Untethered Productivity

April 1, 2004
The next technology that will support higher levels of efficiency and productivity in today’s warehouse, distribution center and yard applications is wireless.

by Leslie Langnau, contributing editor

Planes touch down on the landing strip while wireless equipment in the cargo bay sends data to the local warehouse or DC about its contents. The WMS system at the facility processes these data and sends instructions to picking systems to remove product from shelves for the next shipment’s loads, and which dock doors those loads go to. Time saved: the wait time involved in unloading the plane and loading a truck; the wait time involved in driving to the warehouse or DC and unloading and manually scanning items for WMS log in; then, the wait time for finding the next load and picking the products, moving them to the dock and then loading the truck — several hours at least.

Data can move faster than product. And moving data will be the next material handling challenge. With instant information, instead of waiting on shelves, product can be picked and readied for transport. Instead of waiting, incoming product can be logged in while it’s traveling to the warehouse. Instead of waiting ... productivity can soar higher.

Wireless technology can eliminate waiting, a glaring inefficiency still left in material handling processes. "There is a widely held belief that wireless technology will unleash additional productivity over the next three years," says Richard Bauly, vice president, strategy and business development, Psion Teklogix. Despite all the technology implemented so far, and the improvements gained, the result has still been disconnected islands of technology. Wireless can be the missing link, connecting all the material handling technologies you’ve installed for even greater productivity gains.

"Mobile technology used to be viewed as little more than a peripheral," notes Gil Bautista, principal for warehouse mobility solutions, Symbol’s Cross Industry Solutions Group. "There’s a new view that maybe we’ve overlooked its importance in terms of bridging gaps within an operation, an enterprise, or a network of DCs and trading partners. The mobile infrastructure could be the glue that brings together the different functions that operate within a facility."

"It will support applications now done by hand with equipment that frees workers to do more value-added, supervisory-type tasks," continues Bauly.

"Wireless takes you outside the four walls," adds Karen Pearson, principal manager, Wireless Department, Intermec, "speeding up processing through instant information."

"One of the challenges for technology adoption, though, is that full value is dependent on everyone adopting the technology at about the same time," says Matt Armanino, senior vice president, WhereNet. "Wal-Mart and others recognize that technologies like wireless and RFID have to be implemented across the board, otherwise you have duplication of business policies. The value of the overall system will increase as more companies get onto the ‘network.’"

Brave new world

"We’re still at the forefront of wireless adoption," notes Jim Stollberg, vice president and general manager, Irista. "Customers still need a good business reason, a specific need to drive adoption of this technology. Within the warehouse, deploying wireless technology can bring some benefit against infrastructure costs."

Beyond cabling costs, however, wireless is gaining attention because the technology has matured. "About three years ago, IT staffs were told that they were going to do wireless, even in warehouses," says Pearson. "However, IT resisted because of the weaknesses of the early wireless protocols. Those security issues have been dealt with, and now IT is not resisting. With the new standards, authentication and strong corporate policies, most attacks can be managed. We partner with a company for wireless security that has 802.11b wireless in the desert in Iraq, protecting our servicemen, so you can make wireless very secure."

But that leaves other, more hardware-oriented challenges. "It’s not a trivial task to have radio transmitters attached to thousands of pieces of product in a local area environment," notes Armanino, "and have those signals received reliably and located to the unit level with real accuracy."

With rugged, reliable solutions coming, the wireless warehouse and DC will be different from today’s versions. "In the wireless warehouse," says Bauly, "workers will be equipped to do their function much like office workers have been for the last 10 years or so to do their function. You’ll see a lot more tasks handled wirelessly."

"Wireless will consolidate the processes that we are using today," adds Pearson.

Meeting the challenge to physically deliver

"Customers want increased velocity and throughput, which is difficult without visibility," says Armanino. "When you have the visibility and know where all your assets are, then you can automate many of the processes and transactions that occur. A real-time decision support system, though, is only as good as the data put into it. The systems that are supposed to manage physical assets have been disconnected from those assets. Wireless can bridge that data divide, providing constant connectivity between assets and the information system, as well as the workforce."

"And," adds Stollberg, "wireless can help ensure that the physical product and data are concurrent as things move throughout the warehouse and yard."

