Why go wireless

The corporate sector is unlikely to install wireless technology into its offices anytime soon. However, its uses on the factory floor are proving efficient, effective and surprisingly cheap.

The turn of the century saw some preliminary commercial rollouts of 802.11b wireless LANs. At the time, IDC predicted a compound annual growth rate of 51 per cent for the wireless LAN market, but with the IT sector still extricating itself from the tech wreck, Y2K and the GST updates, it was slow going. No one was spending money on anything unless the business case was watertight and wireless didn't rate a mention.

Before rollouts became sufficiently widespread for war chalkers, and bandwidth squatting developed into an issue, the early adopters consisted of the usual suspects - universities, law firms, propeller heads' houses and zoos.


Well, one zoo at least. In 2001, The Adelaide Zoo conducted one of the first rollouts of a wireless local area network (LAN) in Australia. With an eight-hectare heritage-listed site to cover, Duncan Redman, former business manager for the Royal Zoological Society of South Australia, was baulking at the costs of cabling when someone suggested he try the then new wireless LAN technology. Far from being carried away by the technology, Redman had what many early adopters lacked, a clear-cut business case. The wireless system was just as effective - and substantially cheaper - than the alternative.

Four years down the track, wireless LAN technology has come down in price, offers better security and faster speeds, but has yet to work its way into the carpeted premises of corporate New Zealand and Australia. This, according to Bjarne Munch, senior analyst at Meta Group, is because it has yet to offer a clear-cut business case in most corporate environments.

"There is still significant reluctance in the large corporate space in terms of adopting 802.11b technology. Sure, it gives you the opportunity to be flexible, but do you really need that in an office environment?" asks Munch.

"Within the carpeted office environment, wires will never go away; you'll never have the ability to support the same amount of bandwidth using wireless technology."

Let's take stock

A glance around corporate New Zealand and Australia supports Munch'sobservations.

Orica's adhesive making subsidiary, Selleys, decided in 2002 to replace its radio communication system on the factory floor, with a wireless LAN in its Banksmeadow warehouse facility in New South Wales.

The wireless integration replaced hand-held scanners with wearable terminals designed to relay data directly into the SAP back end, creating productivity improvements, and cutting back on wear and tear to the terminals themselves.

According to Vic Commons, national logistics manager for Selleys, the wireless LAN system is more stable, and provides tighter integration with back end software than was possible with the radio frequency infrastructure it replaced.

"From the warehouse perspective, it has been very good," says Commons. "But there is no need for it in the office environment. We haven't even been considering it."

With countless reusable bottles circulating across the company's 60 depots and distributors throughout Australia, Linde Gas was looking for a way to better track its stock, without having to embark on a massive cabling effort.

While Shamsul Arefin, network administrator for Linde Gas, concedes the company paid a premium for its early entry into the wireless space, he believes the cost has been largely recuperated through productivity improvements.

"We are now able to track and manage our equipment in a way we couldn't before," says Arefin. "We are also able to expand our branches without too many problems."

However, like Commons, Arefin is quick to put down any suggestion such a network should make its way off the warehouse floor and into the office space.

"Basically, the only problem with the network is the limitation in the bandwidth available; even the latest breed of network switch is not fast enough for someone used to using a wired network," says Arefin. "The wireless network will only ever be a complement to traditional LANs. We still prefer to use the wired network where possible because of the speed."

Nonetheless, there are sectors where flexibility is at such a premium, that end users are happy to contend with sluggish speeds.

Geoff Rozenberg, manager of the University of Canberra's network services team, says he is interested in implementing a wireless LAN covering the university's 120-hectare campus.

"Our key focus is on training professionals rather than training academics, so a lot of our students are already working, and are looking for the flexibility of using their laptops when they come into the campus," says Rozenberg. "The only reason we haven't adopted it already is that we have been waiting around for the technology to mature."

However, he also points to a popular misconception regarding the implementation of wireless networks. Given pre-existing cable, the installation of wireless access points can be a costly and largely redundant exercise. With the lion's share of data going through cables, the extra expense on wireless access points can seem frivolous.

"Non-IT people are starting to look at LAN cabling like plumbing, or electrical cabling; it is a costly but necessary expense with any physical change to the university infrastructure," says Rozenberg.

"Wireless is an extra, or an add on, and when you are looking to roll out that kind of connectivity to a large organisation, you have to take an industrial approach, and it quickly adds up."

Nonetheless, Rozenberg sees the adoption of wireless LANs as a logical and largely inevitable next step.

"I'd be surprised if you could talk to anybody who wouldn't implement a wireless network given the choice," he says. "But it won't snowball, it will just be a steady adoption based on who sees it as necessary."

No excuses

Even smaller enterprises are benefiting from wireless technology, as in the case of Mike's Glass, a Wellington-based business that handles a range of glazing needs from insurance claims to business and home repairs.

Mike's Glass runs an application called e-Service on Kyocera 7135 smart phones which double as PDAs using Telecom's Mobile Jetstream network.

There are seven people in the field including a manager and an after hours person. Each is fairly self contained working from home with their own vans equipped with all of the essentials.

