Written by Dez Blanchfield, Chief Data Scientist at Sociaall Inc.
Each advancement in network technology brings with it great promise of enhanced features, improved connectivity, and better security. However, the arrival of 5G isn’t merely about enhanced coverage, rather it delivers higher device density, lower network latency and dramatically higher network throughput or data transfer (speed). It is transformational for enterprise and industry workflows, none more so than for the supply chain sector.
5G is already changing key industries with its faster connectivity and greater bandwidth. What was once considered the stuff of science fiction movies, such as e-health, connected and autonomous vehicles, intelligent traffic systems and advanced mobile cloud-gaming, are already here.
Central to the concept of the ‘digital supply chain’ today is end-to-end electronic connectivity. The ability to track the movement of goods and information in real-time through every area of a supply chain, anywhere in the world, is enabled through 5G.
When applied to environments such as warehouse management, inventory management, transport, logistics, security, 5G will transform supply chains in three key areas.
1. Streamlining Transport & Logistics
Although there has been significant investment in digital technologies as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of transport & logistics (T&L) organisations still operate with predominantly manual controls, either to track and trace product movement through their logistics processes, or to manage their physical environments and infrastructure.
By leveraging 5G, T&L companies can address a host of issues from lost cargo, misplaced containers, counterfeiting and smuggling. This is done through the use of 5G enabled labelling, real time tracking, public cellular networks and “hand off” to private 5G network AP connectivity, i.e. private 5G networks within warehouses, shipping yards, and domestic or international dock yards.
From the moment an item is “tagged” at the point it is packaged by the manufacturer, it can be traced in real-time from packing to wholesale order fulfilment, through to loading on a dock, to transporting by land, air or sea. Tracking capabilities extend all the way to the end point of sale or delivery to a customer’s front door, delivering enhanced product security and improved customer service.
2. Smarter Warehouse Management & Robotics
Humans are increasingly less visible and less required as part of warehouse management functions. Robotics can speed pick and pack activities, through to stock movement or placement for storage in warehouses, enabling businesses to streamline operations and have staff focus on tasks that add greater value. Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies powered by 5G are further reducing risk and cost, and increasing agility and flexibility, and empowering lower skilled resources to complete higher skilled tasks.
Today an item in a warehouse with a single 5G tag attached can be tracked in 3D space, in real-time. It can be unloaded from a truck into a loading dock by robot forklifts and it can be shuffled around a warehouse by autonomous micro-robots that have 4K cameras connected over 5G to enable movement.
For products that need to be located, a human with AR glasses (or simply using a smartphone with an in-built camera) can be directed via AR to locate the package, scan it’s 5G tag and edit or update details in an inventory management system instantaneously. This helps to improve stock visibility processes for supply chain accuracy and omni-channel activity.
3. Inventory Control data becomes Enhanced Fleet Management
Significant technology enhancements are being made in key areas of transport, from trains and planes, to shipping and trucks. Although advancements in areas like autonomous driving and a future of driverless transport attract much attention, major transformation is actually taking place in areas like loading, tracking, tracing and monitoring of what’s being transported.
5G capabilities are accelerating almost all of those developments, which indirectly are also making fleet management smarter, safer, and reducing costs. For example, by tracking what is loaded on a truck, you are in effect tracking the truck, and its load, it’s speed and direction, time of departure, time of arrival and loading time.
5G tags on products, crates, containers, are all producing data that can be used to produce a view of your fleet and offer data to help make smarter operational decisions. This same data can also be fed back to the driver to help them make better decisions around the best route to take based on how packages are stacked in the truck to ensure efficient unloading occurs.
Where should businesses start their 5G journey
The adoption of 5G will ensure that supply chains become more integrated than ever before. We will see greater integration with manufacturing, allowing generic items to be shipped to local distribution centres, where 3D printers and painting devices can then tailor them to specific client requirements.
There will also be greater integration with finance, so that as goods move in one direction and funds move in the other, the data can also move in both directions. The bottom line is that 5G has arrived and it requires immediate attention. History shows that those who move early gain a lead on their competitors, and often that lead can be so great that their competitors never actually catch up.