The Supply Chain Unplugged

Your supply chain is mobile, so why shouldn't your management system be? In supply chain management, the seams between disparate processes are just as important as the processes themselves. Wireless technology offers companies a way to affix those...


More than one million PDAs were sold in the United States in 1999, a 60 percent increase from the previous year, according to researchers at NPD Group, based in Port Washington, N.Y. An informal poll by this magazine of company willingness to use wireless devices for e-procurement needs indicates overwhelming interest, with 62.5 percent responding in the affirmative.

Some companies are already there. The Home Depot has used wireless technology in its inventory management system for three years. Store associates roam aisles armed with a penpad PC and scanner that alerts company servers when merchandise is low. The associates eyeball the shelves to determine what is needed and enter it into the computer, says Curtis Chambers, senior manager of information services. This information is then wirelessly routed for approval and dispatched as an EDI [Electronic Data Interchange] transmission to our suppliers.

The penpad PC, with software provided by Rockville, Md.-based MERANT Inc., informs associates how much merchandise should be on shelves, given current sales experience and market data. Despite these supply chain benefits, that's not the main reason why Home Depot went wireless. The idea was to find a way to keep our associates on the floor at all times to help customers, says David Pennington, Home Depot's IS manager. Previously, the associates would write down inventory requests on paper, walk back to store offices and transcribe the data into computers. Given the store's 50,000 SKU's, some associates must have been marathoners.

Inventive Inventory

Wireless technology is also finding a home inside the four walls of the warehouse. As supplies and products arrive at the door, the facts about them can be wirelessly communicated to company inventory management systems. The earlier companies can capture information about shipments and communicate it, the better they can plan, says Michael Jakab, vice president of business development at Descartes Systems Group, a Waterloo, Ontario-based supply chain management company.

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