For Construction Metal Products Inc., losing hard-copy inventory records wasnt a random event; it was routine. Thats why moving to an electronic inventory system became an imperative for the maker of metal roofing sheets and fasteners.
But exactly where to place a new computer-based system in the companys 45,000-square-foot manufacturing warehouse, where large sheets of metal are constantly being moved, was not so obvious.
“We wanted the workstations near the key areas in the plant, but we werent real sure where to put them,” said Mike Morton, president of CMP, in Statesville, N.C. “We were worried that [the computers] would be in the wrong place or get hit. It was more than likely that wherever wed put them, they wouldnt be in the right place. Plus we didnt want 10 miles of wire running on top of the building.”
After researching the issue, Morton decided a portable environment that involved mobile workstations and a WLAN (wireless LAN) would allow him to keep his plant floor options open.
To help him accomplish this goal, Morton turned to North Carolina neighbor and systems integrator Sypherdata Inc., in Davidson, which specializes in mobile computing deployments. Sypherdatas solutions often include “portable data centers,” or workstations encased in a protective cabinet on wheels.
For management software, Sypherdata set up CMP with a series of shop management, materials management and financial management tools from Global Shop Solutions Inc., a company in The Woodlands, Texas, that caters to manufacturers.
The software replaced CMPs previous system, which required employees to scribble information on paper forms. Too often, however, the information never made it into the computer in the office next door.
“They were shuffling a lot of paper,” said Kevin Shank, vice president of Sypherdata. “Everything with their manufacturing was done with paper forms. The inventory wasnt tracked properly. There was inventory in-house that they didnt even know they had.”
Morton said that operations are much more streamlined, now that the employees dont have to be couriers.
“We can take these computers right to the work centers where were doing the work without having to write it on a piece of paper and bring the paper to a computer,” Morton said.
In addition to eight workstations, Sypherdata deployed a mix of Windows-based notebooks and Tablet PCs, as well as Palm OS-based handhelds from Symbol Technologies Inc. The handhelds are equipped with bar-code readers that send inventory information to a central server in the office adjacent to the manufacturing shop.
“We can shoot a little wireless gun, which instantly goes into our inventory,” Morton said.
To solve CMPs need for simple wireless connectivity, Sypherdata decided to use SOHOware Inc.s Aeroguard AGN 1200 Series access point. SOHOware is an early adopter of Airgo Network Inc.s MIMO (multiple input/ multiple output) technology.
MIMO runs multiple data streams in the same radio channel using so-called smart-antenna technology. The results are throughput speeds comparable to those of wired Fast Ethernet, as well as increased access point range.
Airgos chip sets, and therefore SOHOwares access points, are compatible with 802.11b and 802.11g client cards and utilize Airgos True MIMO technology. Airgo describes True MIMO as “prestandard 802.11n,” loosely based on the 802.11n WLAN specification from the IEEE, which will use some variant of MIMO to improve throughput rates.
802.11n isnt expected to be ratified before next year, but Sypherdata officials said they were comfortable adopting nonstandard technology. And since CMP was starting from scratch, compatibility wasnt an issue, they said.
For the most part, Sypherdata set out to design a solution that required minimal implementation headaches, since CMP has no dedicated IT staff.
“One of the [concerns] was the area of coverage in their facility,” said Sypherdatas Shank. “We were concerned with not putting a lot of equipment in the manufacturing plant. When you put multiple access points in there, it requires a lot of labor to install the cabling to those access points.”
Sypherdata found that a single SOHOware access point can cover all 45,000 square feet of the warehouse, both because of the MIMO technology and because no more than 12 employees use the network simultaneously. Most vendors WLAN offerings, while based on IEEE standards, would require four access points to do the same job, Shank said.
CMP officials said that the companys new system has served it well so far.
“Weve had the wireless up for about a month,” Morton said. “It has always had a strong signal. We can go way out to the mailbox, and the signals still good. Its always excellent.”
Although CMP implemented the system primarily to keep track of inventory, Morton is using it to keep track of employees as well.
“Now you clock in at the workstation instead of at the break room,” Morton said. “People used to clock in at the break room and hang out a bit, but now they have to clock in where they actually work. So far, it has been real easy. The touch-screen has helped that because nobody has to type. If you see your name, you touch your name, and youre clocked in. If you dont see your name, you might have been fired.”
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