If the wireless future is here, swept in on a wave of technology that allows information to be zapped from point A to point B without the copper wires, why aren't more logistics operations using it? Right now, the majority of wireless devices are largely housebound—or more precisely, warehouse-bound—rarely venturing outside the distribution center or terminal yard. But that could change soon. If industry can get this show on the road, companies could someday be able to tap into those bit streams up and down the supply chain.
In many ways, wireless transmission of data, whether it involves the laser reading of bar codes,tags that employ radio waves or cellphone microwaves, is a technology looking for a home in the logistics world. "We're still trying to figure out where it fits to make the most value," says Dave Adams, vice president of global services at GT Nexus, a logistics and transportation management software firm based in Alameda, Calif.
Even the vendors concede that wireless has been a bit slow out of the gate. Matt Armanino, vice president of business development at Santa Clara , Calif.-based WhereNet, which uses wireless radio technology to pinpoint the location of truck chassis and forklifts, says his company 's products are sti ll mostly used in concentrated areas of cargo activity, such as warehouses, port terminals and truck yards.
"Our typical user is a person who's operating the yard," Armanino says."People who manage distribution centers tend to have a black hole [somewhere in their operations] where they lose their assets," he explains. "They've tended to manage assets with warehouse management, yard management, transportation management and plant floor production software systems, but the Achilles' heel is that they're physically disconnected to the assets they're supposed to be managing. Often the data about those physical assets is still gathered manually … and often, that information is out of date or incorrect."Wireless could change all that.
Making a connection
Though wireless providers and logistics users have yet to establish what might be termed a high-speed connection, some of the industry's heavyweights have taken steps in that direction. For example, Portland, Ore.-based Con-Way has embraced wireless technology based on both bar-code and satellite communication,says Jackie Barretta, vice president of information services. Con-Way, which is both a carrier and a third-party logistics service provider, sees wireless as an economically viable way of tracking cargo as it moves through the warehouse as well as on the road.
Bits swirl through the airwaves today at Con-Way's warehouses with nary a cable in sight. Con-Way uses forkliftmounted automatic bar-code readers from Intermec to register when goods are received and handheld units to manage picking and packing at its six warehouses across the United States. Deploying the readers has made these operations paperless, Barretta says. It's also made them reliable. "[Scanning] gives us an order fill accuracy rate of 99-plus percent," she reports. "It also gives us a rather rapid order fill that allows those six warehouses to offer next-day services to around 90 percent of the U.S. population. That benefits the customer," she adds.
Yet in all too many companies, that intricate data-transmission infrastructure crumbles once the cargo leaves the warehouse—just when it could be most useful. People need data to make real-time decisions about freight on the spot, when there's no time to go to a PC, says Adams, who believes wireless technology's real potential lies in the dynamic management of freight while it's in transit. "Today that's often done via cellphone —you communicate with somebody running the numbers in the office and if they decide to change and drop off load B instead of load A first, you call and ask the driver to change the route. In a wireless world, the route plan would be popping up and would be updated, telling the driver to go somewhere else."
In fact , truckers have begun joining the wireless world, albeit slowly. Barretta reports that Con-Way's express delivery service, Con-Way NOW, has fitted global positioning satellite (GPS) technology to all trucks in the fleet, which means a driver doesn't even have to enter information about location—it's done automatically. Many trucks that belong to oth er companies but are used by Con-Way as part of its third-party service also feature this technology. "We're integrating with a lot of carriers and getting information from them when they're moving the freight,"Barretta says."We're finding that more and more carriers have a wireless connection."
Barretta herself has a handheld Siemens T-Mobile device that functions as a cellphone and more—it receives e-mails and Blackberry messages and even allows her to open e-mail attachments while she's out on the road. Though she uses it to keep track of IT projects, the same sort of device could help managers in logistics and other departments who have to be away from their desks regularly.
Cutting the cord
Meanwhile, adoption of wireless technology in the logistics space remains relatively slow, limited mainly to the lessthan-truckload and expedited parts of the business, says Kevin Moore, Intermec's logistics business development manager. "Transportation and logistics companies tend to be technology skeptics," he says."But I think the early adoption [phase] is over, and the missionary work's been done. Now those skeptics who've been on the sidelines are saying: 'It's real, it's here. So how do we make the best use of the technology and tools?'"
Wireless equipment providers like Intermec, PsionTeklogix and Symbol Technologies are working hard to develop products that will help a wider range of customers do a wider range of things. Moore says Intermec is "on the cusp" of releasing multi-functional wireless devices that a logistics manager can use either in a warehouse or off the premises, able to connect either with a local-area computer network or a wide-area network, depending on where he is. Vendors are also developing equipment that uses Bluetooth technology, which allows a device to hook into the network without being near a transmitter. Bluetooth devices form a sort of tag-team signal through any other Bluetooth devices nearby, carrying on until the signal hits the nearest bit of communications infrastructure. This removes the need to be close to a transmitter / receiver—a problem familiar to everyone who's had trouble getting a cellphone signal.
Andrew Zolli, founder of Z Plus Partners, a consulting group in Brooklyn, N.Y., sees this communications bucket brigade—where one wireless device uses another to send and receive signals—as the future of wireless technology. In 10 years,he predicts,individual products will have "dynamic packaging," which will be capable, via RFID and other technologies, of transmitting signals via other, nearby wired products. A quart of milk will be able to actively transmit information about what it is, where it is and how fresh the contents are.
WhereNet's Armanino predicts at the very least a huge adoption of proactive wireless tracking technology across the supply chain. "Ten years from now it will be hard to imagine assets that don't identify themselves and give information about their status," he says."People will look at barcode scanning and the way they had to throw labor at that and wonder how they did it."