Wireless Is Big Business

From the pick, pack and ship processes of distributor Dee Electronics Inc. to the package-tracking capabilities of logistics giant UPS, wireless is becoming an integral part of network technology and business automation around the world.

One of the most ambitious wireless LAN projects is currently being undertaken by UPS, which is investing approximately US$100 million in upgrading its package-tracking system to a single wireless platform, using both 802.11b as well as Bluetooth, and replacing seven software platforms and nine different handhelds.

“We’re implementing wireless LANs in all of our operating buildings, 200,000 wireless devices worldwide,” says David Salzman, program manager at UPS Information Services in Mahwah, N.J.

The multiyear project, one of the largest of its kind anywhere in the world, is called UPScan and will be rolled out in 118 countries and 2,000 package-facility sites during the next three years.

When completed UPS business and consumer customers will know exactly where their shipments are in real time.

“Every time a package is touched by a UPS employee, it’s [immediately] in the system,” Salzman says.

The in-building scanning application uses a portable terminal designed by Symbol Technologies, in Holtsville, N.Y., coupled to a portable laser ring bar-code scanner worn on the finger. The ring scanner communicates via Bluetooth to the Symbol terminal worn on the hip. “As you load packages, you scan bar codes to enhance package tracking,” Salzman says. The package number scanned by the Bluetooth-enabled ring sends the information to the wearable terminal, which in turn sends the package number from the terminal through the 802.11b access point to the main database.

Cost Benefits

Salzman says the company calculated the benefits of using newer, more scalable technology such as Win CE-based terminals that would cost less to maintain in the long run and also integrate easily with UPS’ Windows networks as opposed to maintaining and upgrading its current mobile terminal systems.

“We are a Windows shop with 5,000 IT people, primarily Windows developers. It’s natural to have them develop the applications for the terminal,” Salzman says.

According to Salzman, standardizing on Win CE for 200,000 terminals decreased the total cost of ownership in the areas of support costs, accessories, and consumables as well as increasing data integrity through standardization.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that 802.11b makes real-time transaction processing a reality by giving companies the ability to collect information wherever it is generated, says Ray Martino, vice-president of Network Products at Symbol Technologies, in San Jose, Calif.

Vertical enterprises from retail, transportation, and logistics to health care are just some of the many industries that will benefit. But as with all technology solutions, the upgrade path for IEEE 802.11b is somewhat muddy.

Standards Problems

The current 802.11b standard performs at its peak at 11Mbps. But unlike performance upgrades in other industry segments, such as processor speeds and data speeds via cell phones, many within the wireless LAN industry refuse to accept 802.11a, with a 54Mbps performance, as the next logical step.

“We don’t consider 11a as an upgrade. We consider it an alternative,” says Todd Gifford, vice-president of sales and operations and a principal at Dee Electronics, a wholesale distribution company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

At first glance one might think that 802.11a, running on a rarely used part of the wireless spectrum, would be attractive. After all, 802.11b must share the 2.4GHz spectrum with cordless phones, microwave ovens, and Bluetooth.

“The 5GHz spectrum [802.11a uses this part of the spectrum] is much cleaner,” Symbol’s Martino says.

Faster performance on a less cluttered spectrum sounds like a good deal, but unfortunately there is more to it.

The “a” spectrum is not backward-compatible with “b”. In addition, “a” also has a shorter range. This means more access points are required to cover the same area in a building. Prices vary, but access points for businesses range from US$179 to more than US$350 – depending on capabilities.

Finally, the European Union does not support “a” and the EU alternative, HyperLAN, is completely incompatible with “a”.

Companies such as UPS, with offices worldwide, most likely would not move to 802.11a for this very reason, Martino says. To make matters worse, there is an interim specification dubbed 802.11g. The idea is to extend “b”, while still using the 2.4GHz band, allowing for backward-compatibility. But there were competing proposals presented to the IEEE standards body; one from Texas Instruments; the other from Intersil. Although the IEEE “down-selected” Intersil’s proposal as the sole technology being considered, that must be ratified by 75 per cent of the Task Group G – no mean feat.

At the moment there is no consensus and despite the dangers of a family squabble making outsiders fearful of going anywhere near a new technology until things settle down, Jim Zyren, director of marketing at Intersil, in Irvine, Calif., was blunt in his assessment of the various proposals and ramifications of 802.11 “a” vs. “b” vs. “g”.

“Self-destructive behaviour has not stopped us in the past,” Zyren says.

Dee Electronics is quite happy with 802.11b, and as a principal in the US$30 million company, Gifford does not believe in upgrading the wireless LAN technology as he does in broadening his company’s use of 802.11b.

“We are trying to utilize this technology to reduce our cost structure so we can compete at a higher quality level against national and international competitors,” Gifford says.

Dee inventories between 40,000 and 45,000 SKUs (stock-keeping units) at any one time and uses 802.11b for among other things “picking accuracy.”

“We don’t make a picking error,” Gifford says.

This is accomplished by giving each picker a wireless LAN-enabled Win CE terminal so that when a part is scanned, the picker knows instantly if it is not the right part.

The system works around a Web-enabled intranet with a microbrowser.

If a customer calls in and changes the order to have it shipped UPS Red, next day, for example, the moment the order is picked, it sends an electronic notice to the customer telling the customer that this part has been picked, picked correctly, who it was picked by, and the tracking number.

“All this is being processed in real time,” Gifford says.

Dee Electronics is adding instant messaging and e-commerce as well with all MRO (maintenance, repair, and operations) orders transmitted from the handheld to the server to suppliers automatically, with updates sent to the ERP system.

The true benefit of the system, according to Gifford, is in its capability to collect data.

Taking the supply-chain fusion concept to its furthest degree, Dee collects information for its customers and allows them to analyse data and make changes in orders by manipulating Dee’s system as needed.

The system scans a single part 11 times.

“Those 11 times have applicability to the customer,” Gifford says.

Despite unresolved spats over what the next version of 802.11 will be, it is obvious that the important changes taking place with wireless LANs are not technological but strategic. It is becoming clear that wireless LANs are no longer an isolated technology offering a solution to a single problem. By reaching into areas previously untouched by the network, they are now part of an overall shift toward what is being called real-time computing.

When completed, real-time computing will give managers – and when a company chooses, its customers – immediate access to integrated data from far-flung distributed systems, reflecting changes as they happen. And to do that, IEEE 802.11, a, b, or g will be a part of the solution.

UPS Costs