March 1, 2004
technology review | Wireless Solutions
The crackle of walkie-talkies and the boom of overhead DC loudspeakers may soon be a thing of the past. Who needs that stuff when you can give workers detailed instructions silently (and instantly) over wireless LANs?
The talk these days may be all about radio-frequency identification technology and its potential to revolutionize the supply chain. But meanwhile, behind the scenes unheralded and without any of the buzz that accompanies RFID, other kinds of radio frequency technology have been quietly improving operations in distribution facilities around the world.
That's quiet in even the most literal sense. Companies are abandoning their static-plagued walkie-talkies and booming paging systems in favor of setups that let workers receive instructions via silent displays on handheld terminals that are connected by a wireless local area network (LAN). That wireless local area network lets staff move freely about the facility, without cords or cables, while staying in constant communication with team members, supervisors and even the computer that's running the show.
It's not simply a domestic trend; companies worldwide are going on the LAN. Operations at TNT Express Worldwide's Liege, Belgium, air hub, for example, are considerably quieter and more efficient than they were just a few months ago thanks to the installation of a wireless network. TNT's Liege hub receives 38 aircraft every night between 11 p.m. and 1:30 a.m., fills them with freight, and sends them off to one of 65 destinations in Europe between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. In the past, the express carrier's 12 cargo-handling teams were guided by radio walkie-talkies when they went to unload the planes. But because all 12 teams were on the same channel, talking back and forth, the chatter more often resulted in confusion than in clarification. Furthermore, team members were logging a lot of unnecessary mileage during the unloading process. Every time they unloaded an aircraft, the teams had to report back to an office at the airport terminal buildings in order to pick up load sheets for the next plane.
The developing sophistication of radio-enabled handheld terminals offered the chance to change all that. Eager to cut out the noise (and the extra trips) by beaming the loading and unloading plans directly to staff on the ramp, the express package delivery company began to investigate its options. In February 2003, it decided to combine a wireless local area network with a range of handheld devices that would enable its ground staff to receive and exchange information while they were roaming the airport. It also hoped to connect, via the personal digital assistants (PDAs), to printers in vans used by the teams.
After testing a number of devices in July, TNT fixed on a system called Mobiler from Psion Teklogix, which was installed in November. In the meantime, TNT worked with the Liege airport to get the infrastructure right, including a large investment in antennae and other equipment essential to facilitating the wireless communication. Now, workers get real-time instructions on the spot.
Eliminating a few trips back and forth to the office may not sound like a major advance, but it's actually made a big difference for TNT. Ben Klaassen, director of network operations and planning for TNT in Europe, says his workers have shaved three to six minutes off the handling time for each aircraft. "That's a big benefit in our industry, where every minute counts," he says. Furthermore, the improvement in general staff efficiency is huge.
The gains in efficiency can be partly attributed to a reduction in confusion. "The old system was very stressful for the team leaders because everyone was talking to each other over the radio," Klaassen says. "With the new system, the control guy in the tower has his own PC with which he can send data to every team leader separately on the handheld devices.We can also send orders from other offices that can talk to the same devices. There's less stress because everyone gets the right message and it's not so confusing. No one has to write anything down any more, and there are fewer failures." Even the devices themselves are user-friendly—the terminals are ruggedized for even the worst Belgian weather (think the freezing fog featured in Hercule Poirot mysteries); and large, friendly touch screens mean a worker can accept an assignment quickly with the touch of a finger or a pen.
There's another advantage. Since information is captured electronically in real time, the TNT control staff can analyze the night's loading and unloading activities the moment the shift ends at 6 a.m. That means they get immediate feedback on which teams were working well and which weren't. "Before," recalls Klaassen, "we didn't get that information until hours later."
Encouraged by the results, the carrier is pushing ahead with the next stage. Phase Two, which is scheduled for the middle of this year, will involve integrating Mobiler further into local planning systems at Liege, using it to scan arriving and departing aircraft containers on the loading and unloading ramp—a good example of the kind of asset tracking becoming more and more popular with RF technology. Phase Two will also involve using the Mobiler system for supervisors and managers in the hub, so the process can be followed even more closely.
