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Wi-Fi takes inventory management to new heights

Wi-Fi takes inventory management to new heights

From the farmer's field to the warehouse floor, wireless technologies are transforming the way businesses manage inventory. Clipboards and manual data entry are going the way of the adding machine.

Antiquated, overburdened inventory systems are gradually disappearing in favour of sophisticated networks that offer voice and data across Wi-Fi and rely on multiple supporting technologies including RFID, Bluetooth, and sensors.

Although many warehouses have used proprietary wireless solutions for as long as a decade to scan inventory, the data has typically been batched and collected at the end of the day by synchronising a handheld with the server. By contrast, Wi-Fi deployments deliver data directly from the floor to the database in real time.

"A wireless LAN gives companies a couple of hours of sharper visibility," says Adam Zawel, an analyst at The Yankee Group. "You don't have to wait to sync with the barcode scanner to get the data." Those extra hours add up to hard ROI, he says.

So it's no surprise that many companies with household names are investing millions to put Wi-Fi to work.

Delivering efficiencies United Parcel Service decided it was time to update its technology when the curly cords attached to the barcode readers worn by warehouse loaders kept snagging on packages. The constant repairs generated significant maintenance costs.

UPS is now in the midst of a much larger $US121 million, multiyear Wi-Fi upgrade across 1700 sites, which company officials expect will reduce repair costs by 30 per cent and save 35 per cent in spare equipment costs.

UPS has a fairly modest technology goal for its refresh of old, proprietary 900MHz devices. The-data collection process remains the same: the loaders will still scan packages as they load them onto outbound tractor trailers in order to track packages to their destination. But the equipment has changed.

Now a Bluetooth-enabled ring scanner eliminates the curly cord and communicates wirelessly to a Motorola device worn on the handler's belt equipped with both Bluetooth and a Symbol Technologies radio chip for IEEE 802.11b.

A deceptively simple project, it's actually a huge undertaking, which after two years is only 25 per cent complete.

"There are 1700 locations where you have to do site surveys for each facility, order equipment, install and test it -- not just for the APs but for the client devices as well," says Fred Hoit, UPS' Wireless LAN Deployment project manager.

UPS plans to consolidate many of its other scanning systems onto one common hardware and software platform for reporting and monitoring -- and it plans to manage all of it centrally. By doing so, the company expects to reduce support costs and downtime, while giving distribution-centre managers real-time access to packages' locations.

Meanwhile, loaders are pleased because they no longer have to wear a 350gm device on their arm.

But two years on, the project has brought some hard lessons. "Bluetooth has caused some heartburn," Hoit says. Symbol was the only vendor that could solve the interference problems of Bluetooth and IEEE 802.11b co-existing in the same device, so UPS is now locked into one vendor, Hoit says.

Another issue involves automating the download of WEP keys to APs and mobile units, and making sure they sync whenever changes are made.

"When you push the WEP out, you get no acknowledgement that you have received it successfully," Hoit explains.

When the project is complete, there will be 125,000 clients to manage. And now that the Wi-Fi infrastructure is installed, it needs intrusion detection software to monitor the airwaves.

"When you install one infrastructure you have to look at another infrastructure to protect it," Hoit notes.

Nevertheless, the project is on schedule and within budget. UPS is satisfied enough that it is now looking to light conference rooms in office complexes. "Once you can deploy it and secure it, you keep coming up with more and more ways to use it," Hoit says.

Casting off the clipboard Dunkin Donuts warehouse pickers may look like they're talking to themselves but they're actually controlling inventory by voice commands. Weary of a clipboard and pencil system for tracking inventory from warehouse to store, company officials are turning to Wi-Fi.

"We have everything from flour and flatware to the kitchen sink on our shelves," said Boris Shubin, IT manager at Dunkin Donuts Mid-Atlantic Distribution Cooperative Program.

The new Pick to Voice system uses Voxware software for voice recognition. The system sends automated voice instructions to pickers telling them what items and how many to pick. The picker then repeats and confirms the instructions with a voice response.

A combination of a Symbol Technologies client worn by the picker, Airespace access points, and access point controllers complete the loop.

Dunkin Donuts is also deploying IDS software that runs on its IBM AS/400s to integrate Voxware Inc. with ERP, SCM and CRM applications.

Shubin is approaching the transition cautiously. He is concerned about Microsoft and security issues. Voxware is moving its application software from Wind River Systems' VX Works OS to Microsoft Win CE. Earlier this summer, the first virus to attack the Microsoft Windows CE-embedded OS struck.

"A wireless device that is susceptible to infection is the worst possible security situation out of all conceivable scenarios," Shubin says.

Shubin also worries because wireless devices don't control the kind of radio signal they receive. "It has to comply with FCC (US Federal Communications Commission) regs for radio, so it has to receive signals, and they could be somebody else's," he says.

