There's something in the air these days at distribution centres everywhere. 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," analyst at The Yankee Group, Adam Zawel, said. "You don't have to wait to sync with the barcode scanner to get the data."
Those extra hours added up to hard ROI, he said. So it is no surprise that many companies with household names are investing millions to put Wi-Fi to work.
United Parcel Service (UPS) 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," UPS' Wireless LAN Deployment project manager, Fred Hoit, said.
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 10-ounce device on their arm.
But two years on the project has brought some hard lessons.
"Bluetooth has caused some heartburn," Hoit said.
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 was now locked into one vendor, Hoit said.
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 explained.
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 to protect it," Hoit said.
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," he said.
Casting off the Clipboard
Dunkin Donuts warehouse pickers may look like they are talking to themselves but they are 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.
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 in the year, 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 said.
He also worries because wireless devices don't control the kind of radio signal they receive. Safety had been a concern, as pickers drove across the warehouse while reading from a paper-based system, he said.
Overall, he is pleased with the benefits of the Wi-Fi Pick-to-Voice system. It had tripled the number of pieces picked per worker 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.
At home 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 (sqm) of terrain in rural Washington. The landscape precluded a typical fiber 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 $US10,000 base stations and several $US2000 boosters (repeaters), Columbia REA will eventually be able to cover the entire terrain. About 1700sqm 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 $US200. 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 said. "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 said. "There are no walls."