Executive Briefings

Wireless Solutions Boost Productivity In the Warehouse And on the Road

Logistics companies were early adopters of wireless applications and they continue to find new ways to use the technology as it evolves and matures.

Long before talk of enterprise and workforce "mobility," long before the ubiquity of cell phones, wireless laptops and PDAs, transportation and logistics companies were using radio frequency and satellite technologies to track goods and transmit critical information in the supply chain. They were in many ways pioneers of wireless applications and today the logistics sector continues to invest in and look for new ways to use this evolving technology.

This commitment is driven not only by a desire to reduce costs and improve productivity but by customer expectations. According to a new study from AMR Research, Boston, U.S. companies have very high ambitions for future supply chain deployments of wireless networks. "Rather than just use mobile technology as a better way to communicate or transact business operations, companies are now thinking about how mobility can be used to automate processes and decision making in the supply chain, particularly with highly repetitive tasks or those that require continual, real-time monitoring of product condition or state," say analysts John Fontanella and Karen Carter, who wrote the report. These expectations represent a challenge to vendors to provide devices, software and integration tools that can do more than ever before, they say.

Recent merger and acquisition activity indicates how some vendors are positioning themselves to meet the demands of this market. Symbol Technologies, a leader in radio frequency technology and devices, last year was acquired by Motorola, a major player in the cellular market. Zebra Technologies, which makes a wide range of printers for barcode and RFID labels, earlier this year purchased WhereNet, a leading vendor of wireless real-time locating systems (RTLS). Just last month, Zebra  announced the additional acquisition of Germany's proveo, an RTLS provider for airports, and Navis, an Oakland-based company that provides logistics solutions for marine terminals. In January, GE Equipment Services, which provides asset management and tracking solutions for trailers and rail cars, purchased Terion, one of the first companies to market a tracking product for untethered trailers.

These alignments, and others that are sure to come, will doubtless contribute to a convergence of technologies and to better integrated devices and applications. For example, GE Equipment Services drew on both its existing satellite technology and Terion's cellular technology in its new VeriWise solution for rail cars and intermodal assets.

Jerry McNerney, formerly of Symbol and now senior director of logistics solutions at Motorola, notes an accelerated effort to add voice capability to Symbol's handheld devices since the acquisition. "Most of our customers are in an enterprise environment and have primarily focused on data or information transference," he says. "Now they want the ability to add voice communications as well. For us, that's the story in our becoming part of Motorola-we have more ability to expand our product portfolio, especially around voice technology."

Jim Childress, president of LXE, Norcross, Ga., believes convergence of technologies will drive evolution of wireless in the supply chain to its next level-something this provider of RF networks and devices calls Adaptive Recognition and Information Assurance (ARIA). As opposed to the existing AIDC, Automatic Identification and Data Collection, Childress says ARIA is a framework that will combine the strengths of various technologies, like voice recognition, RFID, sensors and wearable computers, resulting in adaptive solutions.

Today's AIDC warehouse systems are largely based on a "trust but validate" philosophy, he says. "Trust that the warehouse operator actually executes warehouse management system-directed tasks error free, but validate with typically redundant error checking efforts. With ARIA technologies, the accurate collection of critical information can occur automatically, in real time, in the normal work flow-not before or after the task is completed," he says.

As example, Childress outlines a typical picking work flow using an ARIA-enabled framework:

• A warehouse operator gets a voice direction from the WMS via a headset attached to a mobile computer on his arm, belt or installed on a lift truck.
• Upon arriving at the destination, an RFID reader on the operator's arm, belt or lift truck automatically confirms the location by reading an RFID tag embedded in the floor or on the rack.
• The warehouse operator picks the directed quantity.
• The RFID system confirms that the correct product has been picked in the correct quantity. If an error is made in item or quantity, the system communicates corrective action at the pick location.

Similar real-time validation processes could be applied to receiving and put-away, he says. "We need to think beyond current paradigms and processes and begin to consider the full capabilities of a family of mobile computing platforms, enabled with voice, RFID and other AIDC technologies and the many ways you can leverage their true potential with optimized application software and business processes. That is, don't think just of the technology-enabled operator, but of the technology-enabled process."

Many ARIA technologies are available today, Childress says. "What's needed is to marry these technologies to newly enabled work flows and to review current processes to identify areas in which ARIA will produce the highest potential return on investment."

There already are some indications that such a shift is occurring. One sign is the increasing adoption of voice-directed picking.

"We definitely are seeing an increase in voice-enabled logistics," says Tim Willis, marketing director at PEAK Technologies, a systems integrator of RF and warehouse systems in Columbia, Md. "I have seen some market data that suggests an annual growth rate of 30 percent to 40 percent for this technology."

In many instances, voice may be used in conjunction with traditional scanning. "There may be instances where a worker needs to record product identification numbers or lot numbers that are very long and it actually is faster to scan these than to say them," says Scott Yetter, president of Voxware, a leading provider of voice systems based in Lawrenceville, N.J. Also, a warehouse that may require scanning in some areas could switch to voice in cold storage to avoid condensation on the screen and the difficulty of operating handhelds with gloves. "I think multiple technologies clearly are converging," Yetter says. "That is why you see vendors like Motorola and LXE developing devices with both scanning and voice capabilities."

Additionally, voice is supplanting scanning and pick-to-light systems in some operations because of its ability to boost productivity and accuracy by freeing workers' hands and eyes. "It just makes sense that when your hands don't have to trigger a scan or key information on an RF terminal and you don't have to holster that device or put it on and take it off your waist, you save a lot of time," says Yetter. Moreover, he notes, voice and speech recognition technology is much improved from when it was first introduced and provides consistently clear and reliable communications.

Stephen Hoffman, logistics specialist at Dematic, a provider of materials handling equipment based in Grand Rapids, Mich., emphasizes the productivity improvements that come with a switch from an RF remote data terminal interface to voice-directed RF communications. "We have seen productivity increases of 15 percent to 20 percent from paper to voice," he says. While the technology alone creates faster and more accurate picks, the most savings come when companies take a holistic view of their entire warehouse operation, he says. "They need to make sure that fast-moving and slow-moving SKUs are correctly slotted and that they use proper sequencing or batching processes to optimize the amount of work each operator can do."

