Comes to the Fore
in the Supply Chain
BY ROBERT J. BOWMAN
The use of wireless has broken out of the warehouse and is beginning to take hold throughout the
chain—although full adoption is being slowed by global recession.
o most people, the word “
wireless” evokes a simple home
router or a public café with an
erratic internet connection. Even
in the world of supply chain
management, awareness is often limited to
discrete applications such as barcode scanning and lift-truck operations. In actuality,
wireless has broken out of the warehouse
and promises to play a major role in the
tracking of freight, information and transportation the world over.
Wireless is literally on the move, says
Brooks Bentz, a partner with Accenture in
Boston. The idea, he says, is to “take conventional technology and make it not only
wireless, but mobile.” Already the applications have gone beyond basic freight tracking to include equipment control, traffic
management, toll-booth operations and the
detection of track defects along rail lines.
Bentz has even heard talk of using satellites
with wireless connections for air traffic control, instead of ground-based towers.
The technology is being applied to
everything from trucks and railcars to the
individual parts of a shipment. One of
Accenture’s clients, a retailer based in the
U.K., is experimenting with a checkout system that can scan a shopping cart full of
items without the customer having to
remove them and scan them individually.
Better systems for identifying freight
down to the SKU level are a key to retailers
becoming more responsive to sudden shifts
in market demand, Bentz says. Container
shipping might seem a straightforward
process, but things can get complicated
when the contents of an oceangoing box
are broken out and reloaded into domestic
containers or trailers at the port of entry.
With tighter control over incoming goods,
especially during the times they change
hands, suppliers can reroute product to
where it is most needed.
Wireless inside distribution centers is a
mature technology, even if radio frequency
identification has yet to fulfill its potential.
Barcoding is an established practice in
many warehouses, and RFID tags are showing their value in security-conscious industries such as defense, says Neil Smith, chief
executive officer of Savi Networks in Mountain View, Calif.
“The next step,” says Smith, “is to start
using wireless technologies outside of the
four walls.” Developments over the past
decade, including enhancements in cellular
communications, the internet and programming languages such as Java, have propelled
wireless to a new level of sophistication.
“It’s developing at light speed,” Smith
says. “In my view, wireless is the way the
world is going.”
A World of Choices
Still, there are roadblocks to the full devel-
opment of wireless, chief among them con-
fusion about which type of system to
deploy, and how to justify its cost. “Compa-
nies need to make decisions based on the
value they receive,” says Smith. Savi’s