Managing director Mike Anders wouldn't dream of going back to the way things were when despatching jobs and keeping in touch with his team entailed faxing Excel spreadsheets back and forward. "A spreadsheet would be written up every night with customer names, addresses, phone, suburb and glass size. Notes about the job were faxed to each worker. The forms were filled in during the day and then faxed back to the office and new sheets sent out the next day."

"You never knew where anyone was at any time - they might tell you a job had turned to custard but they might as well have been having lunch on Petone Beach. Now we know who's available, where they are, how long it'll take them to get to the next job in real time," says Anders.

"It's given us increased productivity and helped improve service levels. If someone finishes a job early we can book them out for more work. If a customer has a query about a job, we can search online and let them know the status straight away."

Jobs are despatched from Mike's Glass offices as soon as the company is notified of a break, a crack or an installation that needs dealing to. The job manager can view where any of the workers are at anytime, and view and update their schedule from a central web-based administration module hosted at a server hosted by Econz, which developed the application.

The wireless job dispatch and management system polls the server every five minutes for changes, updates and new jobs. When one of the glaziers accepts a job, it is logged against him in the system and appears as a block of time on his calendar.

If there's a special requirement for glass that isn't stocked in the vans, the job is rescheduled in the field for when the product can be delivered and the client is available again.

"The most urgent jobs always appear at the top of the list and if they're waiting for something they always know when they have to finish a job off because it's marked out in colour,"says Anders.

"The best thing about this application is that customer queries can be answered by searching online by name, order number or job number. We can tell who did the job, when it was started or finished and other details.

"The phones have a grafitti pad for scribbling quick notes such as 'client not home', 'dog on property', rotten frames' so the office knows exactly what's happening at any stage of the job.

The system also has a link to all the parts required on a job. When certain components or items are used these are priced by quantity used along with labour charges which are calculated at an hourly rate.

"You can add a comment before you sign off and then move on to the next job."

The productivity gains have been fantastic, says Anders. "You imagine trying to search for a customer who called up 'about a week ago' and having to flick through all the paperwork. Now we can do it from the office in 30 seconds."

Mike's Glass has also cut down on mobile phone charges and reduced fleet fuel costs and distances each glazier needs to travel between jobs. Information flow between the office and the glaziers has improved considerably and error rates have gone down. Substantial time savings and reductions in administration, data entry and costly paperwork errors and improved decision making have also been evident.

"Tradespeople have a bad reputation for not turning up for jobs. They say they'll be there at 10am and the people at the house often have to wait around until four in the afternoon. We have invested to ensure we are on time, every time."

Cable grunt work

When it comes to wireless LAN rollouts into more traditional office environments, IT management remains sceptical, and not for a lack of innovative thinking.

Daryl Eckermann, IT manager for Anglicare in South Australia, has just overseen the rollout of a wireless wide area network (WAN), interconnecting 13 of the group's 16 Adelaide sites. The new system enables Anglicare to sidestep costly ISDN or frame relay circuits, and provides further savings by enabling voice over internet protocol (VoIP) throughout the network. However, when it came to updating the internal environment, Eckermann opted for a mixture of brand new gigabit and 100-megabit routers, thus getting more grunt out of pre-existing cabling.

"We weren't building any new sites or expanding at all, so we opted to get more out of our cable, rather than add another network on top," says Eckermann. "Wireless networking is for places where people are coming and going; we'll probably implement a wireless LAN to cover our conference rooms at some stage but, generally speaking, within the corporate space it doesn't really have a place."

That is unless, of course, a corporate space has been purpose built to cater to changing work practices. Bruce Duyshart, IT development manager for Lend Lease, is about to flick the switch at the company's new Millers Point address, and send its wireless LAN live.

"We weren't aiming for the wireless LAN to lead to any specific productivity increases, the expectation was there from staff who want wireless to be part of their work style," says Duyshart. "The user demand for wireless was high, and it wasn't hard or costly to roll out, so there was really no reason not to do it."

However, it can't be said the Lend Lease rollout contradicts those who claim wireless LANs are poorly suited to the traditional corporate environment. With Lend Lease positioning itself at the forefront of innovative corporate work practices, the new office space has little in common with the traditional corporate environment.

"The design of this building is for the future, it was created to reflect the ideas of openness, transparency and to provide a flexible workplace, which is where the wireless LAN fits in," says Duyshart. "We're also examining potential uses of wireless LAN technology on construction sites."

With such wide views and approaches to the implementation of wireless LANs, it could be difficult to see a clear path for the technology to follow. Munch predicts slow but steady growth, as the corporate sector gradually adds wireless connectivity to its pre-existing LAN infrastructure.

"LANs in the office environment are really a solution looking for a problem,&quot; <p/>he says. "One of the key drivers is that most laptops today are shipped with wireless cards, and once people are using it more at home and they get used to it, they will push for it more in the office. Wireless LANs are really for an environment where people move around; we don't do that in most offices. So there's no need to spend extra money or take extra security risks because the business case just doesn't exist at this stage."

See the CIO website for more information on wireless technology.


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