Of all the technologies coming of age and promising disruption, 5G is probably one of the most exciting. As a communication and connectivity solution, it’s leaps ahead of where we are today, it’s impact on logistics will be immense.
Like any other technology, 5G has picked up its share of hype and hyperbole. It promises change and competitive advantages in logistics. However, the degree to which companies benefit won’t be uniform, and it won’t impact each type of business in the same way.
Here’s a look at some of the myths and realities surrounding 5G connectivity and what it means for logistics.
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What is 5G — and is it overhyped?
5G is fast. It’s potentially 10 to 100 times faster than 4G. However, most of the products on the market today touting 5G speeds aren’t 5G at all, which leads us to myth No. 1.
The phrase 5G doesn’t mean what we think it means — at least not yet. There are only a handful of cities in the US with 5G access right now. That means marketing terms like ‘5G edge’ and their middling speeds could confuse customers and hinder wider interest and adoption.
That makes adoption myth No. 2. Even if it’s become a household term and hype magnet, 5G isn’t going to penetrate this or any other industry in a widespread way for at least a couple of years. The best estimates from US carriers say they won’t have nationwide 5G networks up and running until at least 2020.
What about 5G and logistics, specifically?
First, logistics specialists need to know that even the most dramatic increases in speed, by themselves, aren’t enough to bring the results you’re looking for. Paul Soong, who serves as regional director for logistics management company BluJay, says it’s important to keep our expectations realistic. “How quickly you push your messages and data doesn’t necessarily improve your customer service or your processes. Did the nature of failed deliveries improve when we went from 3G to 4G? No.”
That’s a blunt way to say it, but he’s correct. It’s not enough for a company to say it’s investing in new technology. It also has to understand what it can do, be clear-minded about what it can’t, and have a clear set of problems to solve and goals to achieve.
With these caveats out of the way, let’s look at some of the practical ways 5G is set to shake up logistics.
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Real-world applications for 5G in logistics
The disruptive potential of 5G in logistics is all about the Internet of Things. We already see 4G and Wi-Fi networks as the ‘connective tissue’ between every device we connect to the internet, including computers, phones, wearables, home appliances and major business infrastructure.
Every business relies on data to function, and logistics companies handle even more data than most. The sheer confluence of various employee functions, delivery vehicles, material handling equipment and facility control systems has always required lightning-fast connections with low latency and high uptime.
5G can deliver on that promise once it’s up and running. Individual devices will be able to achieve their own internet connections, provided they bring their own power or have access to it. Because of the far lower latency than 4G — up to 10 times lower — companies will be able to distribute and exchange far larger quantities of data than ever. They can process it closer to the source, rather than dialing out to remote servers.
It means companies will have the means to build a lean, distributed cloud network to tie their logistical operations together. The collaborative potential alone for using 5G to keep multiple vendors and partners on the same page, in real-time, is difficult to ignore.
This ease of connectivity, coupled with high speeds and low latency, will unlock a host of new technologies, methodologies and workflows for logistics companies. They will be able to build a web of connected and automated sensors, facility controls, conveyors and material handling equipment, as well as deploy connected vehicles out in the field. Here’s a sampling:
• Remote devices and sensors for more advanced telematics, dispatching and rerouting personnel or vehicles, and tracking every asset while it’s in the field.
• Small, affordable, wireless sensors for tracking freight and automating notifications about quality assurance issues, like spikes in temperature or crushing blows while in transit.
• The means to conduct faster inspections and bring down other freight expenses thanks to more complete data trails.
• Wireless wearable personnel monitors can observe and report data on employee vitals and condition while working in remote or dangerous environments, such as wells, mines, warehouses or distribution centers.
All of this is impressive. However, let’s bring the conversation back to the basics of logistics itself: Does this technology add up to a better business model and a more consistently excellent customer experience?
5G and logistics companies, what it is and isn’t
Let’s go back to Paul Soong for a moment. He had it right when he pointed out that logistics companies don’t necessarily innovate and improve just because they have access to technology. “I can track more accurately (with 5G.) But have I got the right information? Was the delivery successful? I can push new information to a device, but has the situation on the ground already changed?”
Here’s another way to look at technological disruptions in logistics: Is the course I’m taking, or the technology I’m investing in, something that supports people? This includes employees, vendors and customers.
That’s a critical point here: Not every company requires the up-to-the-second functionality provided by 5G. 5G will allow companies to make informed decisions more quickly, based on data gathered in real-time from across an organization.
Previous connectivity technologies provided the means to collect and act on data. However, this didn’t necessarily happen within a timeframe that prevented the worst effects of a shipment disruption, quality control issue, lost shipment or product recall.
Ultimately, 5G isn’t a panacea for bad customer service or a poorly designed company. However, for companies with a strong commitment to excellence already, 5G promises functionality that could help take their game to an even higher level.