Wireless enables rich potential applications. "Until now, data have tended to be single threaded; that is, going to one system," continues Bautista. "We’re now at a point where we need to manage the movement of data. This is the secret piece in some ways." With wireless technology, you can better manage the movement of data, sending information to multiple systems simultaneously.

For example, some companies are experimenting with wireless and hand-held devices to transfer images across a large facility. "The image of a damaged product can be sent via e-mail or on a PDA to allow real-time decisions," says Bauly. "Voice communication in pick-and-putaway applications is becoming increasingly interesting to our customers. Another is generic voice over IP [VoIP]. I may not be near a phone, but I have a ‘computer’ in my hand that I’m using for scanning. If my boss has a question, I can use VoIP through my hand-held device and answer it. The wireless technology serves as a backbone. Wireless will also be used to locate ‘lost’ items in a warehouse using triangulation technology, much like a local area GPS solution. It will become the norm — workers equipped to respond and react in real time. And you can use the existing wireless infrastructure put in place for bar code scanning."

Keeping track of assets is another use. "Knowing where your lift trucks are at any time can help shave time off gathering and delivering product," says Greg Smith, director of marketing and corporate communications, I.D. Systems Inc. "You can direct the nearest truck to a task. You can also reduce the number of trucks you need through wireless asset tracking technology."

Dealing with change, however, will be one of the major challenges of wireless technology. "Even introducing RFID into the normal processes brings opportunities to change them, make them more efficient," says Bauly. "It’s not plug and replace. You need to change the way you interact with that technology, which forces you to change the way you do business, unleashing productivity."

The next layer

There are three key infrastructures within warehousing. The first is the physical attributes of a facility. The second is the application or information systems architecture. The mobility infrastructure is the third and functions as the bridge between the first and second. "The components of this layer can run the gamut," notes Bautista. "Hand-held devices; vehicle-mounted tablets on lift trucks; picking areas with a variety of mobile devices such as ring scanners, wrist-mounted devices and voice systems; traditional hand-held scanners, all interconnected by a wireless environment with antennas. The antennas are laid out grid fashion in the ceiling and connected into the communications closet, which is connected to the mid-range computer that hosts your supply chain execution system."

While wireless can provides lots of flexible data capture, there are important steps to take to ensure proper functioning. "Cardboard absorbs RF signals," notes Pearson, "so site surveys are crucial. You need to know shelving arrangements, product storage, and so on. If you’re rearranging your facility, check with the site survey to make sure you don’t accidentally block RF signals."

Another consideration involves lift trucks with wireless devices moving at high speeds. "This affects logging on and off the wireless system," continues Pearson. "If not set up properly, lift truck operators have to re-authenticate all the time as the trucks move among the access points. It can be a nuisance."

"Relogging will be an issue," notes Bautista. "Wireless systems will need to be continuous, even though there will be pauses in sessions."

And, of course, tags are still an issue. But interesting solutions are emerging. "Making tags from a different substance allows us to overcome some manufacturing barriers," says Joe Dunlap, manager, Supply Chain Solutions Group, Siemens Dematic. "The IC chips in tags have been made out of silicone, but we make them from polymers and molymers. Low-cost technology prints those tags like an ink jet printer prints labels, which will help drive us to the five-cent tag."

Connecting scanners and other equipment is not much of a problem. Companies like Citadel Computer Corp. have been installing wireless technology on lift trucks for several years. Software drivers are one way to ensure communication.

However, notes Kai Figwer of LXE, compatibility issues among tags, and frequently changing tag features and functions need attention to remove those limitations from wireless-type technologies.

Despite some compatibility and standards issues, material handlers should not delay installing wireless. Do pilot projects first, and learn what works. You are already experts at moving material. Data is just another "product" to move. MHM

For More Information

Citadel Computer Corp., www.citadelcomputer.com

I.D. Systems Inc., www.id-systems.com

Intermec Technologies Corp., www.intermec.com

Irista Inc., www.irista.com

LXE, www.lxe.com

Psion Teklogix, www.psionteklogix.com

Symbol Technologies Inc., www.symbol.com

Siemens Dematic, www.siemens-dematic.com

WhereNet Corp., www.wherenet.com