Warehouses Are Going Mobile

Weigh all your options before implementing a wireless solution.


Gains in productivity and cost savings can be achieved by replacing paper-based systems with wireless solutions throughout a warehouse, but before putting in a new solution, it's important to do your homework.

Warehouse managers looking to bring a wireless system on board need first to understand their own operations and how they plan to use their wireless network, both in the immediate and long-term future. Wireless has many uses'from voice applications for picking and receiving to barcode and RFID readers, from mobile computing to communications'and all have different requirements.

"Evaluating any solution requires an in-depth analysis of an organization's current and future needs," says Aaron Miller, a principal at warehouse consulting firm Tompkins Associates' offices in Fountain Valley, CA.

"You really need to understand what is involved with your current system," Miller continues. "Once you get that, a baseline should be established with regard to costs, people, equipment, time and productivity within things like picking, receiving and replenishment. Then you can compare that to other alternatives and the costs associated with them and determine at what level of wireless you want to be and what costs you are willing to bear to get there. You want to look at all your alternatives first."

Then you need to look at the strength and availability of the airwaves at your facility, according to Graham Melville, director of product marketing at Symbol Technologies' Wireless Infrastructure Division. "You want to make sure that your wireless system will have full availability, that it will work in high humidity, heat and cold."

Next, you'll need to select the devices that are appropriate for the type of work you want to perform with wireless. "It's one thing to set up a network around one workstation," says Melville, "but it's a lot different if you plan on driving a wireless-equipped forklift between multiple access points. You need to think of the impacts to the whole system, and the applications that will run along the whole system."

Different devices use different protocols. Some rely on infrared, which transfers data over a narrow beam of light (as in many remote controls). Others rely on Bluetooth, which uses low-frequency radio waves to transmit data between devices that are no more than 30 feet apart (as in PDAs, barcode scanners, headsets, printers, mobile phones and laptop computers). Still others rely on a much larger local area network'or LAN'the most robust of all communication protocols in terms of range and usability. A network of wireless access points, or "hot spots," links all the devices in the LAN together.

If you choose to implement a complete LAN system, "it's also important to have the proper ratio of [hot spots] to wireless devices, so that you will have adequate coverage," says Melville. "You want it so that if one point goes down, the system will not go down entirely, and that another one can back it up seamlessly within fractions of a second."

But whatever mode of communication you choose, know that each has its limitations, and choosing the wrong type of technology now could limit your options later on, the experts warn.

Once the type of systems and devices are chosen, warehouse operators will then need to look into software that will link the wireless system to other systems within the warehouse, and that the needed interfaces between them are in place.

First and foremost, the system must be able to communicate with the warehouse management system. "You will need a WMS, some sort of application to track all the SKUs, to know what is coming in and going out of the warehouse and where it is inside the warehouse," says Doug Brown, senior manager of mobile computer products at LXE, Norcross, GA.

"You'll need something to store information about the products in your warehouse before you can do anything with them," he continues. "A lot of this has to do with the WMS, and then having the technology out in the warehouse to be able to update the information as it moves through the warehouse and beyond."

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