Riding the wave
TNT is hardly alone in its desire to get even more from its RF investment. "In the last 10 years, a number of the larger companies have invested in wireless technology in their warehouses and distribution centers, and they're now looking for new ways to use it," says Richard Bauly, vice president of strategy and business development at Psion Teklogix, a Mississauga, Ontario-based vendor of wireless communications systems. "It's a 'reuse' or second return on investment."
Some are taking advantage of their RF infrastructures to install voice communication systems, in which pickers and putters in the warehouse receive and acknowledge instructions through headsets, instead of screen-based written directions. Others are sticking with handheld devices but are trading up to newer, fancier models. As each month passes, handhelds are becoming more useful, more userfriendly and easier to integrate into other supply chain management systems (and even the Internet). "You have the same power in your hand now as you had on your desktop three or four years ago," says Bauly.
"[Terminals] are much more graphically enabled now," adds Bill Hubacek, vice president of sales and marketing for Real Time Solutions, an FKI Logistex subsidiary based in Emeryville, Calif. "They used to be text-based and very mundane. They would show you a location, you'd hit a button and it would tell you what to pick and you'd hit another button after picking. But now, with that same wireless network, you're able to bring in all these other things like the supervisor screens that were previously only available if you went to a PC station and logged in."
Dick Sorensen, director of product management at wireless equipment and software vendor LXE, based in Norcross, Ga., believes that bigger things are yet to come. "The architecture is now more like the wired LAN. It allows customers to start looking at using the wireless infrastructure for more than just warehouse management software data-collection applications. You can now connect with other supply chain management areas, and that opens up opportunities for interfacing directly into ERP systems and inter- and intranet based applications," says Sorensen. "It's primarily extending the investment that people have put in. What I detect is that a lot of people justified the expense of building a wireless infrastructure strictly on the basis of improving WMS. But they now have the ability to leverage that investment to other applications."
Companies like clothing retailer Liz Claiborne Inc. and The HEB Grocery Co. are using RF devices to wirelessly track carts used in the warehouse to move inventory around and hold picked orders. Keeping track of the carts makes the order fulfillment process much more efficient, they report. Grocery company Albertsons Inc. is using voice technology as part of a picking system that incorporates both wireless and hard-wired technology, combining it with pick-to-light equipment. This kind of interconnectivity, says Hubacek, gives managers a high-level view of how the picking wave is proceeding in other parts of the warehouse and notifies them if, say, a conveyor belt is down.
It's brought another change as well, according to Karen Pearson, principal marketing manager in the wireless and communications group at Intermec, a vendor in Everett, Wash. "In the past, the warehouse manager, the operations manager and the manufacturing manager set up the system and owned it," she says. "What we're seeing today is that the wireless system has become part of the whole company's wired IT system."
One likely result of that will be some changes to the terminals. "There's a lot more interest in and deployment of Windows- and Windows CE-based devices," Sorensen says, referring to the operating systems that control many desktop and handheld computers. "We're at the tip of the iceberg in terms of leveraging the capabilities of those devices." There are still technological barriers, such as the life of batteries in handheld devices—some of which can't make it through an eight-hour shift if the device is "pinging" the wireless network constantly. But wireless equipment is improving, evolving all the time.
Sorensen says open standards, which allow wireless devices from different vendors to talk to one another, provide customers with the option of going to multiple vendors for different pieces of the operation, making for a system that's better customized to their needs. Furthermore, the wireless infrastructure can be used for a combination DC and manufacturing facility. One of LXE's customers uses wireless scanning of bar codes to track raw components through the manufacturing process and then on into the warehouse.
"It illustrates the fact that it's more about what it does than what it is," says Phil Marshall, director of wireless technologies at analyst The Yankee Group in Boston. "It's the architectural capabilities that you build around the underlying RF network. It's about the interoperability between systems that in the past have been disparate and independent."