Wireless computing is exploding among industries that want to extend their LAN's reach to warehouse floors for real-time data collection but are not able to rely on "wire" due to physical-facility limitations. Some hindrances that prevent wired computing on warehouse floors include electrical interference, foot traffic, and mobile machinery. Add unfriendly environmental conditions, and standard computing becomes hazardous to workers and seemingly nearly impossible.
With wireless communications these obstacles can easily be overcome. Operators can roam freely to gather and input warehouse inventory data, and instant feedback is provided to traditional corporate networks. The use of wireless computers results in increased inventory-tracking accuracy, improved productivity, tighter control, and valuable time and money savings.
One company implementing mobile wireless computing for better warehouse management is Grinnell Corp., the world's largest producer and distributor of fire-protection products. Headquartered in Exeter, N.H., this international group of manufacturers, contractors, and suppliers focuses on the development of fire and flow-control devices aimed at the protection of life and property.
Grinnell operates five foundries for heavy iron and brass products and 10 operations for valves, hangers, fittings, and sprinkler heads. The company's distribution arm consists of more than 50 warehouses: in North America, along with a network of independent distributors, including a number of European companies. Its plants manufacture and ship products to the warehouses, where they are inventoried and redistributed directly to customers or other outposts.
A company of this size has a critical need to track its inventory in a timely and efficient manner. Not knowing the exact number and locations of items in inventory can lead to inaccurate product-availability information, missed delivery dates, and lost sales. To combat this, Grinnell began updating its warehouse inventory-tracking and -management methodology, with the first site to implement the new product management system in Fullerton, Calif.
Since implementation of the wireless communications LAN, this warehouse has attained Grinnell's most important goal--real-time data on inventory changes. The key to its success is the RangeLAN2 wireless communications network from Proxim, Inc., Mountain View, Calif. which enables 23 warehouse personnel using industrial touch-screen computers made by Citadel to remotely record inventory receiving, moving, and shipping data. Operators using computers attached to mobile forklifts rely on radio-frequency (RF) wireless hookups to "talk" to the hardwired LAN on site. The RangeLAN2 wireless adapter card in each computer connects to one of five strategically placed access points suspended from the ceiling on platforms throughout the warehouse. These access points enable over-the-air communication between the mobile computers and the facility's LAN. The access points use spread-spectrum radio design operating in the 2.4- to 2.4835-GHz unlicensed band.
With this wireless network in place, accuracy, productivity, and efficiency have greatly increased. Information is collected through handheld scanners attached to the computers mounted on forklifts on the warehouse floor. While most data is entered via the touch-screen computers on the forklifts, the scanners are used to track items and their specific locations in the warehouse by reading barcodes. Any inventory movement throughout the warehouse creates an immediate transaction from the wireless computers through the closest access point to the facility's wired LAN. Then the warehouse LAN transmits the data to an AS/400, model S30, computer at the corporate headquarters every five minutes via a Frame Relay line. Fullerton's warehouse data is combined with other company warehouses, creating a centrally stored database of up-to-the-minute inventory information. This real-time inventory tracking makes Grinnell's warehousing operations far more efficient while reducing the costs attributed to physical inventory counts.
Before implementing the wireless computers, Grinnell relied solely on paper-based methods to track any movement of products throughout its warehouses. "Previously, it took a lot of time to track everything because all of the data had to be hand-written and then keyed in manually to a computer for a printed report," recalls Nathan Campbell, systems manager at Grinnell. "Paperwork, data entry, and keying made the task impossible to accomplish in a timely fashion. Now, information is programmed into the wireless computers. We can track specific data on individual items at any time, from the minute products are received at the warehouses to the time they are shipped out in real time."
Grinnell was an early adoptor of wireless technology in warehousing operations. The company recognized that improved inventory-management techniques would add to its bottom line, says Campbell. "It was crucial to relay realtime inventory information to each facility's LAN and to the corporate wide area network. Providing warehouse personnel and forklift operators with a quick and easy means of gathering statistical operational data could accomplish this. Wireless computers provide the only solution that meets the company's needs, allowing personnel to roam freely around the warehouses without being tied down by hardwired devices."
The Fullerton warehouse uses a 10BaseT Ethernet network. Its NEC Express 5800 NT server is a 200-MHz Pentium II computer equipped with 128 MB of RAM. The server runs SQL version 6.5, Grinnell's proprietary inventory-tracking program, as well as file- and print-sharing application packages. The LAN consists of 43 Pentium nodes, including the 23 wireless computers. Of the 43, 41 run under Windows 95 and two run the Windows NT Workstation operating system. Each of the 133-MHz computers is equipped with 16 MB of RAM and a 260-MB hard drive. The network runs 24 hours per day.
This warehouse LAN connects to an enterprise-wide corporate WAN anchored by the AS/400 server. The server contains a 2259 processor with 2.5 GB of main storage and 340 GB of disk capacity. There are approximately 700 individual end users directly linked to the WAN host, and it supports at least 50 LANs. Data is transmitted up and down the WAN at five-minute intervals via a permanent Frame Relay connection.
Grinnell employs another AS/400 on the corporate WAN. This model 620 is utilized as an application and batch-jobs processor. It contains a 2181 processor, 2 GB of main storage, and has 84 GB of disk capacity.
Grinnell's RangeLAN2 wireless communications system has been running for one year. "Previously, we had implemented another vendor's wireless network, but its lack of spread-spectrum technology made it less efficient than the current Proxim system," says Campbell. "When we upgraded to the current RangeLAN2 system, a custom inventory-control management program was written in house. The spread-spectrum wireless technology, together with our new inventory-control program, increased warehouse reporting efficiency to the point where the installation paid for itself within 18 months."
According to Campbell, the solution works so well that Grinnell's Chicago site installed a similar wireless network seven months ago, and additional systems are being installed in Atlanta and Dallas now, with another one scheduled in Philadelphia. He notes, "Our goal is to equip each warehouse site with this system over time. Having instantaneous data on shipping, receiving, and any inventory movement throughout the warehouse has made all the difference."
Levine is a freelance technology-features writer with Coast Writing, Carpinteria, Calif.
Circle 266 for more information from Proxim, Inc.
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|Title Annotation:||Company Operations; using Proxim's Proxim RangeLAN2 wireless LAN/WAN system|
|Comment:||The Grinnell Corporation has found a solution to help manage inventory in their vast warehouses and foundries.|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1999|
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