Wireless Applications: Reaching Deeper For Data

Wireless Applications: Reaching Deeper For Data

Emerging WI-FI, RFID and bar-code technologies increase mobility.

In the past, complex plant environments have proved to be challenging places to implement and effectively use wireless technology. But many of today's applications enable greater mobility, improved data-collection capabilities and less-cumbersome deployments.

The end result for manufacturers is wireless systems that can extend to previously unreachable areas, says Dan Miklovic, vice president and manufacturing research leader at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc. "Companies are trying to extend the capabilities of their people. They're using mobile and wireless technology to get data from places they've never been able to get if from before, and get it to places they've never been able to get it to before."

One area that some manufacturers are gravitating toward is a centralized wireless architecture (Wi-Fi). Traditionally, Wi-Fi applications required that intelligent access points be installed at different locations throughout the facility. Today manufacturers have the option of implementing a switch-based wireless system where a central access port serves as a single antenna.

InnerWireless, which provides in-building wireless solutions, has increased efficiency, cut costs and managed growth with fewer employees using bar-code-based wireless applications from Oracle.
Switch-based systems are most practical in process manufacturing facilities where the machinery and infrastructure make installing multiple access points difficult and more costly than a centralized port, says Leif Eriksen, director of industry solutions for mobility solutions provider Symbol Technologies Inc., Holtsville, N.Y. They also allow for easier wireless upgrades. "The more complex and large your installation, the more compelling a switched architecture is. So if you're a small manufacturer with a small facility without a lot of complexity in it . . . it's probably not as compelling."

Another form of wireless technology that manufacturers are finding innovative ways of using is RFID. To track inventory, some manufacturers are placing RFID tags or transponders at each storage location so when a product is stored, the reader on the forklift or truck records the product and storage information rather than using multiple readers that triangulate the product's location.

"Triangulation is still dependent on being able to read a tag with multiple readers, and what we find in industrial situations is that the distance between the tag and the reader and the geometry of the reading tends to affect readability, whereas if you bolt a tag to the floor as the truck or forklift puts the product away, it reads where it is," Miklovic says.

Miklovic notes, though, that most manufacturing companies that are using RFID are doing so to comply with customer-driven mandates. Other manufacturers still are relying on bar codes for tracking. InnerWireless Inc. is one manufacturer that has improved plant-floor efficiency with bar-code solutions. The Richardson, Texas-based manufacturer of broadband wireless infrastructures has deployed Oracle's Mobile Supply Chain applications to manage distribution, manufacturing and quality-inspection transactions using scanners and other handheld devices, says CFO Tim Kinnear.

Each item in InnerWireless' warehouse receives a label with a purchase order number, receipt number and a preassigned aisle location. The company increased efficiency and cut costs by 30% to 35% and is adding fewer employees to manage growth.

"We can complete the distribution, manufacturing and quality transactions anywhere in our warehouse and assembly area using these devices, and that is much more efficient than having to key in information into the computer system at every step of the process," Kinnear says.

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