January 2001 | Commentary | Supply Chain Technology

Automatic Information: The Supply Chain Goes Live

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As the pressure for speed and accuracy increases within the supply chain, companies constantly search for technology to deliver goods quickly and reliably. To meet that demand, an ever-increasing number of end user communication solutions—such as RF devices, subtle bar-code readers, cell phones, and personal digital assistants—have been developed and marketed in the past 10 years.

The supply chain's reach has now extended into the shipping, warehousing, and receiving processes. Supervisors, workers, and managers, as well as the devices and tools they use—forklifts, trucks, AGVs, and material handling systems—are now live. They are open to receive and send communications regarding their preparedness or condition. The supply chain has gone live.

One company that has approached this arena to offer a broad range of solutions is PinPoint Corporation, Billerica, Mass. The company's Mobile Resource Management solution is a live and automatic network of information for the industrial environment.

Beyond being live and automatic, the keys to PinPoint's system are its reliability, accuracy and relevancy. The network is always delivering information that can be acted upon, says Rick Rock, PinPoint's director of industrial solutions.

"Our value proposition to the customer is that we provide information that is collected and delivered automatically," Rock says. "This provides two benefits. First is 100-percent reliability. If the system is working the way it is supposed to, it will collect the information and populate the database as it is designed to do. Or it may send the information to a yard manager or warehouse supervisor.

"Secondly, because the system is automatic it is also accurate," he notes. "For instance, if you rely on bar codes, a reading may be done wrong or not at all. In PinPoint's system, information accuracy is enhanced to an extreme through automatic processing. Our system constantly outputs information and delivers it to the user or to a destination such as the warehouse management system. This makes it live.

"The information is relevant, and can be acted upon," Rock says. "As soon as an incoming shipment is received, the system automatically starts sending information to a line supervisor, to a warehouse manager, to a handheld device, to a phone or to a pager. The system makes it clear that a shipment has been received. A forklift or handler is then dispatched to the receiving area to bring the shipment to the shipping dock. The PinPoint system facilitates this move by finding the closest forklift and assigning it to that task."

To truly understand the value of this system, "customers have to determine whether it is important to have this kind of timely information delivered accurately and reliably, in terms of how significant it is to an existing situation," Rock notes. "If a customer is just archiving data for the purpose of later examination, our system is not as relevant.

"We also offer tremendous flexibility for third-party logistics providers because our putaway and picking can be random," he adds. "If a 3PL wants to keep a certain level of inventory in a forward picking area, our system allows that randomness. We bring inventory in, tag it, and put it away. And we can update the warehouse management system with the location. But it doesn't have to be the location that the SKU (Stockkeeping Unit) went to first."

Tag, You're It

What are the tools that enable this system to work? "We have different tags for different applications," Rock explains. "In the case of a vehicle, we put the tag in a location where it is protected, and not subject to interference; that could be in the cab of a forklift. We also mount them on truck trailers.

"We use controllers that act as computers to keep track of signals from up to 16 antennas," he says. "The antennas are attached to the cell controller via cables. They read the signals coming from the tags. The controller reviews the signal, sorts it out, and determines the location of the tag. There is no theoretical limit as to the number of tags an antenna can read. The practical limit is a function of the space. In a 50' x 50' area, for example, the system could read about 500 tags. Real applications don't come close to the limits."

PinPoint's central server runs its Mobile Resource Management software, which communicates with the controllers that determine TAG (Tag Antenna Distance). The central server acts as a brokering system and delivers messages to each destination—such as a handheld device, phone, bar-code reader, or "subscriber" such as a warehouse or yard manager. Customers can even dial in to the PinPoint system from their cars. PinPoint software runs on a central server, making it a very open system, able to collect data from all relevant sources.

The PinPoint tag has the ability to link to a serial output. For example, a device such as a thermometer with a serial output can provide temperature readings to accompany the location information.

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