Driving Wireless - Page 2

Recycling Wireless

The focus on quick ROI meant that, of the three broad areas of focus for wireless deployments identified by the task force, GM would concentrate first on deploying WLANs at construction sites. This year, the company began breaking ground on several factories worldwide. Typically, GM would lease bandwidth to provide network connectivity for contractors and vendors working out of trailers during plant construction. Once construction was completed, the network would be torn down. As part of the wireless strategy, the company chose instead to buy WLAN services from a number of vendors. Those vendors install the 802.11b infrastructure on the construction site, which GM purchases as a service. Users can communicate over the LAN from their notebook computers or handheld devices. When the project is over, the WLAN hardware can be easily redeployed at another construction project. Savings from the deployments, which began this summer, have been significant, Scott said.

Globally, GM has chosen to standardize on 802.11b-based WLANs using the Cisco Systems Inc. Aironet suite of products and is now also beginning to set up new office environments with WLANs to provide wireless capabilities to laptops and handheld devices within conference rooms. The idea, Scott said, is to allow office workers to collaborate by exchanging e-mail, Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint presentations and other content without having to find a fixed LAN connection.

The company has also begun to deploy wireless capabilities in manufacturing divisions, mainly in support of materials handling. Like many enterprises, GM would like workers on loading docks, for example, to be able to enter inventory information into ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems as soon as it arrives from suppliers to speed its arrival to the manufacturing shop floor.

Even as Scott forges ahead with wireless projects, however, he continues to exercise caution. While there are departmental pilots under way using Palm handheld computers in sales, service and marketing areas, he said he has no plans to provide wireless access to mission-critical systems enterprisewide just yet, particularly if that means replacing existing wired network infrastructure.

"We dont believe there is a broad financial return at this point in replacing wired LANs with wireless LANs," Scott said. "Most of our facilities are already wired and are delivering at 100MB Ethernet. To replace that with 802.11b would be a downgrade in terms of network grade and wouldnt save us any money."

In addition, Scott foresees other problems working wireless into existing GM infrastructure. While the company expects eventually to see great savings from wirelessly enabling applications such as CRM and ERP, bringing WLANs to the manufacturing environment could actually introduce safety concerns. GM, Scott said, is now studying to what extent WLANs could interfere with the wireless communication spectrum currently used by manufacturing-floor machines.

And, as gung-ho as Scott is toward wireless at GM, he believes the technology still has a long way to go. While GM favors open standards, security concerns surrounding 802.11b, for example, helped persuade the company to standardize on products from a single vendor—Cisco—to avoid security gaps that can result from attempting to knit together products from different vendors.

"Right now ... the security model is something that has been a bit difficult from an administrative standpoint," Scott said.

The next phase of the wireless task groups work, under way now, will be to settle on wireless standards beyond 802.11b that can help with security. GM is also looking at other wireless standards, such as Bluetooth.

Still, Scott believes the potential of wireless at GM will eventually outweigh all the administrative headaches and current technical shortcomings. He is also well-aware that many in the wireless world are hoping GM will help the technology finally live up to the hype.

"Were not telling our guys that work in the wired space to quit their jobs because, certainly, wired has some pretty strong advantages," Scott said. "But our belief is that wireless will change everything about the way we run our business."