Make Wired Devices Wireless

Jan. 17, 2012
Mobile-powered workstations with integrated power supplies bring a new definition of wireless to wired computers, printers, scales and barcode scanners.

The more steps added to a shipping operation, the more possibilities for error. Consolidating disparate operations in one place can not only reduce the opportunities for error, but it can save steps for workers.

Case in point no. 1: Shipping accuracy was a major concern at the Magneti Marelli Powertrain USA plant in North Carolina. Management was determined to reduce the number of mislabeled outgoing pallets loaded with fuel-pump modules, electronic throttles and other component systems bound for automakers, boat builders and other customers.

A typical shipment consisted of multiple pallets, each of which required at least two labels. The weak point in the shipping department turned out to be the 30-40 steps each inspector would have to take to the label printer.

Sometimes, after an inspector had retraced his/her steps, labels in hand, the labels would end up on the wrong pallets.

The number of errors was significantly reduced once the company applied mobile-powered workstations (MPWs). Now, every inspector can scan and print labels right beside the pallet that needs them.

Case in point no. 2: Hol-Mac Corporation uses 18 MPWs in its Mississippi plants. Hol-Mac is a contract manufacturer, custom-designing, fabricating, machining, finishing and assembling parts for hydraulic cylinders, tanks and related products.

“We’ve eliminated a lot of footsteps,” says John Larrabee, Hol-Mac’s information technology manager. “We’re now able to bring our thin clients and other equipment directly to the job anywhere within our four facilities.”

Machinists have MPWs next to their machining centers, where they use them to access their database of detailed part dimensions and to check inventory for the next job. For quality assurance, inspectors of large weldments have MPWs equipped with test devices as well as thin clients. In shipping and receiving, other Hol-Mac employees use MPWs that carry label printers.

The MPWs in these situations helped enable a “system solution” by integrating a facility’s software with devices on mobile desks. These desks can be turned into on-demand label printing stations or mobile shipping/receiving stations leveraging wireless technology to yield several benefits.

Time and Labor Savings

An MPW can reduce foot travel and paperwork transfers between a deskbound computer/printer combo and loading docks, storage racks, assembly lines, inspection/testing areas, etc. Employees must often key-in data they have previously written on paper at the work site — a classic redundancy of effort. Or worse, they just rely on their memory, which leads to mistakes.

An employee operating an MPW has continual, paperless, real-time access to information via warehouse management systems (WMS), enterprise resource planning (ERP), or automated data collection (ADC) software from anywhere in the facility, since the workstation’s computer is always at hand.

Calculating ROI

An MPW can carry a computer and peripherals such as a high-volume label printer while supplying them all with adequate on-board power. This “on-demand” high-volume label printing/PC station (when compared to a portable printer) would enable the use of thermal transfer labels, large labels and a full computer screen to toggle between different software programs.

A single MPW can often do the job of two or three stationary desks, which means fewer computers and peripherals will be needed overall. For example, a workstation can be used all morning at a receiving dock and then wheeled to the shipping department for the afternoon.

Distribution and Production Uses

An MPW can increase the number of packages processed per day by facilitating order picking, put-away, packaging, labeling, shipping, receiving, cross-docking, etc. In a receiving department, for example, the MPW operator can quickly scan barcodes or read radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to identify an incoming shipment and then inspect, re-label and re-route it, all at the same workstation.

For break-bulk and mixed-unit orders, MPWs allow picking and on-site high-volume printing of labels, packing slips, delivery receipts, refund receipts, etc. The operator can track previously shipped parcels and keep track of multiple stock-keeping units (SKUs). He or she can also take and file digital photos to provide proof of the condition of a returned shipment and then credit the customer immediately.

In Virginia, Care-A-Lot Pet Supply tested an MPW in its distribution center, scanning products in their receiving and shipping departments and printing labels for pallets and general organization.

“It saved time,” says supervisor Brad Voorhes. “[We could] print out a label while standing in front of it instead of walking across the warehouse to a [stationary] desk, printing it out and walking back.”

Care-A-Lot reports that since the workstations were introduced, productivity has increased by 40%.

In manufacturing, received components can be labeled before stocking, and samples can be picked from assembly lines and labeled for quality control.

Improved Ergonomics

To reduce worker strains, MPWs should have adjustable shelves and large, stable work surfaces. A tall employee should be able to quickly raise a shelf to the most convenient height, and a shorter worker on the next shift should be able to lower it just as quickly.

A workstation should have a compact footprint and be easy to push. Casters should provide years of smooth, quiet rolling and positioning, yet must be lockable for stability and safety at the work site.

The size, weight and capacity of the on-board power package (battery/inverter/charger) are also ergonomic considerations. Some packages are bulkier and heavier than others. Because the workstation is wireless, there are no cords long enough to trip over, but for cables connecting the devices on the workstation to each other, cable-management components can keep cabling neat and tangle-free.

Improved Versatility

An MPW should be powerful enough to hold and power four devices for at least eight hours and be recharged in five to eight hours. The manufacturer’s technicians can make sure it is integrated with the devices you intend to run, and software tools on their website can help the user choose the most appropriate power package by calculating the total wattage of the equipment to be supported.

Expect to pay $1,500 to $3,000 for a good MPW, but correctly applied, it should provide a quick ROI.

Christine Wheeler is marketing director for Newcastle Systems (, providers of MPWs.

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