Companies test wireless supply chain technology

Aircraft parts distributor Aviall is using wireless technology to speed up the way its sales force tracks product inventories.

Aircraft parts distributor Aviall is using wireless technology to speed up the way its sales force tracks product inventories.

The need for real-time, accurate inventory data is prodding Aviall and a number of other companies to turn to handheld devices for supply chain uses. But despite the fact that mobile technology has been around for years, analysts say its inclusion in supply chain applications is just beginning to catch on.

"Is it a trend? Perhaps the beginning of one, but it looks like the wireless environment is embryonic," said Scott Stephens, chief technology officer at Supply Chain Council, a cross-industry consortium.

Aviall is not planning to rush things, according to CIO Joe Lacik. He said the $500m (£352.6m) company has launched a wireless technology pilot project that uses devices from Symbol Technologies to automate the inventory replenishment process in customer warehouses.

Currently, Aviall salespeople go from bin to bin in warehouses and manually check stock levels to determine how many parts need to be reordered. With the new system, Lacik said, salespeople can scan bar-code labels on the bins and tell immediately if they need refilling. All the data is instantly uploaded via the Web to Aviall's back-end replenishment and enterprise resource planning systems, he added.

Larger customers will eventually be able to do the scanning themselves, potentially saving Aviall as much as $1m a year in time and manpower costs, Lacik said. "That's the tangible dollars and cents," he said. "The intangible part is the statement we are making to our customers [that] we are continually finding better ways to service them."

Using wireless devices is helping Nicor Gas, a natural gas distribution company, ensure that its warehouse personnel stick to specified operating procedures. Nicor Gas went live this month with a radio frequency-based system using devices from TS-Tek.

"The system gives us discipline in the overall materials-handling processes," said Pat Loftus, a regional maintenance manager at Nicor Gas. Workers use bar-code scanners to automate the generation of purchase orders and other documents needed to send and receive goods, according to Loftus.

The device beeps if inventory items are scanned improperly or placed in the wrong bin, he said. The data is then fed immediately into Nicor's back-office systems, ensuring that the company has current and valid information about its stock levels. Previously, it could take two to three days to determine the status of a piece of inventory.

Nicor Gas can also do widespread checks on inventory levels during a single business day, something that previously ate up three to four days and required overtime pay for the company's workers. The wireless system cost less than $100,000 and should pay for itself within a year, Loftus said.

Hunt, a maker and distributor of office supplies, is also considering installing wireless technology within its supply chain operations. Wireless devices could offer a faster and more reliable means of communication with customers and business partners than hard-wired Internet or electronic data interchange methods, said Ted Raiman, a supply chain director at Hunt.

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