A multibillion-dollar corporation is about to start testing FoxFetch, a recently patented PDA-based technology that brings together Bluetooth and radio frequency wireless capabilities with an embedded SQL Server database in an effort to cut order management costs.
Running on the Intermec 650 and other PocketPC devices, FoxFetch is now under development by WMS (warehouse management system) vendor FoxFire Technologies Corp., said Dr. Jack Peck, inventor of the system and retired director of Clemson Universitys Computer Science Department.
The new wireless system is aimed at providing a 50 percent savings over the hard-wired PTL (“put-to-light”) methods traditionally used by distributors, retailers and manufacturers for “picking” products from warehouses, “putting” (or filling) orders and replenishing shelves.
“Ive seen the [traditional] light-putting systems in use at Wal-Mart [Stores Inc.], Sears-Roebuck and Co., and other big companies. Id say that FoxFetch is the best new technology to come along in warehouse management over the past 10 or 15 years, because its so versatile and configurable. It takes the latest technologies and combines them,” said Dan Castiglione, an independent consultant in Atlanta who has seen FoxFetch is action.
Conventional PTL systems typically rely on a big central server that is hard-wired to large lighting modules throughout the warehouse.
In contrast, FoxFetch can be run on a stand-alone basis, solely on PocketPCs. Alternatively, the system can use order data input as text files from WMS running on smaller PCs, including systems from Foxfire as well as from Manugistics Inc., Manhattan Associates, Red Prairie Corp. and other supply chain software vendors, Castiglione said in an interview with Ziff Davis Internet.
Customers can input the WMS data either through 802.11 RF wireless LANs that are increasingly common in warehouse settings or by connecting a USB cable from the PDA to the PC, Peck said in another interview.
Although Bluetooth can be used for that purpose, too, Bluetooth comes into play mostly for communications between the PDA and small FoxFetch-enabled lighting modules on the warehouse cart and shelf racks.
“The device [wirelessly] recognizes the controller on the picking bay [racks] and then lights up the bays needed for picking the order,” Castiglione said.
The PDA slides into a pocket on the cart. When warehouse materials handlers glance at the PocketPC screen, they can tell how many items to pick from each product SKU, as well as how many of each SKU to put in each carton.
Castiglione said the system can also be programmed to “speak” commands to materials handlers.
An embedded SQL Server database from Microsoft Corp., also running on the PocketPC, is used for storing warehouse configuration information, according to Castiglione.
That way, the system knows which directions to give to warehouse workers about where the SKUs are located.
“With SQL Server CE, you get the benefit of a real database management system on the device. This gives you a well-understood way to write mobile applications that query and access data stored on the device, [along with] a well-understood way to synchronize local device data with master data stored on [a] server,” said Chris Alliegro, lead analyst at Directions on Microsoft.
“Also, since key data is local, the device doesnt need to have a constant connection to the network or some back-end database. In other words, users can work offline, which [is not] uncommon in a scenario like pick/put in a large warehouse,” the analyst told Ziff Davis Internet.
Bluetooth can also be used to reconfigure the embedded SQL Server database when the warehouse is replenished with new program SKUs.
“Bluetooth scans the location, and then [communicates with] the [embedded] database to set up the new SKUs,” Castiglione said.
Conversely, traditional hardwired PTL systems often need extensive rewiring whenever a customer redesigns its warehouse setup. “You need to drill the [conventional PTL system] out [of the wall], and then drill it back in,” he said.
According to Peck, FoxFetch will also save money over conventional systems by making it unnecessary for lights to be on throughout a large area of a warehouse. Instead, only the pertinent racks are lit.
In the FoxFetch system, wiring raceways are attached to the front of the picking racks with self-taping screws. The raceway also contains a proximity switch, eliminating the need for the wall-based light module “push button” switch used in other PTL systems.
CAT5 cable and RJ45 modular connectors are employed for daisy-chaining the controllers and light modules.
The warehouse worker touches an LED above the proximity switch twice to confirm order completion, according to Castiglione.
FireFox is providing potential customers with a configurator, so they can figure out how much cost savings they might achieve.
Peck said he received US Patent 6,775,588 for FoxFetch less than a year ago. FireFox plans to start beta testing the new wireless supply chain management system with customers two or three weeks from now.
“The first [beta] customer will be a very large corporation, with several billion dollars [in revenues], and in excess of 1,000 [warehouse] lights,” according to Peck.
Peck declined to name the customer, saying that he doesnt yet have the users permission to do so.
“But were hoping that, after the beta begins, we can bring people by to show them how the system works,” according to the inventor.
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