Under the Radar

While voice technology is growing, RFID adoption continues to lag the much-hyped expectations that followed mandates in 2005 from Wal-Mart and DOD, but the area is far from dormant. "RFID is almost flying under the radar right now," says McNerney. "It is not getting the kind of attention it did a year or two ago, but we are seeing people doing some pretty creative things."

Yard management, in particular, is an area where companies are making good use of RFID technology, he says. "By putting an RFID tag on all trailers and a reader on yard jockey equipment, companies can be a lot more efficient in finding vehicles and making sure they are at the dock for loading when they are supposed to be," he says.

"Yard management is especially popular with specialty retailers, who are importing a lot of product and may be holding some of that inventory in their yard," says Chad Collins, vice president of global strategy at HighJump Software, a 3m company based in Eden Prairie, Minn. Traditional handheld scanning of trailers and containers can be very powerful when used in conjunction with real-time locating systems, he says. RTLS typically triangulates the position of tagged assets by using fixed nodes in a wireless network. "RTLS can track the position of all those trailers and containers and feed that information into the yard management system. When you integrate a wireless handheld computer with up-to-date RTLS information on trailer and container locations, you have a very powerful combination," Collins says.

One company seeing benefits from wireless yard management is Shaw Industries Inc., the world's largest carpet manufacturer and a leading floor covering provider. Shaw recently deployed the WhereNet YMS solution at its main 79-acre distribution campus in Dalton, Ga., as well as at two supporting distribution centers in the area. Together these facilities account for more than 500,000 shipments each year.

"Most of our yard operations are now on autopilot thanks to WhereNet," says Jim Gordon, director of industrial engineering and systems, distribution division, for Shaw. The system has enabled Shaw to achieve a new level of efficiency for moving trailers and product within and between these distribution hubs, he says, noting that the company received a complete return on its investment in less than one year. "We're looking forward to implementing WhereSoft Yard in at least three more distribution facilities," he says.

Elsewhere in the supply chain, a lot of customers are "looking at pretty innovative ways to use RFID, but many of these applications are just not yet economically feasible," says Charles Covert, a vice president at UPS Supply Chain Solutions, Atlanta. At a certain point, the cost of tags and support infrastructure will hit a level that will trigger these projects and "they will take off because the processes already have been thought through," he says.

Additionally, a number of companies are moving ahead with standard warehouse RFID implementations.  Megatrux, a 3PL based in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., is one example, having equipped five dock doors at its new 200,000-square-foot warehouse with Motorola RFID readers. The implementation, which was installed by Ship2Save, Montreal, also includes RFID label printers/encoders from SATO America. So far, two Megatrux customers are using the RFID capabilities for shipments to Wal-Mart. The 3PL estimates it will save between $50,000 and $100,000 per year at this facility, which ships more than 1 million cartons to Wal-Mart annually, through improved order accuracy and operational efficiency. The company also plans to expand RFID deployment to other locations.

"We have the opportunity to be one of a limited few that are truly using RFID," says K.C. Pelle, executive vice president at Megatrux. "This is a huge advantage to us. Our capabilities with this technology are endless because people keep coming up with new ways to use it."

Wireless Vehicles

Fleet operators also continue to find new applications for wireless technology to better manage their highly mobile assets and drivers. Today's commercial vehicles are, in fact, a hub of wireless technology.

Satellite communications, pioneered by San Diego-based Qualcomm in 1988, are still for many companies the preferred means of tracking vehicle locations and communicating information to drivers. But Qualcomm's most recent transportation application, OmniVision, is a far cry from the black box, basic keyboard and tiny screen that first transformed long-haul trucking with on-the-road visibility. OmniVision is a complete mobile computing platform with an easy-to-use, color screen that can be operated by touch or with a remote control device, according to the company. Text-to-speech capability enables drivers to listen to messages without having to pull over and navigate a key pad. An optional electronic log frees drivers from having to keep paper log books, and data from electronic engine monitors enable performance reports that show the driver and the company how efficiently and safely he is driving.  Upcoming navigational capability will give drivers turn-by-turn directions geared specifically to truck operations, available as either text or voice.

A. Duie Pyle, a trucking company based in West Chester, Pa., has used Qualcomm throughout its fleet for over 10 years and now is in the process of migrating to OmniVision. "Qualcomm is certainly our most critical use of wireless technology," says Jim Dobson, IT director. "It allows us to provide real-time visibility of every shipment to our customers. And we have continued to find more return on this investment year after year as we invent new ways to utilize the valuable data that is available."

Dobson says the company plans to incorporate onboard navigation and other options for OmniVision as soon as these are available.

Paul Mueller, vice president of technology services at Schneider National, Green Bay, Wis., agrees that onboard navigation and turn-by-turn directions will be "a big advantage" for users of this and similar technology. Schneider was the first company to equip its entire fleet with Qualcomm technology, 19 years ago.

Mueller also sees huge potential in electronic onboard recorders for hours-of-service reporting. "New systems will have an interface the driver can use that is cabled into the truck and really automates that reporting," he says. "This will eliminate paperwork for drivers and give us a more immediate understanding of the number of hours a driver still has to run as well as his hours-of-service compliance."

Mueller says the trucking industry "is at something of an inflection point" in its use of wireless. "We think the next generation of technology will offer us significant opportunities to once again improve our service to customers and our operational processes and efficiencies, as well as improving the quality of life for the driver," he says.

This next wave of applications will use not only satellite communications but cellular networks and WiFi networks with a bandwidth great enough to transmit scanned documents, Mueller says. "That will enable us to change our proof-of-delivery process and take literally days out of the cycle," he says. "We will be able to invoice more quickly and get paid faster, which is very important."

From a driver perspective, Mueller envisions a model where the driver has a device that is more like a personal computer interface than the current text messaging interface, with text-to-voice capabilities on all messages. "We also anticipate actually having training applications or videos for the drivers in the cab," he says.

