Warehouse Without Wires

Last month in this column, Publisher Keith Biondo gave voice to the challenge of adapting to Internet change as a growing tide of logistics dot.coms sweeps our industry. His head hurt from trying to keep up with this Internet thing—so much change, so many choices.

Well, just as the pain was easing (we thought), they’ve gone and added another “w” to the world wide web. Wireless world wide web is coming and it is the next revolutionary advance in logistics; especially in warehousing.

Combine the wireless LAN (Local Area Network) with advances in WMS on the Internet, mix in wireless handheld devices that plug in directly to the Net, and what do you have? The ability to extend your inventory management capability to every corner of your warehouse, and deliver critical decision support to every corner of the globe—almost in real time.

Consider PlanetRx.com. This business-to-consumer site offers a clue as to what’s coming for all of us in logistics. With an inexpensive bar-code scanner, you can go to your medicine cabinet, scan the UPCs on your toothpaste, shampoo, and aspirin, and send that data over the Net to the PlanetRx web site. In a day or two, you’ll receive an express package directly to your home, with exactly what you need to restock your shelves.

The PlanetRx example amounts to little more than a novelty as far as the future of logistics is concerned. Or does it? If wireless inventory control becomes so ubiquitous that it is driven directly at the consumer level, what impact can that have on the systems you create, that you orchestrate?

Wireless LANs have been around for years. But with “slow” 1.5 mbps (megabytes per second) throughput, they were mostly limited to retail applications. The new IEEE standard 802.11b, and the consortium to support wireless standards through WECA (Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance), has augmented throughput sixfold. Just as important as faster data throughput is the promise that wireless LANs will be completely compatible, inexpensive, and run on almost any platform—NT, DOS, CE, WIN3.1-2000, Netware, LINUX, PalmOS—you name it! Some of the players, including Cisco, Lucent, Compaq, 3Com and RadioLAN, promise widespread availability within the next few months.

The impact of this development, combined with the relatively low cost of the latest warehouse management systems (not to mention WMS on the Internet) and increasing ease of web integration promises that the next decade will be one of increasing customer service and a burst of efficiencies like this discipline has never known.

Work that webbed up wireless warehouse.