When it comes to wireless technology in distribution centers and other logistics facilities, user enthusiasm is still not as high as it is for wired systems. But interest has been increasing in the past year, reports Margaret Williams, director of professional services for Ryzex Group (Bellingham, WA), a reseller of new and refurbished equipment from such manufacturers as Intermec, Symbol, Zebra, and Eltron.
Allen Nogee, a principal analyst with In-Stat/MDR (Scottsdale, AZ) also sees growing interest in wireless. Nogee specializes in wireless technology for the business and technology market research company. “In recent years, we have seen standardization on a few different types of wireless technologies,” he explains. “As a result, prices have dropped, so we are seeing wireless go into a lot of areas where it didn’t have a presence before.” One of these is wireless LAN, where users need fast connections in a short-range, local environment such as a distribution center.
“Being wireless in a warehouse is a big advantage,” says Tom Lutz, president of Tal Technologies (Philadelphia, PA), a software company that assists in the interfacing of instrumentation (such as bar-code scanners) via serial communication for data collection applications. One option, according to Lutz, is 802.11b wireless networking, which converts data generation devices to be wireless Ethernet. Another alternative is Bluetooth technology, which enables desktop users to access a Bluetooth device in the local area and send data back to the desktop.
While 802.11b has been the de facto standard for quite some time, Ryzex Group’s Williams notes that many manufacturers are coming out with products that operate under the more recent 802.11g standard, which provides higher data rates per second.
One company offering a wide array of wireless systems and devices is Psion Teklogix (Mississauga, Ontario), which launched a new platform last year for wireless technology. The platform allows the use of hand-held computer terminals as well as truck-mounted scanners. “They are catching on very well,” reports Peter Morley, senior product manager. The products are particularly applicable in what Morley terms “harsh markets,” such as railyards, ports, freezers, and inside/outside warehousing.
One satisfied user is adidas-Salomon (Concord, Ontario), which began working with Psion Teklogix about two years ago. “At the time, we were using a traditional distribution environment with paper-based pick documents,” recalls Paul Leone, vice president of supply chain, IT, and logistics. “Someone took the document, picked the items, and returned them for shipping. When we moved to wireless technology, we had the opportunity to greatly automate, enhance, and tighten up the whole process.” For example, if there is a very large order, it can be picked by a number of different people at different times. The wireless system guides the pickers to the right locations. Upon arrival, they scan the location with a gun to make sure they’re in the right location, then pick the item, scan it, and place it into the box.
“In addition to having carton visibility, we weigh all of our cartons,” says Leone. Therefore, if the company ships five cartons to a customer, it knows what is in each box, including the number of SKUs, as well as the weight of each box and the total shipment. “We integrate the weight and visibility information with our carriers’ tracking services,” says Leone. “The customer can have real-time visibility of where the order is and what is in it.” Currently, adidas-Salomon is looking down the road to more wireless applications, such as lighter guns or wrist-mounted devices, which would enable pickers to work faster and more easily.
Another company taking advantage of the latest in wireless technology is Corporate Express (Broomfield, CO). “The biggest advancement for us relates to drivers,” reports Tim Beauchamp, senior vice president, of distribution operations. Drivers now use hand-held systems for signature capture, and the information comes in wirelessly. Corporate Express uses AT&T’s GPS network. “The system is working great,” Beauchamp says. “We are able to determine in real time where our drivers are, and get information on the latest deliveries and who signed for them.” This helps the company’s customer care specialists, who can now provide up-to-date information when customers call.
BREAKING AND ENTERING
While a number of companies are moving ahead with wireless applications or at least considering the technology, virtually all of them are wrestling with security issues. Tal’s Lutz notes that “one potential disadvantage to wireless is the theft of devices, since they are not connected to other things by wire.”
The more significant security concern, however, is theft of information by competitors or others with malicious intent. “Security is on everyone’s mind,” emphasizes Nogee of In-Stat/MDR. “Wireless LANs continue to go through some security ups and downs.”
Ryzex Group’s Williams agrees. “A lot of customers are interested in wireless, but they are concerned with network security.” It is very easy for outsiders to break into many of these networks, she has found. For example, before she visits some of her company’s clients, she gets on her PC in their parking lots and tries to break into their systems. “I can usually access the inner workings of their networks,” she says. “One reason is that some customers install more access points than they need, and they install them open. We encourage customers to take steps to secure their wireless networks.”
Corporate Express is researching the security issue thoroughly before moving further ahead with wireless. “Right now, we are in the process of trying to locate some high-security software and other devices that will allow the secure upload of information to some applications we are considering,” says Beauchamp. “This is a challenge for us, but we are determined to resolve it.”
Psion Teklogix recommends that its customers put their warehouses onto a different subnet (a portion of a network that shares a common address component) and create a firewall to protect it. “Someone sitting in a car outside can still get lot numbers, model numbers, location, etc.,” Morley admits. “However, they won’t be able to get into the ‘front of the house.’” The company can also install other security protection, such as 802.11i, a security-level standard.
Whether you’re looking at wired or wireless, Beauchamp recommends spending a lot of time trying to define your application needs up front. “Make sure you define your problem well and select a product that will solve that problem,” he advises.
In choosing a provider, select the one with the application that will best meet your requirements. “There are a lot of devices available,” cautions Beauchamp. “Look for the applications that reside on the device. You also want a provider that has a good collection site.” Corporate Express, for example, transmits data through a wireless entity, which then sends it to someone else. “We selected a provider with good, redundant collection sites that could accept the information from various wireless providers and be able to send it to us,” says Beauchamp. “One of the most important things to us was the back-end collection capabilities.”
Williams recommends that companies work with providers who sell a number of different manufacturers’ products. The reason: “We can help customers identify the best products based on their specific application needs. In some environments, certain products work better than others.”
To ensure the best system for its needs, adidas-Salomon worked with a local integrator that was an expert in wireless technology and warehouse management systems. “They did a great job for us,” says Leone.
In addition to providing other services, a good provider or integrator should be willing and able to conduct a site survey for you. One important reason for this is determining the ideal number and location of access points. “Not having enough coverage leads to dead spots, which is a problem,” notes Williams. “However, having too much coverage is also a problem. You can end up with multi-pathing, where signals bounce all over the place and eventually bring your network to a halt, with the hand-held devices eventually being locked up.”
Williams notes that Ryzex frequently receives calls from companies that ended up with disorganized installations and want Ryzex to come in and redo the work. “One company had a 50,000-sq.-ft. facility and purchased ten access points, set up equidistant around the warehouse,” she recalls. The firm had not conducted a site survey, but Ryzex determined that it needed only two access points. For that price, the company could have obtained a complete site survey and installation, says Williams.
Next, no matter which wireless technology you buy, look at its total cost of ownership, not just the initial purchase price. “If you ‘buy on the cheap,’ you will end up having to upgrade your system, which will end up being more costly,” says Morley. You may also have to endure the low productivity of an inadequate system, which will drain profits.
Finally, determine when is the best time to buy. “If you wait for the ultimate technology, you’ll never be able to deploy anything,” concludes Nogee of In-Stat/MDR. “Look for the technology that meets your needs, and when it reaches a reasonable cost, that’s the time to go ahead with it.”
William Atkinson is a business writer who can be reached at email@example.com.