Saddle Creek, a transportation and logistics company based in Lakeland, Fla., expects many of these benefits from the onboard computing system it recently installed from PeopleNet Communications, Chaska, Minn. "The PeopleNet system is different from systems like Qualcomm because it is cellular-based instead of using a satellite for communications," says Mike DelBovo, senior vice president of Saddle Creek. Cellular can transmit more information less expensively than satellite, he says, and coverage has not been a problem. "PeopleNet uses multiple cell phone providers, so if the primary carrier is not available it will go to the next carrier. We operate in the Southeast and coverage has not been an issue."

The system uses onboard computers that enable two-way cellular communications without the use of cell phones. The computers are connected to Saddle Creek via the PeopleNet Wireless Fleet System and directly integrated into its transportation management system.

Saddle Creek implemented PeopleNet on 100 percent of its units, including those of its owner-operators. "We are about 30 percent owner-operator, so it is important that this key part of our fleet is tied in as well," DelBovo says. If owner-operators choose to link the onboard computer to electronic engine monitors, they have full access to all performance information, such as speed, idling time and fuel usage. "This is their business and having the performance information can help them reduce their operating costs so they can be more successful," he says.

Drivers use the in-vehicle computer to receive load assignments, work orders and instructions and to send status reports and other work-related information. Additionally, they can use it to send email to families and friends during breaks. "It was really important for us to improve our drivers' quality of life with this technology," DelBovo says.

Of course, improving operations also is crucial. DelBovo says the new system helps Saddle Creek reduce transportation costs through improved routing efficiency, vehicle performance and maintenance, fuel optimization and dispatcher efficiency. Because it is integrated into the company's transportation management system, it is able to send automatic notifications if a driver is running late. "If you just had the tracking system without the TMS integration, it would not be able to do this," he says. "The integration part is really important."

Ryder System, Miami, equips its fleet with an onboard system that it calls Ryde-Smart. This is a full-featured system that includes a global positioning system locator to better manage fleet assets, says Kevin Bott, senior vice president and CIO. It also has cellular capabilities and links to the truck's electronic control module. "This allows us to directly get information feeds on a truck's speed, driving behavior, idle time, fault codes and so on," Bott says. "There is a lot of information that comes from the vehicle itself that is very helpful from a management standpoint."

A recently enhanced version of Ryde-Smart has a more user-friendly driver interface that facilitates text messaging and hours-of-service reporting, he says. "We also are using it for fuel tax reporting. We have to track every mile that each vehicle travels in every state so each state can get its fuel tax money and this automation really simplified that," he says.

Penske Logistics, Reading, Pa., uses a wireless system that it calls CellCom. Unlike the other systems discussed, CellCom provides cell phones to drivers rather than equipping vehicles with a black box. "Currently nearly 3,000 drivers are using CellCom, primarily on dedicated fleets," says Tom McKenna, senior vice president, logistics engineering. "We load applications on the phone and have a data plan that is specific to these phones."

Applications that Penske loads onto the phones allow drivers to download their routes, send arrival and departure information and communicate as necessary, he explains. "This system mimics a lot of what you get from satellite technology or from having a PC embedded in the cab, and we have found that training on a cell phone is significantly easier than putting a keyboard in front of a driver," he says. "Everyone is used to using a cell phone and if you design it so data entry is basically a few letters and numbers, it is very easy to use, training is much quicker and adoption is much higher."

The cell phone also can provide location information by triangulating signals from cell phone towers. Only Sprint/Nextel offers this type of location service today, but other carriers are expected to roll out such offerings in coming months. As it becomes more generally available, Penske will be a big user of this type of location service, McKenna says. "Our cell phones will be able to give us a location and time stamp so our management system will be continually updated," he says.

Penske also is building into CellCom a text messaging capability that will enable it to contact drivers with just a cell phone number. "This will allow us to work a lot more easily with third-party drivers because all we will really need is the driver's phone number," says Percy Bhathena, director of enterprise applications at Penske. This solution is being piloted now with one customer and two of its carriers.

Another innovation Penske has added is to connect the cell phone to a Bluetooth barcode scanner so that drivers can scan and capture a proof of delivery at the point of delivery. "Customers really like this feature," Bhathena says. "On the first day that one client was piloting the system, one of its customers claimed that a shipment worth around $2,000 had not been delivered. The dispatcher immediately was able to call up the document that the driver had scanned and transmitted and the customer then went back and found the box. It was great."

UPS parcel drivers have been capturing proof-of-delivery signatures for years using the company's proprietary Delivery Information Acquisition Device or DIAD. This year, UPS is rolling out the DIAD to UPS Freight (formerly known as Overnite), equipping 4,800 less-than-truckload drivers with the latest version of the handheld, DIAD IV. "This will allow our LTL customers to have the same precision control and visibility of freight shipments as they are used to having on their small-package shipments," says Covert. "We see that as a key differentiator for us in the LTL marketplace because these customers can now know the exact status on when a shipment was received. We think it is a big step to extend this proven technology into a new area."

Ryder also has programs in which drivers use wireless technology to capture documentation on the spot. "We have a pretty sophisticated system in Canada where we have real-time integration with the customer for proof of delivery on retail deliveries," says Bott. In addition, these drivers are able to reconcile situations on site when there is a problem. For example, if a company gets more product than it ordered, the driver can enter an order in real time for the overage and bill the consignee or it can document the product that was refused and immediately give a credit receipt. "A handheld device captures the customer's signature and makes the changes, then the driver goes back to the vehicle and syncs it up with a cell phone, which sends the data back and updates our system in real time," says Bott. "That's pretty state of the art."

Bluetooth technology also is being used in the field to allow drivers and/or service representatives to communicate with portable printers, says Robert Danahy, director of mobile and wireless technology. "This allows these mobile workers to print an invoice or a receipt or a proof of delivery on site," he says. "Today I would say 80 percent of the printers we deploy outside the four walls are using Bluetooth technology."

