Inventory Unplugged

Wireless inventory management is helping Water Resources flow in California.

/ April 16, 2002
Wireless technology is helping one of California's largest state agencies reduce manual data entry and improve efficiency.

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) is employing a wireless barcode system to track materials in a dozen of its key storage facilities. Developed by Ontario, Canada-based Psion Teklogix, the TekRF system performs inventory management transactions in real time via hand-held wireless terminals. The terminals communicate with the department's materials management database located at DWR headquarters in Sacramento.

The agency, with an annual budget approaching $1 billion, administers the state's water resources and flood control programs. Its division warehouses, located throughout the state, handle thousands of materials every day, from simple office supplies to huge water pumps. Previously, employees tracked materials using traditional paper processes and transferred tracking data into computer workstations connected to DWR's network. The result was a time-consuming system fraught with errors.

Scanner in the Works
The new system, which took between six and eight months to implement, is designed to extend the functions of DWR's main SAP R/3 materials management database to character-based handheld devices used on the warehouse floor. First, materials are tagged with a barcode generated by an on-site printer. Once the barcode is scanned, workers can use the SAP navigation tools via the handheld device keypad to select from a variety of material management processes, including physical inventory, receipts and stock transfers between warehouses. Information such as the type of transaction, quantities, dates and barcode identifier are transmitted directly from the scanner, via a radio frequency link, to an on-site base station. Each wall-mounted base station - about the size of a cereal box - is configured to communicate over DWR's wide area network with the main database in Sacramento.

"These are government storage facilities which handle thousands of items each day," said Mike Brown, a DWR information system analyst and leader of the TekRF implementation team. "Our goal was to try to cut down on data entry errors and loss of information. By switching to wireless, we've essentially cut the number of material processing steps down from three to one."

Now, workers can more accurately perform inventory cycle counts and track quantities of parts taken from stock. Warehouses employing the system have the capability to tag, classify and log large deliveries in less than half the time it used to take.

"In addition to eliminating paperwork, we used [the system] to build in other functions we had not performed before," Brown said. "We can now check every item that's received, with the ability to create a barcode for each item."

The new system minimizes data entry errors. Warehouse employees can ensure correct quantities and items are received and input the data directly at the source. The system guides users through transactions step-by-step, displaying error messages and prompts for data input.

With the system still in its first year of implementation, DWR has not yet quantified improvements to inventory processes. However, users report that they are able to process two to three times the amount of materials previously processed using traditional methods. And preliminary statistics show that between 70 percent and 95 percent of goods issue transactions are being done with the wireless barcode system, according to Dave Kearney, DWR purchasing services manager. Those figures are expected to rise as the staff grows more comfortable using the handheld devices, Kearney said.

Follow the Leader
The use of wireless barcode data collection is rapidly growing in the private sector, where manufacturers like Toyota are using the process to streamline their operations. At DWR, the decision to implement the TekRF system came on the heels of an organization-wide assessment that looked for areas where best practices could be implemented to get the most out of the department's recent deployment of ERP software.

"We used the process to develop a target for where we wanted our operations to be," Kearney said. "What we found was that the wireless system, particularly for issuing goods, was - an enhancement to our SAP software," Kearney said.

As with all networks, the ability to centrally manage the system is a key factor in its success. A software module residing on a local networked computer handles system administration for DWR's remote sites. A point-and-click GUI allows the administrator to add or delete hand-held scanners or change their functionality. These changes are communicated to the main DWR database via the department's WAN.

Flushed with the success of the first 12 wireless sites, DWR is moving ahead with a phase two deployment that will place similar systems in smaller, remote warehouses whose distance from the larger division yards can pose logistical problems. Eventually, department officials hope to expand the system to track parts issued at mobile maintenance shops, where large stores of vehicle and equipment replacement parts are kept.