A real head-turner.
Only a decade ago, radio-frequency (RF) data technology wasn't much of a head-turner for IT decision-makers. Systems back then could support only a handful of wireless computing devices (which were both limited in function and portability), throughput maxed out at 9,600 bps, and proprietary technology meant customers were tied to one vendor's limitations. Because of this, RF was relegated to niche vertical markets, such as retail, which absolutely required the wireless data capture and communications capabilities.
The technology has since evolved into comprehensive wireless local area network (WLAN) solutions that can support over 1,000 clients, bringing computing to the point of powerful activity--via devices ranging from desktop, notebook, and handheld computers to PDAs, cordless bar-code scanners, and voice-over-IP phones. WLANs have achieved wired-like functionality with management flexibility and bandwidth reaching Ethernet speeds of 11 Mbps. Behind this evolution is powerful spread-spectrum technology and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.11 standard for wireless communications which ensures that all standard-compliant devices will speak the same language. These advances have helped extend WLANs beyond the niche markets into the corporate enterprise. This WLAN growth is further augmented with the entry of longtime wired networking provider 3Com, which recently announced a standards-based wireless 11 Mbps solution co-developed with Symbol Technologies.
WLAN growth can also be attributed to an overall return on investment. Today, WLANs make it possible for almost every type of organization to distribute and access information more efficiently and cost effectively. Rewiring a facility for network capabilities can cost millions of dollars, while installing a WLAN costs only thousands. According to a 1998 study conducted by the Wireless Local Area Network Alliance (WLANA) a nonprofit industry trade association formed to increase awareness of WLAN technologies--the average time to fully pay back the initial costs of WLAN installations was 8.9 months. What's more, 97% of those surveyed said that WLANs met or exceeded their expectation to provide their company a competitive advantage. The productivity benefits quantified were found to be 48% of the total return on investment. Clearly, WLANs make good business sense.
Whether used alone or bridged with existing LANs and phone systems, WLANs process information in real time so that the right decisions can be made at the right time, by the right people.
BUT WHO'S USING IT?
Following are three areas where WLANs are adding value:
Libbey-Owens-Ford (LOF), a supplier and manufacturer of glass products for the transportation, architectural, and specialty markets, recently sought to increase productivity at its plants by giving more detailed information on products and inventory levels to floor personnel. The goal was to help them make better business decisions, which had a great impact on the operation's bottom line. Additionally, LOF wanted to standardize all of its plant processes and print customer-specific tickets at shipment time.
Inventory reporting always lagged 24 hours, with tickets entered manually and handed in the next morning, which meant that inventory accuracy was a problem. In addition, performance reporting also ran at least a day behind. As a result, schedulers were delayed until reports were printed, increasing the possibility of missed shipments. LOF lacked personnel to enter data and began seeking cost reduction and elimination of unnecessary steps in the inventory process.
Using Symbol Technologies' Spectrum24 wireless LAN solution, floor personnel were able to update the factory's IBM RS/6000 system and IBM MVS mainframe with handheld computers as they were working on the shop floor. The new setup not only produced timely inventory reporting, but it reduced data-entry errors, increased performance on manufacturing lines, and gave personnel a better understanding of the manufacturing flow process.
Another market that has readily adopted WLAN technology is retail. Eckerd, a leading drug chain with over 2,800 stores nationwide, recently implemented WLAN technology to increase the efficiency of its operation on several levels. Eckerd's strategy was to build a real-time wireless network where information could be captured at the point of entry to balance inventory and replenish stock for improved accuracy and throughput. The chain also wanted to develop a shelf-price audit system to avoid customer complaints--and government audit charges. Finally, Eckerd wanted to leverage existing check-out scanners for electronic article surveillance (EAS) and bagging to boost efficiency and profitability.
Real-time inventory reporting was achieved by connecting 5,000 of the chain's registers via a WLAN to the company's main computer system. The new system not only updates the stores' inventories with every customer purchase, but it also automatically orders more stock when supplies run low. Eckerd officials report this cuts ordering time by one hour per week at each store--a big time savings when you consider 1,000 stores use this system. In addition, the wireless technology solution gives the company freedom to redesign stores without worrying about routing cables.
For shelf-price audits, Eckerd sales associates regularly scan every shelf-price label with a handheld scanner to ensure the bar codes scan properly and the pricing is correct. The price is "looked up" in the store price file via the WLAN. Now, customers can count on paying the right price, and Eckerd is assured that it will pass local audits.
Finally, getting out of the store is easier with the chain's check-out scan-and-bag system. Associates use an in-counter scanner as part of their check-out scan-and-bag system. The scanner automatically decodes the item ID bar code and deactivates the Checkpoint EAS tag. This integrated system increases transaction speed and throughput at the registers and greatly reduces the chance for mistakes.
One of the newest and most exciting innovations for WLANs is voice-over-IP capabilities. This technology enables users to add voice communication to their WLAN via a special network phone that converts and translates analog speech into digital voice packets before sending them over the network. The technology is based on the Internal Telecommunications Union (ITU) H.323 standard for real-time teleconferencing over the Internet or corporate intranets. In addition, WLANs can be connected to H.323-compliant gateways, which can route calls to and from the public switched telephone network (PSTN) or private branch exchange (PBX) systems. This allows network phone users to call their customers, other facilities, or even home to say "hi" to their family. This feature can be very useful in a variety of settings, particularly in hospitals, where real-time verbal contact with caregivers can save lives.
Bellevue Hospital, one of New York City's largest trauma centers, is one such example. The hospital is using wireless network IP phones for in-building voice communications. Caregivers now have cellular-like phone connectivity with patients and colleagues through the hospital's internal TCP/IP network. For calls within the network, the hospital avoids costly toll and subscription charges associated with conventional communications equipment. They also sport such convenient features as caller ID, call waiting, and call forwarding, and some even support dual lines, scanning, and data applications. This enables users to check e-mail or inventory status from the floor while on the phone with a customer.
One of the other benefits of IEEE 802.11-compliant wireless networks is that they don't interfere with other RF-based hospital equipment, such as neonatal monitors and cardiac-care devices. And, since no cabling is involved, the WLANs can be installed and reconfigured with minimal impact on the hospital's infrastructure--and budget.
AT AN APPLICATION NEAR YOU
As standards evolve, speeds increase, and prices drop, WLAN technology is fast becoming pervasive, achieving status as a commonplace part of every infrastructure--whether it's a corporate enterprise, a small office environment, a warehouse, the neighborhood grocery store, a hospital, or a school. Beyond corporate and institutional applications, business professionals are already beginning to bring their computing devices home and, in real time, check e-mail from the comfort of their couches. Students can submit homework assignments from poolside, or consumers can wirelessly access recipes from a cooking Web site. With information wirelessly and cost-effectively accessible from almost any point of activity, it's easy to see why RF technology is now turning heads.
Circle 261 for more information from Symbol Technologies, Inc.
Sealander is senior director of Wireless Systems for Symbol Technologies, Inc., Holtsville, N. Y.
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|Title Annotation:||Technology Information; wireless local area networks prove their worth|
|Comment:||Wireless LANs can now support hundreds of desktop, notebook and handheld computers as well as cordless bar-code scanners, voice-over-IP (VoIP) phones and other communications devices The networks are also becoming easier to manage, and they run at Ethernet speeds of 11 Mbps.|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1999|
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