevance to the Future of Logistics

5G-Powered Robotic Fleets

Logistics organizations are increasingly procuring, integrating, and growing robotic fleets for indoor and outdoor tasks. While many of these robots often process data locally on each device, many still require communication with remote servers and with each other to optimize operations, updates, and troubleshooting. Today’s mainstream wireless technology can support small fleets but connectivity issues will eventually result as bandwidth reaches capacity with more robots progressively added to the supply chain.

The worldwide adoption of 5G, the successor to 4G in broadband cellular networks, is considered key to enabling the practical operation and expansion of autonomous fleets in the supply chain. In terms of speed and capacity, this enhanced mobile broadband can deliver 10-20 gigabytes per second (Gbps), which is 100 times faster than 4G, allowing greater data transfer between robots and servers, and with more robots in the network. Relatedly, in terms of connectivity support, it is estimated that 5G will be able to provide connection to 1 million devices per square kilometer (0.4 square miles), promoting active communication not just among robots and servers but also with hundreds of other sensors in the built environment.

Furthermore, in terms of latency (or delay before transferring data), 5G can reach significantly low levels of under 5 milliseconds – 12 to 20 times faster than 4G – which can unlock the high-speed, mission-critical communication needed for some robots like those driving on public roads. Also, unlike its predecessors, 5G supports network slicing. This means that the entire 5G bandwidth can be divided into several customized slices, in which each slice can be tailored to meet the varying speed, capacity, coverage, and security requirements of different use cases in the supply chain.

Overall, as more logistics organizations look to automate operations in the supply chain, 5G will be a critical piece of wireless infrastructure that must be considered in the digitalization journey.

Operational Process Optimization

Optimization in supply chain facilities requires the collection and analysis of data. In turn, data needs to be accurate and travel on reliable communication networks between sensors and servers. Next-generation wireless technologies support both these requirements and are crucial infrastructure in building optimized logistics facilities of the future.

Local area networks (LANs) are viewed as good candidate solutions in this effort. As many facilities already have Wi-Fi to support mobile workstations, printers, hand scanners, and some machines and sensors, next-generation Wi-Fi 6 will be a natural successor, providing 3 times the speed, 4 times the capacity, and 75% lower latency (or delay before processing) than the more common predecessor. This will enable facilities to connect even more digital devices, including possibly small robotic fleets, as logistics organizations begin their digitalization process.

Meanwhile, ultra-wideband (UWB) technology enables precise indoor localization of people, assets, and shipments. While Wi-Fi and other networks including Bluetooth can detect positions within several meters or yards, UWB offers another level of accuracy, pinpointing assets and workers to within 5 cm (2 in), helping identify the correct location of a product on a picking shelf or align a self-driving forklift precisely with a pallet in a storage area.

Short-range networks further facilitate optimization of operations in supply chain facilities. Although not new, radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology is again finding traction. Many retailers have moved away from barcodes and towards RFID to track inventory in warehouses without the need for visual line of sight. Meanwhile, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is a rising alternative. As its name suggests, BLE networks use low energy from beacons, thereby elongating battery life to up to 5 years. Eliminating the need to frequently replace batteries of dozens to hundreds of assets, this makes it suitable technology for measuring different variables like the location and temperature of more permanent assets like forklifts and conveyor belts. Added to this, as most smartphones and tablets in facilities have near-field communication (NFC) capabilities, NFC applications can quickly be rolled out. Battery-less dynamic NFC tags embedded in shipments and assets can be powered by the energy field of a reader and provide short-range wireless transmission of data for quality checks.

End-to-End Visibility for Customers

Today’s customers and supply chain managers highly value visibility of any shipment in the supply chain at any point in time. However, this visibility is still usually limited to just certain time stamps and infrequent updates, even if sensors are attached.

Next-generation wireless technologies are increasingly filling these visibility gaps along the supply chain. For ground transportation, low-power wide-area networks (LPWANs) such as LoRaWAN, LTE-M, NB-IoT, and Sigfox provide low-cost communication over very large areas, with a range usually up to 40 km (25 mi) in rural zones. As sensors using LPWAN transceivers transmit low amounts of data, their battery life using cheap, conventional batteries often extends past 10 years – an additional benefit. One example of LPWANs in use is at Istanbul International Airport where thousands of LPWAN sensors are deployed to monitor vehicles, including those carrying luggage and cargo. As such, a shipment can be tracked and monitored in real time on the tarmac between an airport freight hub and an aircraft.

For air transportation, the Bluetooth network, while not technologically new, has seen increased industrial use, further extending visibility along the supply chain. It is common for shipments to lose tracking as they are being flown due to stringent aviation regulations that govern wireless communication while in the air. In recent years, Swiss unit load device (ULD) management company Unilode developed and applied aviation-compliant Bluetooth beacons on over 118,000 ULDs across 45 airlines, enabling the first-ever transmission of shipment sensor and tracking data in real time during each flight.

For all transportation modes, global area networks (GANs) have become popular tools to enable end-to-end supply chain visibility. Supported by the growing number of low-Earth orbit satellites (LEOs), GAN providers like Starlink are pursuing the idea of pervasive global internet connectivity. For logistics organizations, this means low-power communication with shipment sensors in the remotest outdoor locations on the planet, including oceans, deserts, mountain ranges, and jungles where connectivity dead zones currently exist and disrupt information flow.

Overall, with the steady application and expansion of newer wireless communication technologies, logistics providers can offer customers complete end-to-end, real-time status updates on their shipments.

Challenges

Power, availability, and regulations may limit the viability and geographic reach of applications that can be built.
As multiple technologies can serve similar use cases, architectural investment decisions and priorities may not be immediately clear.
The security of wireless networks and infrastructure will be critical, as each connected device can act as a gateway for cybercriminals to access critical logistics infrastructure.
A fragmented industry and potential lack of collaboration between organizations may result in the need for multiple tags and sensors per shipment along the supply chain to register data through various communications networks.

This trend should be ACTIVELY monitored, with imminent developments and applications.

Outlook

The trend of Next-Generation Wireless can bring about an unprecedented level of digital communication and data collection in supply chains around the world. However, logistics organizations have a lot of competing technologies and must weigh the opportunities and costs of each, given the use cases and existing infrastructure. As more players in the logistics industry collaborate and implement these networks, logistics providers and customers will begin to enjoy the greater benefits of total visibility, widespread autonomy, and near-perfect prediction to enhance operational efficiency and service quality.

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