Route drivers that often sell soft drinks or other food or beverage items off their truck are using handheld tools to give customers up-to-the minute information on pricing and promotions as well as inventory availability, says HighJump's Collins. "Wireless is key in this scenario because it enables sales reps to provide the most up-to-date information, which helps them sell more product." Being able to wirelessly send orders back to the warehouse from the field also saves time and boosts productivity. HighJump has introduced a solution called Mobile Sales Advantage for this space.

Geo-Fencing Zones

Another increasing use of radio and GPS technology is to create geo-fences around delivery zones. When a truck or driver carrying a programmed wireless device crosses into one of these zones, a message is automatically sent notifying the command center of its arrival or departure. Rules can be established to send alerts if a vehicle does not arrive as expected, if it is staying at the location longer than expected or if it leaves a location where it is supposed to be.

Schneider makes extensive use of this technology, says Mueller. "We have thousands of shipper or drop locations where we create a geo-fence based on the coordinates of the location. Then when our assets enter or exit, we are automatically notified."

Saddle Creek also establishes geo-fences at all of its customer locations. This automatically lets the company know when a driver arrives. "More importantly, though, it tells us in advance when loads are running late," says DelBovo. "That enables us to inform the right people or do damage control as needed."

In its South American operations, Ryder uses geo-fencing for security reasons. "We go into some pretty high-crime areas to make deliveries and we use cellular technology to put up a geo-fence around those areas," says Bott. "If the driver is within the zone for more than certain amount of time we actually will disable the truck remotely, because it potentially has been hijacked or stolen. We will first try to get hold of the driver, but we have the ability to turn off the engine if we need to."

Trailer Tracking

Many transportation companies today are wirelessly tracking not just power units but trailers that are untethered from these units as well. Schneider has equipped its entire dry van trailer fleet with a tracking system from Qualcomm. It uses satellite technology to get the trailer's GPS location and cellular technology to transmit data. "We have had many situations where a driver could not locate a trailer in a large yard and we were able to bring up a satellite image of that location and superimpose over it the coordinates of the trailer," says Mueller. "We could then tell the driver, for example, that the trailer was located in the southwest corner of the lot under the big tree." Better information on trailer locations "has been extremely effective in allowing us to improve our level of service to customers," he adds.

Another advantage of this system is that it uses sensors to monitor whether a trailer is loaded or empty and transmits this information. "When an event occurs, such as a trailer being loaded or unloaded, a message is triggered notifying us of the change in status," Mueller says. "This allows us to get the best utilization of that asset."

Sensor technology is becoming more prevalent on tractors and trailers. While trucking companies have long used engine sensors that record data on equipment and operator performance, "this next generation of technology will extend that capability to things like fuel monitoring and tire inflation," says Mueller. "I can certainly envision a solution designed from an intelligent system perspective that would have a single device collecting and communicating all sorts of information from inside and outside the vehicle."

This technology also is extending to rail and intermodal assets. One sensor that is growing quickly in the rail sector monitors the temperature in tank cars, says Thomas Konditi, president and CEO of GE Asset Intelligence, which provides VeriWise wireless solutions for truck, rail and marine equipment. "This is of particular interest from a safety standpoint because the products carried in tank cars are often temperature and environmentally sensitive so it is important to keep a close eye on them and to always know their location," he says. Other sensors monitor the frequency and severity of impacts these cars experience during rail operations. "This is something that doesn't come up on the trucking side, but rail cars have to withstand a substantial amount of impact just in normal operations," he says. "Sensors send alerts if an impact exceeds a certain level and that is important for both maintenance and safety reasons."

BASF has equipped more than 130 of its rail assets with the VeriWise system and plans to "roll this out significantly" through the end of next year, says Greg Buza, global marine and North America rail manager at BASF. One of the things unique about BASF's use of this product is that it combines the VeriWise GPS data with car location messaging provided by the major railroads, Buza says. Using both sources of information, "We can start to recalculate ETAs and better plan for the actual arrival of cars. This aspect helps us bring more value to our customer," he says. Buza explains that tracking is complicated in the rail industry because "simply knowing where a car is doesn't tell you which railroad is in control of it at the time," he says. "That information comes from the traditional car location messaging data."

This type of application falls under the category of machine-to-machine telematics or M2M, which covers a vast range of uses. "Any kind of remote sensor can be hooked into this type of platform to relay information back to fleet owners so they know not only the location but the health and status of the asset," says Scott Barkley, senior product director at Jasper Wireless, Sunnyvale, Calif. Jasper Wireless offers a global M2M network that enables local coverage in multiple countries using a single SIM card. "Our solution eliminates a key barrier to global implementations of this technology by removing the need to juggle multiple vendors and multiple SIMs in different countries and encountering high cross-border coverage roaming charges," he says.

"Onboard black boxes are increasingly becoming more powerful and reaching further down into the whole management of the supply chain," says Alex Brisbourne, president of KORE Telematics, Herndon, Va., another company in this field. "The bottom line is that if you can make better business decisions by measuring something, or if you can control cost and service quality better by knowing where something is, you can get that information over a wireless airwave," says Brisbourne. "You can equip a machine to transmit whatever information you want over a cellular network and into an application."

RESOURCE LINKS:

AMR Research, www.amrresearch.com
Symbol Technologies, www.symbol.com
Zebra Technologies, www.zebra.com
WhereNet, www.wherenet.com
GE Asset Intelligence, www.ge.com/equipmentservices/assetintelligence/
LXE, www.lxe.com
PEAK Technologies, www.peaktech.com
Voxware, www.voxware.com
Dematic, www.dematic.com
HighJump Software, www.highjump.com
UPS Supply Chain Solutions, www.upsscs.com
Megatrux, www.megatrux.com
Qualcomm, www.qualcomm.com
Schneider National, www.schneider.com
A. Duie Pyle, www.aduiepyle.com
Saddle Creek, www.saddlecrk.com
PeopleNet Communications, www.peoplenetonline.com
Ryder System, www.ryder.com
Penske Logistics, www.penskelogistics.com
Jasper Wireless, www.jasperwireless.com
KORE Telematics, www.koretelematics.com

Long before talk of enterprise and workforce "mobility," long before the ubiquity of cell phones, wireless laptops and PDAs, transportation and logistics companies were using radio frequency and satellite technologies to track goods and transmit critical information in the supply chain. They were in many ways pioneers of wireless applications and today the logistics sector continues to invest in and look for new ways to use this evolving technology.

