Why distribution centres demand comms solutions


Way back towards the end of the Stone Age, when the first farmers are thought to have settled the land, enormous, mysterious structures began to appear dotted across Britain’s landscape.

The most famous of these ancient monuments, Stonehenge, is now thought to have been part of a complex of ditches, burial mounds and ritual sites that stretched as much as 12km across Salisbury Plain. No one is quite sure how or why these giant edifices were built, only that it must have taken enormous amounts of labour, time and meticulous organisation.

Nowadays, a very different but no less impressive variety of giant structure is to be found the length and breadth of the UK – the distribution centre. Unlike their ancient counterparts, we know exactly what these enormous hives of activity are for, managing and supplying the goods which drive the wheels of retail commerce.

With at least three UK distribution centres reaching the monumental scale of 1 million square feet in size, it is fair to say they earn the right to be described, like Stonehenge and its contemporaries, as megalithic in stature.

Giant size might be impressive, but it brings its operational challenges. Running warehouses of any size can be difficult, as you have to juggle the priorities of stock control, delivery scheduling, vehicle fleet management and, of course, worker safety. When that is scaled up to a facility the size of 10 or 15 football pitches, straightforward coordination – the old ‘making sure everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet – becomes a major logistical issue.

Thankfully, we in the modern world have something that I’m sure would make our ancient megalith-building forbears green with envy – wireless communications. At the forefront of how that technology is deployed in wholesale and distribution is the two-way radio.

Size versus coverage

Brentwood Communications has been supplying two-way radio solutions to business and industry for more than 40 years. In that time we have built up considerable experience working with wholesale, warehousing and distribution companies.

Out of all the sectors we work with, wholesale and distribution presents the biggest challenges in terms of sheer size. The largest site we have worked on is PMS International’s distribution centre in Basildon, Essex, a 500,000 sq ft facility from where it distributes mass market consumer goods like toys, housewares, novelties, outdoor equipment and Christmas decorations to the retail trade.

The difficulty with two way radio in such large premises is network range. Two way radio is designed to create a closed, self-contained network, with no need for external masts or antennas to transmit or receive signals. Handsets communicate directly with each other, with the advantage that they can be used anywhere. The drawback is, due to the size of the handsets, they inevitably have a limited signal range.

But given that mobile phone connectivity in the middle of an enormous warehouse with high-stacked shelves often proves unreliable, and alternative technologies like Voice-over-WiFi (VoWiFi) offer poor audio quality, two way radio remains by far and away the best option available.

With the advent of digital technology, new solutions have emerged to the old dilemma of network range. It is now perfectly possible to deploy digital two way radios with coverage at  truly megalithic scales, providing seamless, high quality communications throughout even the biggest distribution centres.

Digital benefits

When it comes to ensuring that staff operating at opposite sides of a giant warehousing facility can communicate effectively, digital two way radio offers a number of advantages. First of all, digital handsets are more powerful than their analogue cousins, they have a better output and can therefore transmit signals further. Even at the limits of their range, advanced technology ensures that receivers convert signals into clear, high quality audio.

Digital also provides numerous options for extending signal range. Receivers, which have long been available for analogue models too, boost coverage by untangling transmission and reception signals, meaning they can be broadcast more efficiently. As with handsets, digital receivers are able to do a better job of this than analogue versions.

Thanks to the development of specialist software solutions, it is now also possible to link multiple two way radio networks into one, effectively scaling individual deployments to cover much larger areas than previously possible. This can either be done by linking multiple repeaters using trunking technology, or by integrating separate networks via WiFi. As well as allowing two way radios to communicate across multiple sites, this is also ideal for achieving perfect coverage across the biggest premises.

It is also important to bear in mind that scalability does not present a one-size-fits-all solution for distribution centres. Different types of operation have different communications needs. At an automated picking centre, for example, the priority might be machine and data monitoring, where the ability to link two way radios to IT systems to send and receive data comes into its own.

In a more traditional warehousing facility, or even in the delivery bay of any operation, there is more of a need to monitor worker safety with vehicles coming in and forklifts in operation around people on foot. Maintaining open lines of communication becomes important. Digital two way radio offers hundreds of available channels, so no matter how many staff and how many different teams you have, an open channel can always be found for every purpose, so mission critical messages can always get through.

For more information about Brentwood Communications and the latest on two way radio technology, visit our website.

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