When building a new distribution center (DC), or updating an existing one with a warehouse management system (WMS), wireless network infrastructure should be considered an integral part of the process. Without it, wireless connectivity could be lacking throughout the facility, which impacts data collection capabilities from the floor.
Building a wireless network infrastructure begins by designing a map of the wireless access points and then installing structured cabling throughout the DC. This helps to create the wired infrastructure which is the backbone of the wireless implementation. Using this map, wireless equipment will be installed in order to provide the wireless signal capability throughout the DC.
While it sounds simple enough, there are plenty of components to keep in mind before, during and after the installation takes place. These nine tips will help shorten your project timeline while avoiding potentially costly mistakes along the way.
1. Choose an expert system designer vs. a hardware provider.
A system designer, not the selected hardware, will determine the success of any wireless network infrastructure project. That said, the first step of the project is to select a partner that is deeply experienced in system design. Rely on the designer's expertise to make hardware recommendations that fit all your needs. The designer should have expertise in wireless network infrastructure design. Their skillset should include local area network (LAN) design, as well as structured cabling and scanning mobility.
A strong understanding of material handling processes and equipment is also crucial. In addition, the designer should understand the needs of the material handling team. Everyone involved in the project should have an understanding of and agree to defined project goals, the specific plan and related budget and deadlines.
2. Do not automatically select the partner that provides the lowest cost.
While it might be tempting, the lowest cost provider for wireless network infrastructure projects might not be the best choice. The reason some options might be less expensive may be due to the providers' lack of experience. An inexperienced partner may fail to include key client requirements in the LAN planner or fail to identify all of the project components, which can lead to expensive changes down the line that were not included in the initial quote.
Make sure to compare quotes line by line to see what components are and are not included. There is a chance the most expensive provider is including more components, though that is not always the case.
3. Have a detailed plan before getting started.
The LAN planner is the most important element to the overall success of your wireless network infrastructure project. The plan will detail the locations of the main distribution frame (MDF) and the intermediate distribution frames (IDF). During the planning process, ask plenty of questions of your partner and be sure to have a thorough read-through and approval of the plan before signing off on the plan and getting started.
4. Involve all end users in the planning process.
To ensure the best plan is put together, all end users should be present during the planning. Each person will likely have a different perspective and understanding of the requirements within the warehouse. By incorporating ideas from all the users, you will be able to identify components that are sometimes overlooked and require costly changes after the project kicks off.
Here's one example: In one DC, pickers used golf carts to move throughout the facility. However, the access points were installed near the ceiling. The signal from the high access points could not reach the carts, and as a result, the access points had to be lowered. A prior understanding of the warehouse employees' operations would have eliminated this error.
5. Understand the current and future needs of your operation.
It is vital that your designer understands that the wireless network infrastructure project should embody not just your current, but also your future needs. This should be done to avoid additional changes down the line. For example, if your warehouse facility can currently accommodate 100 office workers, but you currently only have 30 office workers, it will save time and money to install the structured cabling necessary to support 100 workers, rather than add the cabling as employees are moved to the facility over time.
In addition, current needs should be fully understood and considered. For example, a signal may not be as strong in a cold storage facility, so the plan must be designed to surmount this potential issue. Or, tall racking may block the signal, so access points will need to be moved to accommodate the height.
6. Contemplate additional components.
During the initial implementation of the wireless network infrastructure, any additional components should be considered. This includes cameras or security systems, among other items. These items can be added to the LAN planner, and the infrastructure can be designed and built to accommodate these additional components. As previously mentioned, adding these after the original project is complete can be more expensive.
7. Develop a timeline and stick to it.
Once the plan is approved, it is time to develop a timeline that integrators will follow. The structured cabling and access points should be installed before any of the material handling equipment. If the material handling equipment is installed first or simultaneously, it can cause lengthy delays in the project.
8. Form should follow function.
The LAN planner design should be based on the functional requirements of the infrastructure vs. the ideal layout within the DC. For example, say a business wanted the MDF to be located in the center of the DC so less fiber optic cable could be used. What needs to be considered is the fact the MDF must be kept cool, and this would have been more difficult with the MDF in the center of the warehouse. In this example, the MDF might need to be housed at the side of the building for easier cooling.
9. Don't forget to test.
Once implementation is complete, testing is the next crucial step. The hardware should be tested at three points in time: (1) when the structured cabling and access points have been installed, but before the material handling equipment is in place; (2) after all the material handling equipment has been installed; and (3) finally—and most importantly—after all the inventory and other facility items have been installed. This is the time at which most changes will occur, such as access points needing to be moved to accommodate for the height or density of all items.
The key to saving time and money when creating a wireless network infrastructure is planning in advance, taking into account the demands of your organization now and in the future. Incorporating input from employees and doing ample testing will also ensure the plan does not require significant, costly changes after completion.
Ben Garvin is the senior director of technology solutions at enVista, a supply chain consulting and IT services firm.