This commitment is driven not only by a desire to reduce costs and improve productivity but by customer expectations. According to a new study from AMR Research, Boston, U.S. companies have very high ambitions for future supply chain deployments of wireless networks. "Rather than just use mobile technology as a better way to communicate or transact business operations, companies are now thinking about how mobility can be used to automate processes and decision making in the supply chain, particularly with highly repetitive tasks or those that require continual, real-time monitoring of product condition or state," say analysts John Fontanella and Karen Carter, who wrote the report. These expectations represent a challenge to vendors to provide devices, software and integration tools that can do more than ever before, they say.

Recent merger and acquisition activity indicates how some vendors are positioning themselves to meet the demands of this market. Symbol Technologies, a leader in radio frequency technology and devices, last year was acquired by Motorola, a major player in the cellular market. Zebra Technologies, which makes a wide range of printers for barcode and RFID labels, earlier this year purchased WhereNet, a leading vendor of wireless real-time locating systems (RTLS). Just last month, Zebra  announced the additional acquisition of Germany's proveo, an RTLS provider for airports, and Navis, an Oakland-based company that provides logistics solutions for marine terminals. In January, GE Equipment Services, which provides asset management and tracking solutions for trailers and rail cars, purchased Terion, one of the first companies to market a tracking product for untethered trailers.

These alignments, and others that are sure to come, will doubtless contribute to a convergence of technologies and to better integrated devices and applications. For example, GE Equipment Services drew on both its existing satellite technology and Terion's cellular technology in its new VeriWise solution for rail cars and intermodal assets.

Jerry McNerney, formerly of Symbol and now senior director of logistics solutions at Motorola, notes an accelerated effort to add voice capability to Symbol's handheld devices since the acquisition. "Most of our customers are in an enterprise environment and have primarily focused on data or information transference," he says. "Now they want the ability to add voice communications as well. For us, that's the story in our becoming part of Motorola-we have more ability to expand our product portfolio, especially around voice technology."

Jim Childress, president of LXE, Norcross, Ga., believes convergence of technologies will drive evolution of wireless in the supply chain to its next level-something this provider of RF networks and devices calls Adaptive Recognition and Information Assurance (ARIA). As opposed to the existing AIDC, Automatic Identification and Data Collection, Childress says ARIA is a framework that will combine the strengths of various technologies, like voice recognition, RFID, sensors and wearable computers, resulting in adaptive solutions.

Today's AIDC warehouse systems are largely based on a "trust but validate" philosophy, he says. "Trust that the warehouse operator actually executes warehouse management system-directed tasks error free, but validate with typically redundant error checking efforts. With ARIA technologies, the accurate collection of critical information can occur automatically, in real time, in the normal work flow-not before or after the task is completed," he says.

As example, Childress outlines a typical picking work flow using an ARIA-enabled framework:

• A warehouse operator gets a voice direction from the WMS via a headset attached to a mobile computer on his arm, belt or installed on a lift truck.
• Upon arriving at the destination, an RFID reader on the operator's arm, belt or lift truck automatically confirms the location by reading an RFID tag embedded in the floor or on the rack.
• The warehouse operator picks the directed quantity.
• The RFID system confirms that the correct product has been picked in the correct quantity. If an error is made in item or quantity, the system communicates corrective action at the pick location.

Similar real-time validation processes could be applied to receiving and put-away, he says. "We need to think beyond current paradigms and processes and begin to consider the full capabilities of a family of mobile computing platforms, enabled with voice, RFID and other AIDC technologies and the many ways you can leverage their true potential with optimized application software and business processes. That is, don't think just of the technology-enabled operator, but of the technology-enabled process."

Many ARIA technologies are available today, Childress says. "What's needed is to marry these technologies to newly enabled work flows and to review current processes to identify areas in which ARIA will produce the highest potential return on investment."

There already are some indications that such a shift is occurring. One sign is the increasing adoption of voice-directed picking.

"We definitely are seeing an increase in voice-enabled logistics," says Tim Willis, marketing director at PEAK Technologies, a systems integrator of RF and warehouse systems in Columbia, Md. "I have seen some market data that suggests an annual growth rate of 30 percent to 40 percent for this technology."

In many instances, voice may be used in conjunction with traditional scanning. "There may be instances where a worker needs to record product identification numbers or lot numbers that are very long and it actually is faster to scan these than to say them," says Scott Yetter, president of Voxware, a leading provider of voice systems based in Lawrenceville, N.J. Also, a warehouse that may require scanning in some areas could switch to voice in cold storage to avoid condensation on the screen and the difficulty of operating handhelds with gloves. "I think multiple technologies clearly are converging," Yetter says. "That is why you see vendors like Motorola and LXE developing devices with both scanning and voice capabilities."

Additionally, voice is supplanting scanning and pick-to-light systems in some operations because of its ability to boost productivity and accuracy by freeing workers' hands and eyes. "It just makes sense that when your hands don't have to trigger a scan or key information on an RF terminal and you don't have to holster that device or put it on and take it off your waist, you save a lot of time," says Yetter. Moreover, he notes, voice and speech recognition technology is much improved from when it was first introduced and provides consistently clear and reliable communications.

Stephen Hoffman, logistics specialist at Dematic, a provider of materials handling equipment based in Grand Rapids, Mich., emphasizes the productivity improvements that come with a switch from an RF remote data terminal interface to voice-directed RF communications. "We have seen productivity increases of 15 percent to 20 percent from paper to voice," he says. While the technology alone creates faster and more accurate picks, the most savings come when companies take a holistic view of their entire warehouse operation, he says. "They need to make sure that fast-moving and slow-moving SKUs are correctly slotted and that they use proper sequencing or batching processes to optimize the amount of work each operator can do."

