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Case Study: Working-class wireless

Case Study: Working-class wireless

In a wide range of companies, wireless often wears a blue collar, supporting gritty but essential applications far removed from the world of executive BlackBerry pagers or airport lounge wireless LAN 'hot spots.'

In a wide range of companies, wireless often wears a blue collar, supporting gritty but essential applications far removed from the world of executive BlackBerry pagers or airport lounge wireless LAN "hot spots." These emerging blue-collar wireless uses make possible fundamental business processes that often can't be hooked into wired networks due to geographic or environmental conditions, says Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass.

In the Trucks

It was geography that dictated the design of Sears, Roebuck's new wireless system for its products repair division. The cab-mounted Mobile Base Station installed last month on all 10,000 repair trucks had to provide 100 percent nationwide coverage so technicians could wirelessly transmit data from customer sites anywhere in the U.S. to back-end systems, says Dave Sankey, director of process and technology development at Sears.

According to Sankey, the Mobile Base Station, developed by Wireless Matrix Corp. in Calgary, Alberta, houses a WLAN, terrestrial packet data and satellite system in a package that's 11 in. wide by 6.7 in. high.

The retailer has also equipped its service technicians with Smart Toolbox, a rugged, Pentium-powered touch-screen laptop from Itronix Corp. in Spokane, Wash. Each laptop comes packed with a library of product repair information that includes more than 90,000 illustrations and schematics of every product the company sells and services, from washers to lawn tractors. The product library also contains a list of 44.5 million parts that might be needed to make repairs, as well as an inventory of the 2,500 parts carried on every truck, Sankey says.

The laptops also have built-in 802.11b WLAN modems, which communicate with the Mobile Base Station. Service technicians no longer need to leave a customer site to order a part not found in the database. They can place the order with a supplier, with the WLAN serving as the link to the Mobile Base Station, Sankey says.

Al Milligan, executive vice president for business operations at Wireless Matrix, says the WLAN access point in Mobile Base Station connects with two wide-area wireless systems: a terrestrial network that operates over Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless LLC's Mobitex packet data network, and the mobile satellite system operated by Mobile Satellite Ventures LP in Reston, Va.

Controller software built into Mobile Base Station includes "best route" algorithms that select the terrestrial or satellite circuit with the strongest signal that's closest to Mobile Base Station, Milligan says.

Although satellite data service is viewed as expensive, Milligan says his company buys large blocks of satellite time from Mobile Satellite Ventures, minimizing the cost differential between satellite and terrestrial service. The data rates for both the Mobitex network and the mobile satellite system are relatively slow (8Kbit/sec. and 6.75Kbit/sec., respectively), but Sankey says that's good enough for the "bursty" and low-bandwidth traffic sent to and from Smart Toolbox applications.

Russ Molitor, a Sears service technician in Bloomingdale, Ill., has been a Smart Toolbox and Mobile Base Station beta tester for the past 18 months. He says he saves invaluable time locating parts because he can communicate directly from the job site, rather than having to walk back to his truck.

It also eliminates the time he used to spend on the phone -- often waiting on hold -- trying to find a part from Sears' myriad suppliers. Molitor says being able to order online saves him from the routine mistake of ordering the right part but in the wrong color.

Sankey declines to specify total costs or investment payback for Smart Toolbox and Mobile Base Station, except to say that the hardware bill alone totaled $60 million. He says that money has already been recouped by time savings from the product and parts library system.

In the Mines

Geography was the reason for the installation of a WLAN system that spans 20 square miles at the Thunder Basin coal mine in Wright, Wyo., operated by St. Louis-based Arch Coal Inc. Jim Long, a Global Positioning System (GPS) project engineer at the mine, says the WLAN consists of a 2.4-GHz cross-mine link with six access points feeding another three access points in the 900-MHz band. The WLAN serves as the backbone for the MineStar integrated mining information system developed by Caterpillar Inc. in Peoria, Ill.

The WLAN distributes finely tuned location data from on-site GPS kinematic receivers. Those receivers grab the GPS signals from space and refine the location data so it's accurate to within 1 centimeter instead of 25 meters. This location data is distributed to WLAN terminals and GPS receivers hooked up to rugged computers with color displays in the 35 coal-hauling trucks and six bulldozers that operate in the mine, Long says.

When a new road needs to be built, Long says, he designs it on an office-based computer-aided design (CAD) system and sends it over the network to a bulldozer operator. "(The bulldozer operator) can see what he needs to cut and fill to build that road," says Long. The WLAN in the bulldozer also automatically feeds real-time information of the work it's doing back to the office CAD system, allowing supervisors to monitor progress, Long adds.

Coal mines might fall at the end of most people's lists of businesses that are likely to be Internet-enabled, but Michael Murphy, Caterpillar's Mine-Star manager, says mining equipment has become so automated that the average mine truck or bulldozer has five IP addresses.

The automation pays off in an industry driven by wildly fluctuating commodity prices, Long says. When coal prices increase, the wireless network helps Thunder Basin quickly ramp up production. In tight times, it brings efficiency to an operation that has to watch its costs, he says.

On the Docks

Mike Taylor, CIO at Todd Shipyards Corp. in Seattle, installed a system that uses an 802.11b WLAN and rugged Palm OS-based handheld devices from Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y., to help manage one of his company's biggest costs: timekeeping and management of its 1,200 union workers. The old timecard system was prone to error, subject to rounding by workers and took 24 hours to transmit information to managers.

The Electronic Labor and Time Collection system, online since October, provides Todd Shipyards with highly accurate time records and a better way for managers to allocate personnel from job to job -- and keep track of billing for various projects happening within the 44-acre shipyard. All workers have a magnetic-striped badge, which they swipe at a wired PC terminal when they check in.

Once workers have checked in and been assigned a task, that information is sent to one of 66 "leadmen" supervisors equipped with Palm wireless PDAs. The Palms let supervisors see at a glance the number of workers on each job within the yard, by craft and department. This allows Todd Shipyards to create a payroll and cost record for each job automatically and instantly at the end of the day when each worker clocks out.

The project cost about $300,000, Taylor says, and it has already paid for itself by eliminating inaccurate time records for workers paid by the hour.

Taylor emphasizes that installing a WLAN system in a shipyard of that size is daunting. Not only does the area far exceed the 300-foot range of a single WLAN access point, but the metal structures within the yard also interfere with signal propagation. Taylor says he needed to install 33 access points, some with high-powered antennas, to cover the area.

Although much of the hype about the potential of wireless focuses on office or consumer applications, the technology really pays off at work on the remote front lines of many businesses, where wireless is the only communications alternative, says Farpoint's Mathias. -- Computerworld (US)

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