Tough challenge

4 min read

A mobile workforce able to access company and data resources wirelessly is key to improving productivity, accuracy and profitability. But choosing the right equipment for the job is crucial. Mark Venables explains.

The trend for businesses to automate their workforces is growing, and indications are that it will continue.

The eventual aim is to increase productivity and customer service by giving workers in the field access to corporate databases and applications, such as customer relationship management (CRM) software, as well as the ability to update customer records.

But to allow that to happen devices must become portable — using wireless technology — and therefore rugged, to survive in the demanding environment of factory or warehouse.

Companies realise that linking the mobile workforce with the company and its data resources is key to enhancing productivity, accuracy, profitability and, ultimately, customer satisfaction. This is true for any mobile business application, whether the workers provide field repair services, deliver products, dispense pest control chemicals or pick up and deliver packages. But for some, choosing the right devices can be a real challenge.

The most knowledgeable companies are carefully selecting their mobile computers for durability, compatibility and minimum impact on the IT department. In fact, IT research and advisory company Gartner has recommended that firms should consider industrial forms of handhelds whenever application conditions involve the potential maltreatment of units.

Caterpillar learned the hard way about mobile computing devices. The rugged equipment manufacturer has invested heavily in wireless technology in conjunction with notebook computers for quality control testing of road graders it manufactures. But while the company was happy with its network, the computers used were not up to the job.

Caterpillar technicians need to carry notebooks in and out of the grader cabs during the quality control process. And because they're used in a manufacturing environment, the units are constantly exposed to caustic fluids, bumps, drops and dust. To help Caterpillar meet its stringent needs, Itronix supplied ultra-rugged GoBook MAX notebook computers. These are built with an integrated wireless LAN card, making connectivity with their network simple. Technicians and testers now count on their computers for activities ranging from analysing microchips in graders, to downloading schematics of wiring plans for the Caterpillar vehicles.

And the testers don't need to worry about how the units are treated. Sealed construction keeps dust and moisture away from critical components, and the intrinsically safe qualities mean they are safe to use — even around dangerous chemicals. At Honeywell's largest aerospace repair and overhaul facility in Phoenix, Arizona, plant managers calculate that their initial investment in wireless technology from Intermec has paid for itself in less than 90 days.

'By using the wireless network in combination with handheld scanners and web-based data collection screens, we reduced labour collection issues by 99.6 per cent the first week we put it in,' said Ward Lape, the facility's manager of supply chain systems and processes.

Honeywell workers receive propulsion engines and Auxiliary Power Units (APUs) and break them down into component parts that are repaired and overhauled at different cells on the shop floor. They use a variety of wireless barcode scanners and portable computing devices to track the parts and labour associated with each work order.

The company had previously used light pens on a hardwired network to gather shopfloor data, but the hardwired system was unable to keep up with the business demand for real-time information flow. 'We generate around 250,000 data transactions a day, and each of these transactions is important in our decision making and process flows.' said Lape. With wireless, we're able to provide real-time data collection tools at the point of work.'

The company selected a variety of Intermec tools and wireless computing devices. After tests they chose charge coupled device (CCD) scanners instead of lasers, mainly due to users being more comfortable with them. The company also utilises handheld computers and the Intermec 6642 Pen Tablet computer — know as a web pad.

Like PCs, handheld scanners must also be rugged to meet the demands of industry. Scanning technology has been changing dramatically. Laser scan engines, once considered the workhorses for most scanning applications, have been surpassed by new imaging scan engines — linear and 2D imagers — that are more powerful and reliable. The revolution has also enabled the convergence of scan engines into a wider variety of devices.

The underlying technology of a linear imager is the CCD. These solid state components are found in a wide variety of products from simple scanners and image capture devices, such as fax machines, to highly sophisticated devices, like linear imagers, video cameras, and digital cameras. In a linear imager, the CCD captures different levels of reflected light from a barcode's bars and spaces and converts them into a video signal.

For optimum performance, linear imagers need their own light source, which is provided by low-power, long-life LEDs. Their use means that the light can be on all the time, eliminating the need for a trigger, although some scanners do incorporate triggers and sleep/wake modes for power saving — especially when connected to battery-operated devices.

Laser scanners — whose major advantage their scan range of several feet — read barcodes with a laser beam in conjunction with oscillating mirrors to automatically move the beam back and forth across the code.

At DaimlerChrysler's plant in Kassel, Germany, over 2,600 front and rear axles leave the plant together with suspension components every day.

Counting and labelling every screw, grommet and axle by hand is a costly and time-consuming process, so DaimlerChrysler uses handheld scanners. Particles in the air and the robust handling of devices by employees provides handhelds with a massive challenge.

'Accidentally mislabelling parts or shipping them to a wrong location can cost us not only a huge amount of money, but would also damage our image,' said project leader at the plant Karsten Gotze. 'Therefore, implementing a hassle-free data capture solution was essential to us.

'It was important that the technology we implemented would be future-proof. One requirement was that the devices would be able to support new applications without a problem, since DaimlerChrysler plans to use them for several years. So we decided on a Windows-based device. But the device also has to work seamlessly with the rest of the IT architecture,' he said.

To achieve this the company eventually ordered 300 sets of Symbol Technology's MC9060-G handhelds. Apart from the fact that the model works flawlessly in even the most taxing production environments, the handhelds signify a future-proof investment due to their WLAN functionality and flexibility to integrate new applications.

Initial mobile implementations are usually targeted for high priority business processes that are either important to decision making or to the distribution of labour or other assets.

Even if the company's approach is to simply try out mobile computing it is vital to plan for reliability and quality — or face problems that could force them back to the old paper systems.