Under the Radar

While voice technology is growing, RFID adoption continues to lag the much-hyped expectations that followed mandates in 2005 from Wal-Mart and DOD, but the area is far from dormant. "RFID is almost flying under the radar right now," says McNerney. "It is not getting the kind of attention it did a year or two ago, but we are seeing people doing some pretty creative things."

Yard management, in particular, is an area where companies are making good use of RFID technology, he says. "By putting an RFID tag on all trailers and a reader on yard jockey equipment, companies can be a lot more efficient in finding vehicles and making sure they are at the dock for loading when they are supposed to be," he says.

"Yard management is especially popular with specialty retailers, who are importing a lot of product and may be holding some of that inventory in their yard," says Chad Collins, vice president of global strategy at HighJump Software, a 3m company based in Eden Prairie, Minn. Traditional handheld scanning of trailers and containers can be very powerful when used in conjunction with real-time locating systems, he says. RTLS typically triangulates the position of tagged assets by using fixed nodes in a wireless network. "RTLS can track the position of all those trailers and containers and feed that information into the yard management system. When you integrate a wireless handheld computer with up-to-date RTLS information on trailer and container locations, you have a very powerful combination," Collins says.

One company seeing benefits from wireless yard management is Shaw Industries Inc., the world's largest carpet manufacturer and a leading floor covering provider. Shaw recently deployed the WhereNet YMS solution at its main 79-acre distribution campus in Dalton, Ga., as well as at two supporting distribution centers in the area. Together these facilities account for more than 500,000 shipments each year.

"Most of our yard operations are now on autopilot thanks to WhereNet," says Jim Gordon, director of industrial engineering and systems, distribution division, for Shaw. The system has enabled Shaw to achieve a new level of efficiency for moving trailers and product within and between these distribution hubs, he says, noting that the company received a complete return on its investment in less than one year. "We're looking forward to implementing WhereSoft Yard in at least three more distribution facilities," he says.

Elsewhere in the supply chain, a lot of customers are "looking at pretty innovative ways to use RFID, but many of these applications are just not yet economically feasible," says Charles Covert, a vice president at UPS Supply Chain Solutions, Atlanta. At a certain point, the cost of tags and support infrastructure will hit a level that will trigger these projects and "they will take off because the processes already have been thought through," he says.

Additionally, a number of companies are moving ahead with standard warehouse RFID implementations.  Megatrux, a 3PL based in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., is one example, having equipped five dock doors at its new 200,000-square-foot warehouse with Motorola RFID readers. The implementation, which was installed by Ship2Save, Montreal, also includes RFID label printers/encoders from SATO America. So far, two Megatrux customers are using the RFID capabilities for shipments to Wal-Mart. The 3PL estimates it will save between $50,000 and $100,000 per year at this facility, which ships more than 1 million cartons to Wal-Mart annually, through improved order accuracy and operational efficiency. The company also plans to expand RFID deployment to other locations.

"We have the opportunity to be one of a limited few that are truly using RFID," says K.C. Pelle, executive vice president at Megatrux. "This is a huge advantage to us. Our capabilities with this technology are endless because people keep coming up with new ways to use it."

Wireless Vehicles

Fleet operators also continue to find new applications for wireless technology to better manage their highly mobile assets and drivers. Today's commercial vehicles are, in fact, a hub of wireless technology.

Satellite communications, pioneered by San Diego-based Qualcomm in 1988, are still for many companies the preferred means of tracking vehicle locations and communicating information to drivers. But Qualcomm's most recent transportation application, OmniVision, is a far cry from the black box, basic keyboard and tiny screen that first transformed long-haul trucking with on-the-road visibility. OmniVision is a complete mobile computing platform with an easy-to-use, color screen that can be operated by touch or with a remote control device, according to the company. Text-to-speech capability enables drivers to listen to messages without having to pull over and navigate a key pad. An optional electronic log frees drivers from having to keep paper log books, and data from electronic engine monitors enable performance reports that show the driver and the company how efficiently and safely he is driving.  Upcoming navigational capability will give drivers turn-by-turn directions geared specifically to truck operations, available as either text or voice.

A. Duie Pyle, a trucking company based in West Chester, Pa., has used Qualcomm throughout its fleet for over 10 years and now is in the process of migrating to OmniVision. "Qualcomm is certainly our most critical use of wireless technology," says Jim Dobson, IT director. "It allows us to provide real-time visibility of every shipment to our customers. And we have continued to find more return on this investment year after year as we invent new ways to utilize the valuable data that is available."

Dobson says the company plans to incorporate onboard navigation and other options for OmniVision as soon as these are available.

Paul Mueller, vice president of technology services at Schneider National, Green Bay, Wis., agrees that onboard navigation and turn-by-turn directions will be "a big advantage" for users of this and similar technology. Schneider was the first company to equip its entire fleet with Qualcomm technology, 19 years ago.

Mueller also sees huge potential in electronic onboard recorders for hours-of-service reporting. "New systems will have an interface the driver can use that is cabled into the truck and really automates that reporting," he says. "This will eliminate paperwork for drivers and give us a more immediate understanding of the number of hours a driver still has to run as well as his hours-of-service compliance."

Mueller says the trucking industry "is at something of an inflection point" in its use of wireless. "We think the next generation of technology will offer us significant opportunities to once again improve our service to customers and our operational processes and efficiencies, as well as improving the quality of life for the driver," he says.

This next wave of applications will use not only satellite communications but cellular networks and WiFi networks with a bandwidth great enough to transmit scanned documents, Mueller says. "That will enable us to change our proof-of-delivery process and take literally days out of the cycle," he says. "We will be able to invoice more quickly and get paid faster, which is very important."

From a driver perspective, Mueller envisions a model where the driver has a device that is more like a personal computer interface than the current text messaging interface, with text-to-voice capabilities on all messages. "We also anticipate actually having training applications or videos for the drivers in the cab," he says.

