UPS to deploy Bluetooth, wireless LAN network

$100M-plus project will field 50,000 terminals to 2,000 distribution hubs

United Parcel Service Inc. plans to deploy the world's largest wireless LAN and short-range wireless Bluetooth network throughout its worldwide distribution hubs.

The project, which will cost slightly more than $100 million, is expected to pay for itself within 16 months by enabling package sorters at the hubs to work more efficiently and by standardizing the company on single terminals and network systems, said David Salzman, UPS's program manager for information services.

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Project Paybacks

UPS's wireless network is expected to yield the following tangible benefits:

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Equipment and repair costs reduced by 30%
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Uptime improved by 35%
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The amount of spare equipment needed reduced by 35%
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The number of no-trouble-found returns reduced by 35%
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Battery life doubled
Intangible benefits include the following:
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Reduced purchases to replace lost equipment
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Reduced software-support expenses (one software system replaces seven)
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Reduced hardware-support expenses (two terminal models replace nine)
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Elimination of confusion caused by multiple scanning systems
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Improved user efficiency
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Improved data integrity
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Reduced purchases to replace lost or damaged equipment

Salzman said he believes that providing package sorters with a cordless ring scanner—as well as moving the terminal from the wrist to the hip—should increase worker productivity. The entire project is expected to result in a payoff of some $13.7 million per year over a five-year period.

Atlanta-based UPS plans to start testing the new Emerald scanners at its mammoth square-mile capacity distribution center in Chicago in September. That will be followed by a rollout next year of some 50,000 Motorola Inc. terminals to its 2,000 worldwide distribution centers, which will be equipped with industry-standard 802.11b wireless LANs, said Salzman.

The integration of a wireless Bluetooth ring scanner into the terminals used by package sorters in the UPS hubs "is a very big deal to us [because] it eliminates the cord between the scanner and the terminal. The primary use of Bluetooth is for cord replacement, and [sorting packages on belts] is a perfect example of where cords are a big problem," Salzman said.

He added that the new Windows CE-based terminals developed by Motorola would replace a wide variety of older terminals running on seven different operating systems.

Salzman said the Emerald terminals stand out as the first successful marriage of Bluetooth and 802.11b wireless LAN technology in one device, a difficult technical challenge because both operate in the unlicensed 2.4-GHz frequency band. Salzman credited Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y., with resolving the potential signal-conflict problems.

Barry Isbenner, vice president for worldwide logistics at Symbol, said the company has resolved any potential 802.11b/Bluetooth signal conflicts "with intelligent software in the 802.11b access point that manages the traffic flow by telling the 802.11b radio to be quiet when Bluetooth is communicating."

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WHAT IT IS

The Largest Wireless LAN

UPS's planned wireless LAN and short-range wireless Bluetooth network:

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Replaces terminals used by package sorters at shipping hubs and other facilities worldwide with combined Bluetooth/wireless LAN ring scanners and hip-mounted devices developed by Motorola that run on the Windows CE operating system.

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Includes installation of 802.11b wireless LANS from Symbol Technology at 2,000 hubs worldwide, which will require installation of up to 15,000 wireless LAN access points. UPS describes this as the largest wireless LAN deployment in the world.

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Will replace seven scanning applications with one, improving information flow and decreasing the cost of system ownership.

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Will cost slightly more than $100 million.

Symbol will provide UPS with the wireless ring scanners, Isbenner said. The company will also serve as the wireless LAN provider, according to Saltzman. Isbenner predicted that Symbol could end up installing up to 15,000 access points at UPS hubs around the world.

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., called UPS's decision to standardize its portable terminals on Windows CE "a good move," adding that Gartner predicts that 60% of all industrial handhelds will be shipped with Windows CE by next year.

The Competition

UPS isn't alone. Ken Pasley, director of wireless systems development at rival FedEx Corp. in Memphis, said his company started a worldwide 802.11b LAN deployment earlier this year.

The FedEx system provides coverage inside and outside the company's distribution centers and sorting facilities, thus allowing workers to use wireless technology on a hub ramp to scan containers as they come off a truck, Pasley said.

Like UPS, FedEx is also eager to integrate Bluetooth into its hub infrastructure in order to eliminate possible cord snags by sorters working on a package belt.

Pasley added that FedEx has started to install wireless LANs in all of its fleet of 180-plus wide-bodied aircraft, allowing rapid transfer of engineering and maintenance data when the aircraft are parked on the tarmac. The company would like to win Federal Aviation Administration approval to use the aircraft wireless LANs just after taxiing.

"We've asked Symbol to give us the first Bluetooth scanning devices as they come off the line," Pasley said, but UPS appears to have the inside track.

Related stories:

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UPS Emerald Scanning Terminal

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A package sorter will wear a cordless ring scanner to capture data from packages. The ring scanner uses Bluetooth technology to send package data to a Windows CE-based terminal worn on the hip.

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The hip terminal receives data from the ring scanner and then retransmits information via an 802.11b wireless LAN to antennas hooked into wired LANs in the hub. These wired LANs transfer package data to UPS's worldwide network and back-end systems.

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Emerald is the first device to combine Bluetooth and 802.11b wireless LAN technology without any conflicts between the two systems, which both operate in the 2.4-GHz frequency band.

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Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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