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10/24/2010

Wireless Technology Comes to the Fore in the Supply Chain

Robert J. Bowman, SupplyChainBrain

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.

To 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.”

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