Imagine how you'd feel after waiting weeks to see what Santa would bring, and then Christmas morning came and went, and there was nothing left under the tree. That's how manufacturers feel when they look back on the promise of wireless applications, which, only a few short years ago, were touted as a technology poised to transform business.
"The reality of wireless is that very little of what companies are using it for has to do with manufacturing applications," observes Scott Lundstrom, senior vice president for research at AMR Research, an IT research firm in Boston. "Overwhelmingly, the predominant use of Blackberrys and other wireless devices for business is e-mail."
Part of the problem, he adds, is that "there is still a very fragmented set of platforms for wireless." In other words, as was true with other technologies that couldn't interact effortlessly with one another, wireless applications have had a slower rate of adoption by the marketplace.
There are some notable exceptions, though. Aside from e-mail, manufacturers are taking advantage of wireless systems to provide customer relationship management (CRM) capabilities to field sales representatives, as well as to enable field service staff.
Fujitsu Transaction Solutions, for example, uses a wireless system to communicate with its field service force of 425 North American technicians who service automated teller machines and other retail systems. Technicians not only receive service orders using handheld devices, but they also can transmit information on the status of each service order, parts needed, etc.
"Our technicians used to carry two devices, a pager and a two-way device, not to mention a laptop and other electronics," says Charles Smith, business support specialist at the Fujitsu Limited subsidiary. The Frisco, Texas, unit manages high-availability retail store systems, including point-of-sale hardware and software at a number of large retail firms, including Staples, Loblaws and Payless ShoeSource, to name only a few. The company switched to wireless software from Antenna Software, which gives it more flexibility to change the system quickly when business needs change.
"We've also been able to reduce our operational costs and head count as a result of this application and wireless format," Smith says. "It also helps us to meet our service level agreement with our customers." To make changes, Fujitsu uses the Antenna system's form server to update the application.
Fujitsu technicians are able to update service tickets in realtime, enter all the data needed to order parts and update inventory, while keeping track of the next service commitment on their schedule. Running Antenna Software's system on Motorola P9535 two-way pagers, technicians connect to the company's call-management system via a variety of wireless service providers, including Skytel, Arch Wireless and Metrocall, enabling the company to achieve full coverage throughout its field service area.
"The idea of wireless is to get data in the hands of the users, wherever they are," says AMR's Lundstrom. Applications such as support and repair operations are a natural for wireless, he adds. "These applications typically take some of the infrastructure cost out while putting the data close to the people who need it in the field," he points out.
For instance, Pitney Bowes Inc., the $4.6 billion mail and document management systems equipment manufacturer, invested $20 million to connect its 2,200 service representatives in the field via a wireless system to the company's 1,000 call center agents. The goal was to improve service to its more than 1 million U.S. customers, while reducing costs.
Pitney Bowes' wireless setup has three key aspects. The company uses Siebel Systems' Field Service application, Antenna A3's wireless software for Siebel, and various two-way handheld devices, including cell phones with styluses.
"We had three different systems in the past, and they didn't necessarily have all the same information at the same time, so you had to look into different systems to see where things were," says Ralph Nichols, service program manager at Pitney Bowes' Document Management Technologies business unit in Danbury, Conn. "With the Antenna system, we now have all our labor and service inventory information in one system, and it's all managed in realtime." The company reports a gain in productivity of 5% to 8%, a reduction of emergency parts orders of more than 20%, and a 3% gain in solving customer problems on the first call.
Perhaps the industry most likely to be the first to fully adopt wireless applications from the plant floor through its supply chain is pharmaceuticals. Drug manufacturers are being prodded by the Food and Drug Administration to begin using RFID to ultimately track prescription drugs all the way to the item level, in part as a means to protect against counterfeiting, a major problem plaguing the industry.
"By pushing pharmaceutical firms to use RFID, they may become the first to adopt wireless technologies all the way from manufacturing into the supply chain," Lundstrom notes. Likewise, in the retail industry, some manufacturers such as Nike are using low-cost passive RFID tags to eliminate diversion of products from its distribution channel.
For the meantime, though, when it comes to wireless applications, most manufacturers will have to settle for e-mail, CRM, and field service support.