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Wireless connectivity may be a new trend for many enterprise workers, but it is more than a decade old in the logistics arena, where truck drivers and warehouse employees were among the first to use wireless handheld and vehicle-mounted devices as a regular part of their jobs.
Today, distribution centers, warehouses and ports routinely use wireless local-area networks (WLANs) to support a variety of data collection and communications activities that enhance logistics productivity. General freight carriers employ satellite and cellular technology to track assets and transmit real-time transaction data, while express delivery companies like United Parcel Service, DHL and Federal Express have some of the most sophisticated wireless networks in the world.
Moreover, as the cost and complexity of wireless technology has come down, even the smallest companies have been able to take advantage of mobile communications.
"In logistics environments, wireless coverage is fast becoming a competitive requirement," says Richard Bauly, vice president of strategy and business development at Psion Teklogix, a provider of mobile computing solutions based in Mississauga, Ont. "The cost of the technology is going down, the complexity is going down and maturity is going up. So you have a perfect storm of things all coming together to make it much easier and cheaper to deploy the technology, to keep the technology running and to get the return on investment."
Bill Morris, director of hardware systems at Atlanta-based Manhattan Associates, agrees. "I would say today close to 100 percent of our customers implement wireless local-area networks, from large enterprises right down to the very smallest. It is almost a standard business practice today," he says. Manhattan provides warehouse management and other supply-chain execution solutions.
As small companies make initial investments, early adopters are busy "refreshing" their systems with more advanced bells and whistles, which adds up to a positive outlook for wireless equipment and service providers. Bauly reports that Psion Teklogix's market started to pick up in 2002 and remains strong. "We anticipate this market to continue for a few more years if the economy stays good," he says.
Mature wireless users are finding new ways to extend and leverage wireless capabilities as they upgrade. DHL, for example, is introducing courier handheld terminals that are WLAN-enabled so that couriers can use the wireless backbone at DHL service centers to transmit and receive data. "This enables a lot of high volume data traffic to pass between the service center and the device itself in a relatively inexpensive manner," says Steve McCarthy, mobile data services manager at the Plantation, Fla.-based express carrier. "It also allows us to update software via the wireless LAN instead of cradling the device itself." And when the driver returns from a delivery route, all of the digital signature information collected during the day can be transmitted using the WLAN backbone, he says.
DHL also is testing at one of its European centers an initiative that uses the WLAN as the infrastructure for mobile phones. "This is a particularly interesting use of wireless," McCarthy says. "You can be anywhere within the building and still get your phone call without using a cellular network, so this reduces the cost to the company." The phone, of course, must be specially equipped and the WLAN adapted to this application.
UPS, the Atlanta-based parcel giant, was a pioneer in the use and development of wireless tracking technology and continues to push the envelope. It currently is moving toward completion of a major global project to standardize on a single terminal platform for all wireless applications. When completed in 2006, the project, known as Standard Terminal Platform or SteP, will represent one of the largest Wi-Fi deployments in the world with 15,000 access points in 1,700 facilities and 200,000 terminals or devices. "UPS has in the past used a number of different applications that were deployed on a global scale supporting our scanning operation and each of those may have had a different set of standards or components within the architecture," says John Killeen, director of global network services at UPS.
With the SteP project, the company is standardizing on four core terminals for different aspects of its operations. The four are the electronic clipboard carried by UPS drivers, known as the Delivery Information Acquisition Device or DIAD; the fixed mounted terminal in hub operations that supports the management of equipment being loaded and unloaded; the terminal worn by loaders and unloaders that collects barcode data; and the handheld device used by road supervisors. "The one common thing about these four terminals is that we have standardized on a single application architecture, which is Windows CE, and on a common wireless infrastructure, which is 802.11b," says Killeen.
There is one important exception to that standardized infrastructure. UPS is making innovative use of personal area networks based on Bluetooth technology. Bluetooth, an open standard for short-range transmission of digital voice and data between devices, whether mobile or stationary, has been incorporated into ring scanners used by loaders and unloaders at UPS hubs. Previously, ring scanners were connected by cable to a wrist terminal worn by the workers, explains Killeen. But the cable got in the way and could easily get caught on a package and break. The Bluetooth-enabled scanners communicate wirelessly with a terminal worn on the worker's belt. "By introducing this new technology and eliminating the cables, we are seeing approximately a 30 percent to 35 percent reduction in repair costs, but also an equivalent 35 percent uptime improvement as well as a 35 percent reduction in spare equipment," says Killeen. In addition, the new ring scanner doubles prior battery life to about six hours. "That is more than sufficient to support any sort within our operations," Killeen says.
