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Your Warehouse Network Infrastructure Checklist

By Gregg Meade & Jim Lucking on 24th Jul 2018

Warehouse Network Infrastructure Checklist - Ensign Communications

So you’re a building a warehouse network infrastructure – exciting stuff! This is your chance to ensure that the best possible foundations are laid in order to produce a connected and automated warehouse fit for your current needs and future growth. 

With more than a few years of experience in your vertical, we have compiled a Warehouse Network Infrastructure Checklist in the hope that the following 5 simple ‘pointers’ will help you to make the right decisions when they really matter, saving you money, stress and time!

In our experience, 99.999% of warehouses rely heavily on their infrastructures and demand a high degree of business criticality. ‘Picking’ and ‘put-away’ operations are the cornerstone of today’s just-in-time goods delivery and order fulfilment, so designing your network to be reliable and to perform under pressure should be non-negotiables. 

0.1 (Bonus Pointer) Take Your Time

Taking your time over the design-phase of your warehouse network project will almost certainly guarantee that all of your objectives and desires are met. As a rule, these foundations drive important subsequent decisions i.e. if reliability is an important factor, you’ll need to build in resilience from the outset

Ground zero for your infrastructure project should always be the following question: How critical will the network be to your day-to-day operations? Once defined, this will determine the direction that your network design will take and form the basis for everything that will come afterwards. 

*You really don’t want to be hampered by poor performance and rushing through the network design stage will certainly exacerbate this. The vast majority of warehouse and supply chain operators who contact us do so with a specific requirement – focussing on this as opposed to the technology that will underpin it would be our ‘starter for 10’. 

1. Data Flow (LAN & WAN)

Mapping your data flows will lead to a solid understanding of what your network should look like, and part of this is having a view of where is the data flowing 'from' and 'to'. 

If your WMS located away from the physical warehouse, or, if it is local to the building, is the LAN capable of supporting your requirements on performance and resilience? 

“The LAN is your base infrastructure: get it right and then build the WiFi from this foundation.”

Ensuring that your switching and cabling are fit-for-purpose will give you the best possible starting point for any wireless network. For instance, if the existing cable infrastructure isn’t able to support the performance requirements that you outlined at the start, you could end up with dreaded network bottlenecks. 

Ensign’s Top Tip for Data...

You can invest in the best possible wireless network but a poor LAN will cause everything to slow down – you can read our blog on the topic here!

*In addition to a good LAN, should your WMS be located in another building to the one in question, then a review of the WAN infrastructure would also be a good idea. The connectivity between your sites will need to support reliable data transfer in order to get the most out of your combined systems.

2. Understand the physical environment 

As always, try to start by asking some pertinent questions. 

What kind of building is it? What type of racking will be used? What kind of items will be stocked? Is it a fast-moving warehouse in which stock is rarely static or does it stay dormant for long periods? 

The last of these questions is particularly important as if the wireless network is tested over two days, one of which is busy and the other is very quiet, the results will, of course, vary significantly. 

You will, at this point, always want to consider the future of your business and what this means for your network. Scalability of networks throughout times of growth is essential if costs are to be kept to a minimum and efficiencies are to be kept high. 

Ensign’s Top WiFi Design Tip... 

Create a roadmap! Any extensions to the current building or changes in the business which could impact upon warehouse operations should be considered and built into the plans. 

If you have followed the steps in stage one, you will have already made a decision about the resiliency of your network. If a requirement for resiliency was indeed identified then a further decision must be made as to the overall scope of the resiliency i.e. will the entire network need to be resilient or will resiliency be limited to certain key areas? This will have a marked impact on the network design; the number, type and power output of access points and thus that all-important cost factor! 

More on Pointer 2 in the next section…

3. Mobile Device Selection

Based on an in-depth understanding of what you hope to gain from your automated warehouse investment, the appropriate handheld scanning/computing devices can be selected.  