Saddle Creek, a transportation and logistics company based in Lakeland, Fla., expects many of these benefits from the onboard computing system it recently installed from PeopleNet Communications, Chaska, Minn. "The PeopleNet system is different from systems like Qualcomm because it is cellular-based instead of using a satellite for communications," says Mike DelBovo, senior vice president of Saddle Creek. Cellular can transmit more information less expensively than satellite, he says, and coverage has not been a problem. "PeopleNet uses multiple cell phone providers, so if the primary carrier is not available it will go to the next carrier. We operate in the Southeast and coverage has not been an issue."

The system uses onboard computers that enable two-way cellular communications without the use of cell phones. The computers are connected to Saddle Creek via the PeopleNet Wireless Fleet System and directly integrated into its transportation management system.

Saddle Creek implemented PeopleNet on 100 percent of its units, including those of its owner-operators. "We are about 30 percent owner-operator, so it is important that this key part of our fleet is tied in as well," DelBovo says. If owner-operators choose to link the onboard computer to electronic engine monitors, they have full access to all performance information, such as speed, idling time and fuel usage. "This is their business and having the performance information can help them reduce their operating costs so they can be more successful," he says.

Drivers use the in-vehicle computer to receive load assignments, work orders and instructions and to send status reports and other work-related information. Additionally, they can use it to send email to families and friends during breaks. "It was really important for us to improve our drivers' quality of life with this technology," DelBovo says.

Of course, improving operations also is crucial. DelBovo says the new system helps Saddle Creek reduce transportation costs through improved routing efficiency, vehicle performance and maintenance, fuel optimization and dispatcher efficiency. Because it is integrated into the company's transportation management system, it is able to send automatic notifications if a driver is running late. "If you just had the tracking system without the TMS integration, it would not be able to do this," he says. "The integration part is really important."

Ryder System, Miami, equips its fleet with an onboard system that it calls Ryde-Smart. This is a full-featured system that includes a global positioning system locator to better manage fleet assets, says Kevin Bott, senior vice president and CIO. It also has cellular capabilities and links to the truck's electronic control module. "This allows us to directly get information feeds on a truck's speed, driving behavior, idle time, fault codes and so on," Bott says. "There is a lot of information that comes from the vehicle itself that is very helpful from a management standpoint."

A recently enhanced version of Ryde-Smart has a more user-friendly driver interface that facilitates text messaging and hours-of-service reporting, he says. "We also are using it for fuel tax reporting. We have to track every mile that each vehicle travels in every state so each state can get its fuel tax money and this automation really simplified that," he says.

Penske Logistics, Reading, Pa., uses a wireless system that it calls CellCom. Unlike the other systems discussed, CellCom provides cell phones to drivers rather than equipping vehicles with a black box. "Currently nearly 3,000 drivers are using CellCom, primarily on dedicated fleets," says Tom McKenna, senior vice president, logistics engineering. "We load applications on the phone and have a data plan that is specific to these phones."

Applications that Penske loads onto the phones allow drivers to download their routes, send arrival and departure information and communicate as necessary, he explains. "This system mimics a lot of what you get from satellite technology or from having a PC embedded in the cab, and we have found that training on a cell phone is significantly easier than putting a keyboard in front of a driver," he says. "Everyone is used to using a cell phone and if you design it so data entry is basically a few letters and numbers, it is very easy to use, training is much quicker and adoption is much higher."

The cell phone also can provide location information by triangulating signals from cell phone towers. Only Sprint/Nextel offers this type of location service today, but other carriers are expected to roll out such offerings in coming months. As it becomes more generally available, Penske will be a big user of this type of location service, McKenna says. "Our cell phones will be able to give us a location and time stamp so our management system will be continually updated," he says.

Penske also is building into CellCom a text messaging capability that will enable it to contact drivers with just a cell phone number. "This will allow us to work a lot more easily with third-party drivers because all we will really need is the driver's phone number," says Percy Bhathena, director of enterprise applications at Penske. This solution is being piloted now with one customer and two of its carriers.

Another innovation Penske has added is to connect the cell phone to a Bluetooth barcode scanner so that drivers can scan and capture a proof of delivery at the point of delivery. "Customers really like this feature," Bhathena says. "On the first day that one client was piloting the system, one of its customers claimed that a shipment worth around $2,000 had not been delivered. The dispatcher immediately was able to call up the document that the driver had scanned and transmitted and the customer then went back and found the box. It was great."

UPS parcel drivers have been capturing proof-of-delivery signatures for years using the company's proprietary Delivery Information Acquisition Device or DIAD. This year, UPS is rolling out the DIAD to UPS Freight (formerly known as Overnite), equipping 4,800 less-than-truckload drivers with the latest version of the handheld, DIAD IV. "This will allow our LTL customers to have the same precision control and visibility of freight shipments as they are used to having on their small-package shipments," says Covert. "We see that as a key differentiator for us in the LTL marketplace because these customers can now know the exact status on when a shipment was received. We think it is a big step to extend this proven technology into a new area."

Ryder also has programs in which drivers use wireless technology to capture documentation on the spot. "We have a pretty sophisticated system in Canada where we have real-time integration with the customer for proof of delivery on retail deliveries," says Bott. In addition, these drivers are able to reconcile situations on site when there is a problem. For example, if a company gets more product than it ordered, the driver can enter an order in real time for the overage and bill the consignee or it can document the product that was refused and immediately give a credit receipt. "A handheld device captures the customer's signature and makes the changes, then the driver goes back to the vehicle and syncs it up with a cell phone, which sends the data back and updates our system in real time," says Bott. "That's pretty state of the art."

Bluetooth technology also is being used in the field to allow drivers and/or service representatives to communicate with portable printers, says Robert Danahy, director of mobile and wireless technology. "This allows these mobile workers to print an invoice or a receipt or a proof of delivery on site," he says. "Today I would say 80 percent of the printers we deploy outside the four walls are using Bluetooth technology."

