For logistics operators, mobile technology is not a luxury but a necessity. The warehouse has always been an essentially mobile environment. For factory personnel, warehouse operatives and sales technicians, mobility is an integral part of everyday life and will continue to be so. In such cases, technology is crucial in organising this mobile environment.
Instead of being a means to an end, enabling workers in large financial corporations, for example, to conduct business away from their desk, technology can truly revolutionise the existing practices within logistics operations. Technology has already had a profound effect on the logistics
operators. The rapid growth and dissemination of the Internet has enabled greater integration between operators, suppliers and customers. In today’s highly competitive, global marketplace the pressure on organisations to find new ways to create and deliver value to customers grows ever stronger. Customers have superior and more regular access to purchase goods and services and are placing greater demands on companies to deliver their goods efficiently. It is imperative for companies to match this pace of change. Supply chain management software has initiated the movement towards greater productivity and integration but logistics operators must continue to develop collaboration and visibility within the whole supply chain. Externally, technology has enabled supermarkets to order their goods in real-time and expect an equally rapid response from logistics operators. Internally, logistics operators are well placed to foster technology to improve the functioning of their workplace. Many warehouses currently employ a number of individual wireless systems, such as dual-direction radios, pagers and individual’s DA’s and so on. However, wireless technology really comes into its own by creating data connections between different computing devices, and between computing devices and networks. A typical network consists of wireless devices and antennas providing coverage for internal networks or building-to-building links up to about 70km.
By locating transmission hubs throughout the building, data and voice ‘packets’, for instance, information can be sent and received over a Wireless LAN (WiFi), allowing users to locate themselves anywhere but still communicate with the corporate file server.
Brit-Tipp, a commercial vehicle bodybuilder, realised it was wasting valuable time and resources tracking employees moving between its three separate factories, and decided to review its communications provision. It elected to install a DECT-based PBX in order to improve communication and reduce call costs. Instant contact frees workers from unnecessary return trips to their base in order to send and receive messages.
But why not just use the mobile phone networks with which we are all familiar? Why bother creating dedicated enterprise networks?
These networks are appealing because standard telephony solutions based on UK mobile networks prove unsuitable for logistics operators due to signal limitations on sites and the considerable cost of mobile tariffs. One solution to this issue is Digitally Enhanced Cordless Telephony (DECT). Rather than having numerous telephones distributed throughout the premises and connected by wires to the on-premises switchboard (PBX), the DECT wireless PBX consists of cordless handsets that communicate, by radio, to a small number of base stations.
An incoming call for a given handset is automatically routed to the correct handset, wherever it may be on the premises. As the user moves around the site, from the radio coverage of one base station to another, the call is handed over seamlessly. With the increasing requirement for seamless network connectivity, DECT is an obvious solution.
The full potential of wireless technology can only be realised via a wireless LAN backbone to provide access to applications and data through one infrastructure. This is vital to gain the maximum benefits from every IT application.
Many logistics operations still function with a split network infrastructure, consisting of separate telephony, computer and facility management networks. By adopting a WML interface, all systems supporting this protocol can be integrated into one large structure.
For example, a cordless phone could be adjusted to operate an entry security system, enabling the existing security guard to perform tasks away from the gate. Text messages can be mobilised to improve internal communications, for example, in sending alerts in the case of fire or security alarms.
Supply chain management
Every day companies lose revenue in invisible, unrealised savings because of poor supply chain management practices. Wireless solutions offer a considerable increase in the richness of applications and data available to mobile workers, improving the quality of service, efficiency and customer service. Stock administrators can be connected to a warehouse database for filing and shipping customer orders, checking order status, or inventory. Keeping the administrators mobile helps to eliminate the printing and routeing of paper forms, and the re-entry of information collected on paper into the database.
Consequently, this limits the incidence of errors and enhances the accuracy of stock information. Stock levels are monitored and updated in real-time, enabling workers to track and analyse usage patterns, which ensures that employees are more responsive to business needs and able to formulate more rapid and informed short- and long-term decisions.
While benefits such as reduced inventory, decreased transport costs and greater accuracy of stock and order forecasting are crucial in creating successful logistics operations, customers also benefit from accelerated order and processing fulfilment.
The logistics industry is in constant flux. Such dynamism demands a highly flexible support system. The physicality of wireless technology is favourably placed to assist this industry. While the wireless link fulfils a similar role to a fibre optic cable, it is less expensive, less space intensive, easier to install and can be relocated quickly. Creating a fixed network demands time and money. Laying cable and building fixed workstations is a major disruption to users and is labour intensive. Furthermore, when organisations rearrange warehouses or connect new users, departments or buildings, wireless technology can be reconfigured by simply moving the terminals to their new location, causing no inconvenience associated with rewiring.
Wireless technology, though considered attractive, is perhaps not considered imperative for all organisations. It is important for companies to recognise that, in some industries, the opportunity cost of not implementing this technology overrides the cost of infrastructure investment. The organisations that are likely to see the greatest benefit are those with large numbers of workers who spend most of their time away from a fixed location.
Organisations are under considerable pressure to determine what the possible return on investment (ROI) is in adopting wireless technology. Studies show that most companies tend to find ROI in those initiatives which are supporting existing mobile workers, for example warehouse workers, distribution/logistics workforce, field service engineers, field sales force and managers.
For any organisation that wants to make use of information generated by people on the move, a wireless network is the perfect solution. Increasingly, organisations want their mobile employees to be able to both access and generate information in real-time from the central server. Ensuring these remote workers are well supported with the appropriate services which enable them to operate as an integrated enterprise is both technically challenging and a business opportunity. Wireless technology can help logistics operators fulfil these requirements. n
Nadahl Shocair is chief executive of DeTeWe UK and directing strategist to DeTeWe AG & Co’s board, tel: 01442 354600.