United Parcel Service of America Inc. is embarking on a worldwide wireless strategy that will streamline operations by keeping better track of packages and employees.
This is key for a company that delivers 13.6 million packages and documents every day, 93 percent of which include some sort of data capture.
On the device side, the Atlanta-based company next year will roll out some 70,000 units of the DIAD IV—the fourth version of the Delivery Information Acquisition Device that the majority of UPS drivers use to keep track of customer data and capture electronic signatures.
The device runs Microsoft Corp.s Windows CE .Net operating system and Intel Corp.s 400MHz XScale processor. It includes 128MB of memory, which is 20 times the capacity of the DIAD III.
Co-developed with Symbol Technologies Inc., of Holtsville, N.Y., the DIAD IV bests its predecessor with the inclusion of an 802.11b Wi-Fi radio, in addition to a CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) or GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) WAN radio, depending on location. Wi-Fi lets drivers download daily manifests, while the WAN connection is used to send real-time data such as route changes. The company is exploring seamless roaming between the WAN and the WLAN (wireless LAN), but officials said theres no pressing need.
"Right now we just turn off one radio and turn on another," said Dave Salzman, systems manager at the UPS Ramapo Ridge Data Center in Mahwah, N.J. "You know when youre in the building."
The DIAD IV also includes GPS (Global Positioning System) technology. UPS has been tracking packages with scanners since the 1980s, but the DIAD IV rollout will mark the first time the company can track drivers worldwide.
"It will also be a great aid in training new drivers," said Bill Davis, industrial engineering supervisor at the companys Birmingham, Ala., facility. "For your new folks, this will assist them in locating hard-to-find houses in rural areas."
In addition to ensuring drivers dont get lost, GPS also will aid in on-call package pickups.
"We can be more efficient to pick the right driver for the right activity," said David Barnes, vice president of Information Services at UPS.
UPS also has introduced Bluetooth technology into its product portfolio. Package loaders capture bar codes with a scanner that they wear over two fingers like a ring. Previous versions of the ring scanner had wires that tethered the employees to a computer; Bluetooth unleashes them. Eliminating the cables is supposed to reduce repair costs by 30 percent, officials said. The company plans to deploy approximately 55,000 Bluetooth ring scanners by years end.
The scanner broadcasts data to a local server via Wi-Fi, making it one of the first devices of its size to incorporate both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Interference between the two can be a problem, so UPS worked with Symbol to synchronize the two protocols with a TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) scheme, officials said.
Barnes said that "security is a constant concern" when dealing with multiple wireless networks. But, so far, the company is using only WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) on its WLAN, even though this is considered the least secure of the available WLAN security protocols.
Meanwhile, the company is working on better ways to keep track of packages; the company receives 9.1 million online package requests every day. This involves a comprehensive trial of RFID (radio-frequency identification) tagging, which eliminates the line of sight that bar-code scanning requires. Current trials involve tracking packages in and out of the data center, as well as container sorting and vehicle monitoring.
UPS is heavily involved in developing standards for RFID, working with organizations ranging from EPCglobal Inc. to the Federal Aviation Administration—UPS is a huge customer of The Boeing Company in Chicago.
"Our commerce is global commerce, and thats why we need standards that are global in nature," Barnes said.
In the meantime, UPS is testing RFID hardware from myriad companies. While the company remains bullish on the technology, officials have been disappointed by the quality of the products—especially RFID tags, which the company tests by running them through a scanner.
"Right now about 40 percent [of tested tags] dont work," Salzman said.
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