Move over helmet cam. Bring on scan cam.
Imagine an NFL game brought to you via tiny scanners attached to a football helmet. As a player runs downfield, the scanner automatically captures data, including the location of digitally enhanced yard markers. No more "moving the chains" to measure first downs. No more delays so game officials can watch hooded TV replays to determine whether a player was in bounds or not. And no need to replace the scanners, even after absorbing repeated sacks. These scanners are built to take the punishment.
This scenario isn't really such a stretch. Scanners this rugged are in use in American industry right now. And even if the NFL takes a pass, they're gaining yardage in today's distribution centers as word spreads regarding their ability to stand up to abuse.
And they do take abuse. Last year, a delivery truck ran over a handheld scanner at Mockler Beverage, a large Anheuser-Busch distributor in Baton Rouge, La. "The handheld did not work afterwards," reports John Lewenthal, the company's information technology manager, "but the data card was still intact. We took the data card out and transferred the information in about 15 minutes. It was virtually transparent."
Going to extremes
Judging from the marketing materials for rugged-duty products, today's distribution center is one rough place, at least if you're a piece of electronic equipment. Vendors of rugged equipment (whether it's handheld scanners, computer screens and printers, two-way radios or vehiclemounted computers) go out of their way to enumerate the hardships their products can withstand—a list that includes not only temperature extremes but also chemical spills, shock and vibration.
But there's clearly a need for this tough stuff. A study just released by Venture Development Corp. (VDC) says sales of ruggedized (also referred to as "industrial") products were just under $3 billion in 2002. That report, released by VDC in February, forecasts that the market will grow to $4.8 billion by 2007, representing annual growth of just over 10 percent.
Users are finding that paying a premium for ruggedized versions, rather than commercial units, is money well spent, reports Tim Shea, a senior analyst with VDC. Much of that demand is for equipment that is both mobile and rugged—a combination that attracts companies seeking higher employee productivity and better customer service, he adds. "The increasing adoption of wireless communications as a means to enhance operational efficiency and improve profitability will also propel demand for rugged mobile computers."
Longer life expectancy isn't the only reason many companies are switching to products that can take a licking and keep on ticking—or scanning, or printing. A big part of the attraction is the protection they offer against the loss of data in the event that someone, say, drops the unit or spills chemicals on it.
"We know from research in the distribution center that devices get abused," says Daniel Arroyo, senior marketing communications manager at Intermec Technologies Corp. in Everett, Wash. "What's more important than just replacing the equipment is being able to retrieve the information. If the information on the device gets lost or the device suddenly isn't available, that failure could potentially shut down a line. That can eat away at the bottom line very quickly."
Their ability to survive a multi-foot drop aside, heavy-duty industrial products are also quickly gaining traction in places where the temperatures go to extremes. Take the distribution center operated by SCS Refrigerated Services Inc. in Tacoma, Wash., where temperatures approach minus 31.7 degrees Celsius (minus 25 Fahrenheit). Because SCS is a public warehouse and ownership of some products may change two or three times while in storage, the company must keep accurate data on inventories at all times. "That's why a first-class data collection and warehouse management system is so important," says Michael Karami, information systems manager for SCS. "It's our life blood."
In addition to providing refrigerated storage, SCS offers its clients a variety of value-added services, including labeling, weighing, inspection, sorting and transportation. To help it meet these demands, SCS recently installed new cold-resistant data-collection equipment from Intermec along with new warehouse management software (WMS) at each of its three West Coast facilities. The software includes a Web-based billing and management system that gives customers access to information through the Web. The data fed into the system are captured in real time through RF terminals mounted on forklifts operated by warehouse workers.
But before the system could go live, the company had to install the RF access points and the requisite cabling in temperatures ranging from minus 28.9 to minus 34.4 degrees Celsius (minus 20 to minus 30 Fahrenheit). "Our biggest challenge was the rapidly condensing moisture, even beginning on the loading dock, where temperatures are a relatively mild 35 degrees Fahrenheit," says Michael Knappert, Intermec's district service manager. "We had to take extra precautions to prevent the equipment from getting cold-soaked or essentially freezing up."
To compensate, Intermec installed heated copper strips for the RF units and access points and supplied heated holsters for the scanning devices. The first electrically heated scanner holsters were purchased from PSC Equipment, although SCS has since created its own units.
Workers at Pittsburgh-based Copperweld may not work in the deep freeze, but no one would characterize their work environment as kind and gentle. Copperweld cuts, bends and welds large, multi-ton bands of steel into structural steel tubing used for agriculture, construction and industrial vehicles, as well as structural columns and beams.
Though Copperweld's need for rugged equipment isn't too hard to understand, the company also wanted equipment that was mobile. Already weighted down with wearable walkie talkies, crane controls, hardhats and heavy work gloves, Copperweld plant workers in the past had to walk over to the terminal every time they needed to scan a bar code, then go back to the workstation to enter the data at PCs in industrial enclosures. "We decided to look into portable terminals that they could carry with them to allow them to be more mobile and streamline the tracking process," says Jeff Pfeister, network administrator for Copperweld.
Among other things, the hardware had to tolerate that rugged, gritty environment and be able to scan bar codes covered by laminate or printed on metal, often in poor lighting. And the software had to be written for use by workers wearing heavy gloves that made working with a keyboard difficult.
Working with Symbol Technologies, Copperweld created its first radio-frequency application, one that would mana ge raw material inventory. By all accounts, the company is happy with the results. Users have found they can complete the tracking process in one-third the time it took with Copperweld's manual system and are able to perform raw materials inventory counts more often and with fewer people. As Pfeister puts it, "Now we know to a high degree of accuracy what's sitting out here."
It's cheaper than a bar-code scanner—costing somewhere between a quarter and half the price of a high-end reader. But is the handheld iPAQ Pocket PC device on track to replace scanning equipment in DCs across America?
The iPAQ, which is marketed by Hewlett-Packard, has several factors in its favor. Not only is it comparatively cheap, but the device also offers a high degree of data protection, allowing data to be downloaded many times a day through wireless networks. That means if the device is destroyed, the result would not be catastrophic because the data would be stored and readily available.
"iPAQs are obviously not as durable, but you pay a lot more for [rugged] handhelds because of the way they are built," says John Lewenthal, information technology manager at Mockler Beverage, an Anheuser-Busch distributor in Baton Rouge, La. "If you can capture data multiple times during the day, you minimize the amount of data that could be lost if [the iPAQ] is destroyed."
But others aren't convinced. Vinnie Luciano, vice president of product management for Symbol Technology's Mobile Computing Division, is quick to defend the traditional scanner. "I see a lot of wishful thinking out there," he says. "Wishful thinking on the part of Hewlett-Packard, and wishful thinking from the customer side. I've heard people say 'I can throw away two of these and still come out ahead [on cost].' We've seen people pilot them, but we've yet to see them deployed."
Luciano says the risk of losing data, as well as having DC employees left without a unit to work with, exceeds any potential benefit offered by iPAQs. He also notes that while iPAQ units may be less costly, by the time accessories like scanners, radio cards and protective sleeves are factored in, you are quickly approaching the $1,295 list price for a Symbol rugged scanner.
"Keeping track of the goods you are distributing is the single most mission-critical application in the DC," says Luciano. "Nothing you do is more important. Being able to manage and collect data is absolutely crucial. But the vast majority of DC workers don't operate when their handheld is broken. You can't afford to lose data, and you can't afford to have your people not working."
Hewlett-Packard did not return calls requesting information about the use of its iPAQ device in distribution center applications.