Safety had been a concern, as pickers drove across the warehouse while reading from a paper-based system, Shubin notes.

Overall, he is pleased with the benefits of the Wi-Fi Pick-to-Voice system. It has increased the number of pieces picked from an average of 20 per hour per picker to 60 per hour. And as incredible as it sounds, it was the pickers who asked to increase their piece counts, thanks to an incentive program.

Wi-Fi stakes its claim on the farm Wi-Fi is also easing the work processes out on the farm, or what Columbia Rural Electric Association CEO Tom Husted calls "agricultural factories".

He is spearheading a $1 million project to light 3700 square miles of terrain in rural Washington. The landscape precluded a typical fibre optics or cable solution. So Husted turned to Vivato, a Wi-Fi solution provider with a unique technology.

Based on Vivato's "smart antenna" technology, Columbia REA's access points -- or base stations as Vivato calls them -- have a range between two square miles to three square miles. Deploying six $10,000 base stations and several $2000 boosters (repeaters), Columbia REA will eventually be able to cover the entire terrain. About 1700 square miles are already lit in less than a year.

The network also uses a device that converts sensor information into TCP/IP protocol. It's made by Resource Associates International; each is about the size of a deck of cards and costs about $200. The configuration allows farmers to access existing sensors -- which monitor moisture for vineyards, irrigation pivots, atmosphere rooms in packing facilities and sunlight in an orchard -- by sending their data via Wi-Fi, where they had previously had to send workers out to take manual readings.

"The ROI is in properly utilising manpower," Husted explains. "By employing this (Wi-Fi) technology in agriculture, people can get data remotely on computers as opposed to driving around over a vast amount of acreages. The savings is all in the manpower."

Bright future in store The underpinnings of countless industries involve moving a box from point A to point B in the most efficient and cost-effective way. Wi-Fi is helping to accomplish that goal by giving managers real-time access to the data they must understand in order to change business processes to meet larger corporate objectives.

According to Shiv Bakshi, director of mobile and Wi-Fi infrastructure at IDC, an estimated one-third of all companies that use a distribution system are turning to Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11x) and related technologies to reduce labour costs, increase efficiency, and consolidate applications.

According to The Yankee Group, of those companies planning to deploy WLANs next year, 41 per cent plan to use it for tracking inventory.

"Structurally a distribution centre is an ideal place to deploy Wi-Fi," Bakshi says. "There are no walls."

SIDEBAR

The "age of sensors" nears

Managers tap high-end technology to monitor equipment, data, and even cookies

As Wi-Fi devices deliver more and more data from distribution centres into the corporate network, wireless sensors tackle a more difficult job: transmitting data from manufacturing equipment directly into manufacturing control systems.

"Wireless sensors are the last frontier," says Don Frieden, CEO of SAT, a company that uses Cingular Wireless LLC's Mobitex wireless network and its own IntelaTrac software to do exactly that.

Frieden estimates that nearly half of companies' so-called stranded assets -- such as pumps, motors and compressors -- are not monitored. Instead, manufacturers send technicians for all-day walks around plants or out into the field with clipboards to collect data, which they bring back to home base and transcribe into an Excel spreadsheet. Finally, the technicians dump the spreadsheet into the manufacturing control system for analysis.

Wireless sensors do a much faster job of detecting precursors to equipment failure.

"By the time the red light comes on in the dashboard in your car, it is too late. You need to know when the water pump begins to leak," Frieden says.

The SAT system also includes handheld devices, which synchronise via the Wi-Fi network with Sybase's iAnywhere software to alert technicians to problems, and to provide them with a guide to proper procedures.

Wireless sensors also can reduce waste. In the food industry, for example, sensors ensure that the weight of a package's contents is accurate. United Biscuits Foods in England was having trouble with "giveaways". The company needed to be sure that a snack food weighed at least 200 grams as stated on its label; but a package would often weigh as much as 250 grams.

Wireless sensors on the production line now count the weight of each cookie every five seconds. As soon as the data is collected, machine-to-machine communications instruct the cookie cutter or the chocolate expeller to adjust the thickness of the cookie or the amount of chocolate laid down to get it right.

The final packages now weigh about 205 grams, which saves as much as 45 grams per package in runs that might be 1 million packets per day.

Dave Kaufman, director of Integrated Field Solutions for Honeywell International, a major manufacturer of sensors, says wireless sensors are selling well.

"Wireless is allowing projects to go forward, which, in the wired world, just weren't cost effective," Kaufman says.

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More about Cingular WirelessFCCFederal Communications CommissionHoneywelliAnywhereIBM AustraliaIDC AustraliaIEEEMicrosoftMotorolaSybase AustraliaSymbol TechnologiesUnited Parcel ServiceUS Federal Communications CommissionYankee Group

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