UPS also has continued to upgrade its DIAD, with the fourth generation now being rolled out. With this generation, the company is expanding its wide-area network capability, including CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) as well as GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) data transmission protocols. "We introduced CDMA in addition to GPRS because a lot of telecom carriers out there-specifically Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS-run on a CDMA network. So we decided to support both technologies," says Killeen. The reason is coverage. "UPS service providers need to deliver to every address, regardless of where it is across the globe. As a result, we are looking for the best and widest coverage we can possibly get," he says.
The new DIADs also are equipped with Bluetooth and Global Positioning System technology.
|What is 802.11?|
|802.11 is a family of specifications developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The 802.11 and 802.11b specifications apply to wireless Ethernet LANs that operate at frequencies in the 2.4-GHz region of the radio spectrum. Data speeds are generally 1 Mbps (megabits per second) or 2 Mbps for 802.11, and 5.5 Mbps or 11 Mbps for 802.11b. |
Sometime in 2006 or 2007, a new standard, 802.11n, will be introduced. Designed to be interoperable with, but to eventually replace, the current crop of 802.11 standards, "n" will support data rates in the neighborhood of 100 Mbps and some believe speeds can go much higher. These speeds will be accomplished by using an array of antennas known as MIMO (multiple-in, multiple-out) to better shape the signal.
"802.11n will provide a tremendous boost in throughput," says Steve McCarthy, mobile data services manager at DHL, Plantation, Fla. "It's really exciting stuff."
This multifunctionality is indicative of an industry-wide trend to have more and more capabilities on a single wireless device.
"People want to have one common device with capablities that all work together," says Jerry McNerney, director of transportation industry solutions at Symbol Technologies, Holtsville, N.Y. "Today a lot of people are carrying around multiple devices-a phone, a data device that may be just for messaging and a device that might be carrying lots of other management applications. The next generation of devices is bringing all three of these together."
There still will be different devices for different users. At the management level, for example, Symbol offers an enterprise digital assistant suite of products that is very similar to smart phones or Palm devices, while dock workers might use its extremely rugged NC9000 products. In addition to a traditional scanner, these have a wide range of optional applications, such as an RFID reader and imaging capability that allows users to document damaged products or see a display of hard-to-identify products.
Companies also are finding new ways to leverage their wireless backbone. As noted in the DHL example earlier, some are testing the use of WLANs for voice communications. "I think we will start seeing a lot more devices that can go from the cellular network into the WLAN network and not drop the call," says DHL's McCarthy. "There still are a lot of issues when you jump from one infrastructure to another infrastructure, but work is being done in that area."
Intermec Technologies, Everett, Wash., is among companies taking the lead. It announced last month that it has licensed the SymPhone System from TeleSym, a voice over internet protocol (VoIP) software that transforms Intermec's 700 Series Pocket PC handheld mobile computer into a phone that can make and receive peer-to-peer voice calls over standard wireless LANs.
By combining voice and computing capabilities in a single handheld device, companies are able to reduce costs associated with multiple devices, says Intermec product manager Karen Pearson. And workers are able to stay connected anywhere, whether on a retail store floor, in a warehouse or on a production line, which boosts productivity. For example, she says, since the voice calling application co-exists with other applications on the 700 Series, retail workers have the ability to look up data such as pricing, stock availability and stock location while also communicating via the VoIP software.
The software also allows calling to any enterprise location connected via the WLAN, so companies can save on telecommunications expenses for calls between facilities as well.
"TeleSym has created an inexpensive, easy-to-use system that allows users to become more productive immediately," Pearson says.
George Brody, founder and CTO of GlobeRanger, Richardson, Texas, says working in this environment eventually will be comparable to the way we listen to radios. "When you jog around you use your Walkman, but when you get in your car you turn the Walkman off and turn your car radio on," he says. "The same thing will happen with wireless technology."
Another increasing popular use of WLANs is for voice recognition technology. "Using the warehouse wireless network for voice-directed picking is becoming very popular with our customers," says Manhattan's Morris. "This year we are seeing a tremendous growth in the number of people who are interfacing with our warehouse management application solely through a voice terminal-a headset and computer attached to their belt, but no keyboard or screen." This allows workers to keep their eyes and hands free, he says. "They never have to look at a screen or type something in so there is a lot of productivity improvement."
Retailers are migrating to this solution, he says, as are grocery distributors. "It's great in a grocery environment because these guys have a very hard time keeping LCD screens and batteries operating in ice cream freezers and food freezers," he says.
