System Performance Depends on Middleware
by David Stehle, senior functional consultant
Transcomm Consulting Services
The effectiveness of radio frequency (RF) systems depends ultimately on where the intelligence resides: on the RF terminals themselves or in the software (the middleware) that interfaces the terminals to the company’s main information management system.
The intelligent middleware approach can save a company tens of thousands of dollars in equipment costs, and considerably increase data collection and reporting efficiency.
Radio frequency is a simple, reliable and easy-to-use technology that significantly improves information flow and reduces operating costs in industrial warehouses and distribution centers. It eliminates the need for manual entry of inventory data, improves data accuracy and provides up-to-the-minute inventory information.
Radio frequency equipment generally consists of three basic components:
• Portable units (terminals), either hand held or vehicle mounted, with bar code scanners, multi-line displays and memory;
•An access point that collects information radioed from the portable units and transmits it to the company’s computer network, most likely by Ethernet;
• A controller that handles the communications traffic between the radios and the computer.
Intelligent terminal systems have PC-based terminals loaded with software to process and convert scanned data. Terminals capable of data processing increase the price of the system in and of themselves, and they also require backups in case of malfunction, which further boosts costs. Labor to maintain and upgrade software on each terminal is an additional expense.
The more cost-effective approach is intelligent middleware, in which the software that interfaces between the RF terminals and the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) or information management system resides on a separate server to which RF data flow. The middleware performs some data processing functions and converts RF data to a form compatible with the company’s ERP system or information management system.
An RF system that consists of simple generic ASCII-based RF equipment that collects and stores data, but places all the intelligence into the middleware, has several advantages over intelligent terminal systems with intelligent RF terminals:
• It saves tens of thousands of dollars by eliminating the need for expensive, intelligent RF terminals and controllers and their backups;
• It minimizes time to maintain and upgrade software, because the work has to be done only once on the server, not on terminals, which are perhaps different models acquired at different times from different vendors and scattered across multiple locations;
• It permits more extensive customization, to meet a company’s specific reporting needs, to optimize the performance of its information management system, and to streamline data collection and shorten processing time by combining several functions into one.
For example, Maintain Inbound and Release Inbound can be combined in a single Confirm Putaway function; Maintain Outbound and Release Outbound can be combined in a single Confirm Replenishment Picking function.
What will middleware do?
Simply loading software onto a standalone server to collect information from RF terminals and forward it to the information management system will not guarantee good results. As a minimum, it should have an open-system architecture that permits it to work with any ANSI-compatible radio frequency equipment. Like any company computer system, it should provide sufficient security to prevent unauthorized access by users without valid passwords.
The RF middleware should provide sufficient inventory management functionalities to act as an autonomous system and to complement the functionalities of the company-wide information management system. It should:
• Generate a log of completed transactions that can be exported to other applications for analysis and reporting;
• Offer an easy-to-use forms processor to minimize the need to spend large amounts of time creating custom forms;
• Track incomplete transactions to prevent data loss and to aid troubleshooting;
• Offer a store-and-forward capability to process data entry transactions such as putaways, a function that allows operators to work offline or to continue working if there is an ERP system malfunction or network failure.
The best way to ensure that a company gets an RF system that will perform all these functions — and not only be fully compatible with the information management system, but also enhance its performance — is to rely on a single vendor. A vendor that can supply the RF hardware and software, install it, integrate it with the company’s computer network, and provide reliable, competent technical support will save money up front and in the long run. The vendor should be knowledgeable about the company’s ERP system or information management system to optimize data collection and reporting within that system, and experienced in developing an interface customized to the company’s processes and needs. ADF