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."

To be fully effective, the system should be set up so that "every time a pallet leaves, there is a wireless system that knows what is going out and where it is going, and updates that information across the entire network," says Eric Hermelee, vice president of marketing at Wavelink Corp., Kirkland, WA.

Security Tops The List

Now that you've decided what you want to do and which equipment will help you do that, you'll need to make sure that adequate security protocols are in place to protect the data that goes out over your network. Despite security precautions such as surveillance cameras, barbed wire fences and intrusion detection systems, many companies are still dangerously exposed to security lapses throughout their wireless network.

A professional hacker can sit in the parking lot, equipped with a laptop and a $60 wireless PC card, and penetrate corporate wireless servers to gain access to credit card information, stock numbers, price lists, sales and order quantities and more.

Security concerns with wireless technology in a warehouse are heightened because of the prevalence of multi-vendor interoperability, support for multiple operating systems, centralized management and functionality based on automation, transparency and redundancy.

"Such lapses are always a possibility," admits Symbol's Melville. "You need to make sure that everything you transmit is adequately encrypted."

Another step to take to protect your wireless network is the installation of a password and user authentication system, says Wavelink's Hermelee.

And, there is a need to secure not only the scanners and computers, but also wireless printers, something that is often overlooked. "Mobile wireless printers have many of the same security vulnerabilities and support issues as other mobile components within the wireless enterprise, but they have traditionally been outside the scope of wireless security management," says Stephen Drake, program manager for the Mobile Software Service at IDC, Framingham, MA. "Enterprises can help ensure the security, reliability and consistency of their entire mobile deployment solution by integrating all mobile devices under one management system."

A maintenance systems that monitors the health of the entire system and the communications connections is also critical, says Wavelink's Hermelee, who notes that in the fast-paced, low-margin grocery industry, no one can afford to have their wireless network go down for any length of time.

The system also allows managers to update the software for each device remotely, and tell how the device is being used in a warehouse. "It can tell how many scans a person has done and what he's been doing," says Frank Riso, senior director of retail marketing and operations at Symbol. "It can also turn a device off remotely if needed."

The information contained in the system monitor can be transmitted over the Internet to link all the devices in multiple warehouses. "This is especially important when you're talking about one company with five warehouses or more around the country," Riso says. "Everything can be done centrally from one location."

This has been a life-saver for U.K. retailer Tesco. With more than 5,000 wireless access points and different settings at 673 stores and a number of distribution centers in Great Britain, preserving the right network settings without a central management system would be a full-time job. "For us, the key benefits are the ability to deal with high volume, create a stable environment and then easily detect when an access point has gone wrong," says Glenn Couch, a Tesco infrastructure project manager.

The Mobile Manager from Wavelink also allows Tesco to update systems with ease. "We've found that upgrades are much easier with Wavelink," Couch says. "At one stage we had to configure 900 access points manually and it took us three weeks. We now find it's more than 10 times quicker. It gives big labor savings when you're planning a major change, and also when you're dealing with support questions."

Once all the critical decisions have been made, it's time to talk price. Costs for going wireless can vary depending on the number of users to be involved, the number of terminals needed, the number of SKUs in the warehouse and the size of the warehouse. On average, though, most companies should be prepared to spend about $100,000 on a full wireless network, complete with software, computers, servers, middleware, wireless access points, wireless devices and more.

"For a warehouse, you can expect to spend about $100,000 for everything, but you can recoup it quickly by cutting staff, increasing productivity and error reductions," says Hermelee.

Deployment for a single location can take from three to six months to roll out. If it's a larger rollout across many locations, it can take about a year to 18 months, says Hermelee, who recommends a phased-in roll-out across multiple locations so that kinks can be worked out before bringing other systems and locations on line.

But ultimately, cost and roll-out time should not be the main concerns, Miller says. "Wireless solutions have created an ROI in only a few months, more quickly even than many expected. A lot of it has to do with doing your homework, understanding your needs and taking the appropriate action to meet them."

Money Matters

The cost of going wireless:

*Wireless access points: $250-$800 each.

*Wireless devices: $2,500-$3,000 each.

*Maintenance software and upgrades: $10,000, plus licensing fees.

*Mobile middleware: $165 per device.