Intermec also is partnering in this area, offering the SyVox Speech Interface Development Kit (IDK), which enables customers to add speech data collection to new or existing 700 Series systems. The software is designed to make it easy for developers to add speech input to a variety of applications, including picking and field inspections.
Wireless printing is another increasingly popular way to get more use from a WLAN. "We see a lot of manufacturers putting their printers up on battery enabled carts with a laptop or another mobile computer," says Morris. "The printer has an 802.11 card built right into it, which allows to company to take the printer to the point of application and print out shipping labels right there." Typically, wired printers are installed at various positions around the facility, he says. "The wireless option just gives you a lot more flexibility."
A lot of activity also is going on around wide area networks. Many trucking companies are using cellular technology to send data back to the terminal as each pickup or delivery is completed, as well as getting new pickup instructions that come in during the day. "Everybody now is providing data service," says Marc Mitchell, transportation practice director for Enterprise Information Solutions, Downers Grove, Ill. "In the old days, drivers would get a cellular phone and make voice calls and maybe use their phone to hook into a computer and get on the internet, but now you can go to just about any provider and get wireless data connectivity at a myriad of speeds and at a very, very attractive cost." EIS provides software to facilitate such data transmissions, regardless of which mobile technology is used.
Many fleets continue to rely on Qualcomm, the inventor of CDMA, and its OmniTracs solution for tracking and data messaging. Recently, San Diego-based Qualcomm introduced another important innovation: untethered trailer tracking. "Gaining visibility into those assets when they are not tethered to a power unit is a new dimension," says Norm Ellis, vice president and general manager for Qualcomm wireless solutions. "We think the impact will be significant from a supply-chain perspective."
The industry has been asking for this solution for some time, he says, "but there were price issues as well as network and coverage issues that had to be identified and resolved."
Customer demand is evident in the market's response to this new product. Major carriers that already have ordered the system include Schneider National, Swift Transportation, Atlas Van Lines and Cargo Transporters. "We have a backlog approaching 100,000 and we are really seeing significant ramp," says Ellis.
Over the last 18 months, Schneider has installed the trailer-tracking product on its entire fleet of some 45,000 trailers. "From a utilization perspective, we believe this will help us significantly with those trailers that may be in places they shouldn't be," says Brian Hancock, vice president and general manager of Schneider Logistics. By pinging the trailer, Schneider is able not only to locate it within 30 feet, but also to know if the doors are open or closed and if it is loaded or unloaded.
The unit also can monitor itself, waking up every 20 minutes to check its load status, says Ellis. If there has been a change in status, it can then send notification to the asset owner. "Now you don't have drivers sitting there ready to go who don't know there is a load ready and waiting for them," Ellis says. It's the same with a driver who is waiting for a trailer to be unloaded or looking for an empty in a big lot. "One prospect told us that they had documented $4m a year in fuel costs attributed just to looking for empty trailers," says Ellis.
The trailer unit has its own battery, which will last 60 days between charging, but it is charged every time it hooks up to a power unit. There are four modes of communication available on the device, all terrestrial based, and the unit self-selects the most efficient.
An additional benefit is security. A "geo-fence" can be set around the trailer using longitudes and latitudes that the software calculates. If it moves outside of these parameters, an alert will be automatically sent to the asset owner. "This is not only a security enhancement," says Ellis. "It is also a productivity enhancement because if a driver picks up the wrong trailer, the owner will know that immediately."
Qualcomm also is adding features to its in-cab tracking and communications solutions. It currently is beta testing an electronic log that will meet all of the DOT hours-of-service requirements and will work on current OmniTrac installations.
The company recently released a feature that automatically records arrival and departure times at each geo-coded location on a truck's route. With this solution, Ellis says, detention billing will be radically improved because companies no longer have to rely on a driver to record that information. This, too, is done with existing equipment. "It's just another great way to add value to our customer," says Ellis.
The next step in the supply chain's wireless evolution may be to better integrate the data from individual point solutions. "This is where the magic is going to be," says GlobeRanger's Brody. "All kinds of technologies are going to be capturing information out there, from RFID to wireless handhelds, to sensors that are moving around or staying stationary, so a whole bunch of end points of the enterprise will be connected. And there will be a layer of software and middleware that will sit on top and make sense out of all this data."
This is part of an evolution toward an edge network, he says. "The core will get more and more features, but the software layer that glues it all together is where the excitement is going to happen and where the value will be created."
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