The Wireless Warehouse in a Forest of Metal

— February 21, 2008

Powermate Corporation needed reliable wireless access in a forest of metal. Colubris Networks had a solution.

By Peter M. Ferenczi

Powermate Corporation makes tools that operate under strain: pressure washers, air compressors, power generators, and tools like air hammers and impact wrenches. "Probably 80% of our product is copper, aluminum or steel," said Mike Mantzke, Powermate's I.T. director. And in the company's 170,000-square-foot distribution center in Omaha, Neb., "it's in racks to the ceiling," he says. In no uncertain terms, it's a nightmare scenario for wireless coverage. But when Powermate opened the new facility two years ago, Mantzke wanted it wireless.

The previous distribution center had been decidedly low-tech. "It was completely manual," says Mantzke. "Everyone kept notes on pads of paper." Besides general inefficiencies, the looseness of controls allowed a substantial fraud to be perpetrated against the company. "On the command and control side, there just weren't the proper business processes to manage the kind of high-ticket inventory we had. We had no tracking," he says. Powermate tasked the I.T. department with making sure the new center ran smoothly and securely.

According to IDC analyst Simon Ellis, wirelessly enabled inventory control is becoming universal. "I would suggest that it's broadly accepted practice for warehouse management," he says.

From Green Field to Green Light

Mantzke was presented with the blank slate of an empty facility. "I took a hard look at what kind of infrastructure I'd need in order to put in place a barcoding system so we could manage inventory as well as track raw material shipments, and, more importantly, outbound shipments to our customers," he says. After assessing potential providers, he selected Colubris.

Cost was one deciding factor. "Colubris looked less expensive and easier to maintain [than other systems]," says Mantzke. He also liked the ruggedness of the Colubris hardware. "This stuff is bombproof," he says. "In one instance, I have the Colubris gear installed on the outside of the building."

After a Colubris team surveyed the site and made recommendations, Mantzke decided to deploy 15 MAP-330R access points (APs) linked to a Colubris MSC-3200 MultiService Controller (MSC). The APs are equipped with two radios: one to link to clients and the other to form a mesh network with each other. Thanks to the mesh functionality, only some of the APs need to hook physically into the wired LAN, which simplified the installation.

"The guys need to reach the network with the scan guns, and the scan guns need to transmit the data quickly to the data collection system," says Mantzke. "The reason the mesh became important is that I could get them the exposure and access they needed, but still be able to pass the data quickly to the application server."

The APs intelligently route data to ensure the lowest possible latencies and operate more efficiently than traditional "dumb" AP architectures, according to Colubris. The mesh network also compensates for faults to keep coverage constant.

After the initial hardware installation, Powermate filled the distribution center with product. Predictably, piling tons of metal into the space changed the wireless propagation patterns. "We had some reflectivity issues. I had Colubris make some adjustments to the network-- and that was it," says Mantzke.

Expanding the Mission

The Colubris network's main job is to keep 25 wireless scan guns connected to Powermate's inventory systems so the company knows what's where. But it's proving suitable for other jobs as well.

"Within the warehouse facility, there are a couple of remote offices," says Mantzke. "I used some [Colubris Wireless Client Bridge] WCB-200 local bridging devices to connect the local office network [to the Colubris backbone]. That gives some of these isolated offices access to the mainframe as well as voice over IP."

Mantzke says Powermate is also considering RFID applications, a move that analyst Ellis says will gain momentum in the industry. "Slowly over time, I think barcodes will be replaced by RFID tags," Ellis predicts, adding that efficiency gains of 10% to 15% could be possible by eliminating the need to manually scan barcodes.

Mantzke says Powermate is also evaluating wireless remote printing using the Colubris network. "There's a lot of talk about mobilizing label printing," he says.

Since the distribution center deployment, Mantzke has directed Colubris rollouts in Powermate's corporate headquarters and at client sites as well. "If you have people who travel a lot within the business, they love it because wherever they go, they have access to their e-mail and voicemail and all the good stuff," says Mantzke. "From a management side, they see the whole thing being very seamless."

Final Analysis

"As far as return on investment goes, I didn't really have a metric to measure against, since I was going into this green," says Mantzke. "Is it in there working, doing what it's supposed to do? Yes, absolutely."

In comparison to the error-prone paper-based system at the old distribution center, "I would say it's a significant increase in productivity," he says. "From an auditing standpoint, the materials are where they're supposed to be, and people are happy with that."

Mantzke also notes that the new system is an effective part of the company's fraud-prevention strategy. "We haven't seen any shrinkage, which is good," he says.

IDC's Ellis says that in his personal experience, such deployments could realize 20% to 25% productivity improvements. "You get better control of inventory and you improve the efficiency of the warehouse operators," he said.

Maintaining the network has proven pleasingly low-impact. "Once I got it up and running, it was pretty much flawless. I don't have to pay attention to it," says Mantzke.

"I have no permanent staff in Omaha [at the distribution center]," he adds. If any problems arise, Mantzke says he enjoys good visibility into the network thanks to the Colubris MSC, which allows detailed remote monitoring and troubleshooting.

"If I'm at home and someone calls and say, 'I think we have a problem, Mike,' I can VPN in, take a look at it, and say, 'Hey, someone shut the power off there.'"

Although the technology has met Mantzke's expectations, it's Colubris' personalized attention that tips the scales, he says. "From a customer service perspective, I'm very happy with the level of service I got when I needed it. Not a lot of businesses do that, and these guys did. I'm very happy with the relationship."


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