This is where things can get a little trickier as there aren’t many categories of technology with a wider and potentially more confusing array of choices (long range, 1D, 2D, QR Codes, RFID, Bluetooth, Corded, Rugged, Lightweight, temperature resistant, truck mounted…) than in barcode scanning and rugged mobile computing. For this reason, setting the specific parameters of your requirements is essential. 

For instance, selecting data capture technologies for a business shipping small items, such as bags of screws or nuts and bolts, will be significantly different to one shipping white goods or parts for the automotive industry. 

Ensign’s Top Tip for Barcode Warehousing...

Taking into account where your staff will be scanning from i.e. from ground level or up high on a forklift truck…or both, will dictate which hardware will best serve your requirements. 

Time for a quick U-turn in order to revisit point 2 – the height at which your staff will be scanning and working at will determine the extent of the wireless coverage required. Having a grip on this information will inform the RF profile.

Let’s say you have a 17 metre-high warehouse, and you only need WiFi coverage at bottom 2 metres - ground level - this could indeed be problematic as you will be wasting 15 metres of RF. 

*Some businesses may find that this is their only option, in which case antenna selection will be your key to success. However, in cases where an alternative could be sought, some important cost savings can certainly be made!

4. Network Security

You might feel that network security considerations are a strange addition to a warehouse infrastructure checklist, but, in our opinion, and indeed experience, security should be ‘baked-in’ to the entire process at all levels and placing it fourth in our checklist should in no way indicate a lack of importance. 

The most common reactions that we see to security propositions range from concerns over cost to questions over its importance and relevance to warehouse and supply chain based businesses. However, the message for all types of businesses in today’s landscape is that cybersecurity is everyone’s concern and cybercriminals are not the sorts who discriminate!

The reality is that network security affects each and every part of your network – all the above elements, from switching to wireless and handheld devices, are vulnerable to cyberattack.

Consider the perimeter security, such as Next Generation Firewalls, and even intelligent Enterprise Immune Systems, such as Darktrace, to keep your data safe and to ensure that you are equipped to respond to a cyberattack as readily as possible.   

Ensign’s Top Tip for Warehouse Cybersecurity...

Our main take-away here would be that everything, in terms of data, comes back to the wire eventually, so defining classes of traffic (from personal, guest, office etc) and segmenting them is a great place to start. Understanding what types of traffic you are passing from one place to another and which specific types take priority – voice for instance – is the best route to achieving high Quality-of-Service (QoS) for users. 

5. Support

Do the maths!

Support contracts are often seen as an unnecessary expense. For businesses that haven’t had a network outage in a number of years, the cost of 24x7 support can undoubtedly appear superfluous.

*Having said that, my lack of car crashes doesn’t make me feel that my car insurance is unnecessary…

The best way to approach a network support contract, and to determine its likely monetary value to your business, is to do some simple maths. 

Ask yourself, how much does my business stand to lose if the warehouse/supply chain cannot function for one hour, one day, one week, or even a whole month? One of our supply chain customers was tackling fines running into many thousands of pounds due to unfulfilled orders and another was losing £90,000 per week due to network failure. If the cost of an annual support contract is less than the worst case scenario, you’d have to suggest some protection against the unexpected is the proverbial ‘no-brainer’. 

*Once again we must go back to the ‘criticality’ of your warehouse network – if you have made the decision that the network operation is critical then 24x7 support and device swap-out should top-the-pile in terms of importance.

Fin.

So there you have it; our five-point-checklist to designing warehouse and distribution centre networks. We hope they will help you on your journey to an automated supply chain.  

If you would like any further information or think there is something missing from our list, we’d love to hear from you!
 

What Next?

For advice on designing or upgrading your Warehouse, Distribution Centre or Manufacturing Plant WiFi network and associated systems, to the deployment of security solutions like Next Generation Firewalls and Endpoint Network Security, please contact Ensign Communications for a chat with our technical team.

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