Route drivers that often sell soft drinks or other food or beverage items off their truck are using handheld tools to give customers up-to-the minute information on pricing and promotions as well as inventory availability, says HighJump's Collins. "Wireless is key in this scenario because it enables sales reps to provide the most up-to-date information, which helps them sell more product." Being able to wirelessly send orders back to the warehouse from the field also saves time and boosts productivity. HighJump has introduced a solution called Mobile Sales Advantage for this space.

Geo-Fencing Zones

Another increasing use of radio and GPS technology is to create geo-fences around delivery zones. When a truck or driver carrying a programmed wireless device crosses into one of these zones, a message is automatically sent notifying the command center of its arrival or departure. Rules can be established to send alerts if a vehicle does not arrive as expected, if it is staying at the location longer than expected or if it leaves a location where it is supposed to be.

Schneider makes extensive use of this technology, says Mueller. "We have thousands of shipper or drop locations where we create a geo-fence based on the coordinates of the location. Then when our assets enter or exit, we are automatically notified."

Saddle Creek also establishes geo-fences at all of its customer locations. This automatically lets the company know when a driver arrives. "More importantly, though, it tells us in advance when loads are running late," says DelBovo. "That enables us to inform the right people or do damage control as needed."

In its South American operations, Ryder uses geo-fencing for security reasons. "We go into some pretty high-crime areas to make deliveries and we use cellular technology to put up a geo-fence around those areas," says Bott. "If the driver is within the zone for more than certain amount of time we actually will disable the truck remotely, because it potentially has been hijacked or stolen. We will first try to get hold of the driver, but we have the ability to turn off the engine if we need to."

Trailer Tracking

Many transportation companies today are wirelessly tracking not just power units but trailers that are untethered from these units as well. Schneider has equipped its entire dry van trailer fleet with a tracking system from Qualcomm. It uses satellite technology to get the trailer's GPS location and cellular technology to transmit data. "We have had many situations where a driver could not locate a trailer in a large yard and we were able to bring up a satellite image of that location and superimpose over it the coordinates of the trailer," says Mueller. "We could then tell the driver, for example, that the trailer was located in the southwest corner of the lot under the big tree." Better information on trailer locations "has been extremely effective in allowing us to improve our level of service to customers," he adds.

Another advantage of this system is that it uses sensors to monitor whether a trailer is loaded or empty and transmits this information. "When an event occurs, such as a trailer being loaded or unloaded, a message is triggered notifying us of the change in status," Mueller says. "This allows us to get the best utilization of that asset."

Sensor technology is becoming more prevalent on tractors and trailers. While trucking companies have long used engine sensors that record data on equipment and operator performance, "this next generation of technology will extend that capability to things like fuel monitoring and tire inflation," says Mueller. "I can certainly envision a solution designed from an intelligent system perspective that would have a single device collecting and communicating all sorts of information from inside and outside the vehicle."

This technology also is extending to rail and intermodal assets. One sensor that is growing quickly in the rail sector monitors the temperature in tank cars, says Thomas Konditi, president and CEO of GE Asset Intelligence, which provides VeriWise wireless solutions for truck, rail and marine equipment. "This is of particular interest from a safety standpoint because the products carried in tank cars are often temperature and environmentally sensitive so it is important to keep a close eye on them and to always know their location," he says. Other sensors monitor the frequency and severity of impacts these cars experience during rail operations. "This is something that doesn't come up on the trucking side, but rail cars have to withstand a substantial amount of impact just in normal operations," he says. "Sensors send alerts if an impact exceeds a certain level and that is important for both maintenance and safety reasons."

BASF has equipped more than 130 of its rail assets with the VeriWise system and plans to "roll this out significantly" through the end of next year, says Greg Buza, global marine and North America rail manager at BASF. One of the things unique about BASF's use of this product is that it combines the VeriWise GPS data with car location messaging provided by the major railroads, Buza says. Using both sources of information, "We can start to recalculate ETAs and better plan for the actual arrival of cars. This aspect helps us bring more value to our customer," he says. Buza explains that tracking is complicated in the rail industry because "simply knowing where a car is doesn't tell you which railroad is in control of it at the time," he says. "That information comes from the traditional car location messaging data."

This type of application falls under the category of machine-to-machine telematics or M2M, which covers a vast range of uses. "Any kind of remote sensor can be hooked into this type of platform to relay information back to fleet owners so they know not only the location but the health and status of the asset," says Scott Barkley, senior product director at Jasper Wireless, Sunnyvale, Calif. Jasper Wireless offers a global M2M network that enables local coverage in multiple countries using a single SIM card. "Our solution eliminates a key barrier to global implementations of this technology by removing the need to juggle multiple vendors and multiple SIMs in different countries and encountering high cross-border coverage roaming charges," he says.

"Onboard black boxes are increasingly becoming more powerful and reaching further down into the whole management of the supply chain," says Alex Brisbourne, president of KORE Telematics, Herndon, Va., another company in this field. "The bottom line is that if you can make better business decisions by measuring something, or if you can control cost and service quality better by knowing where something is, you can get that information over a wireless airwave," says Brisbourne. "You can equip a machine to transmit whatever information you want over a cellular network and into an application."

RESOURCE LINKS:

AMR Research, www.amrresearch.com
Symbol Technologies, www.symbol.com
Zebra Technologies, www.zebra.com
WhereNet, www.wherenet.com
GE Asset Intelligence, www.ge.com/equipmentservices/assetintelligence/
LXE, www.lxe.com
PEAK Technologies, www.peaktech.com
Voxware, www.voxware.com
Dematic, www.dematic.com
HighJump Software, www.highjump.com
UPS Supply Chain Solutions, www.upsscs.com
Megatrux, www.megatrux.com
Qualcomm, www.qualcomm.com
Schneider National, www.schneider.com
A. Duie Pyle, www.aduiepyle.com
Saddle Creek, www.saddlecrk.com
PeopleNet Communications, www.peoplenetonline.com
Ryder System, www.ryder.com
Penske Logistics, www.penskelogistics.com
Jasper Wireless, www.jasperwireless.com
KORE Telematics, www.koretelematics.com