Wireless Gets Down to Business

In the hands of these pioneers, wireless technology is breaking new ground in every sector of the economy, with applications that range from the everyday to the extraordinary.

From retail storefronts to the military’s front lines, wireless technology now permeates nearly every sector of the economy. The technology has come a long way from simple barcode reading with wireless PDAs. Today, tags affixed to retail garments taken into a dressing room can wirelessly signal a wall-mounted screen to display colour choices and fabric information. College students can do research in the cafeteria instead of the library, and forklift operators can save themselves hundreds of kilometres of travel in factories by receiving product requests from computers mounted on their vehicles.

“Economics and technology are making wireless available to a lot more people,” says Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney. “We’re seeing it increase in its capabilities. People know what it can do, and they’re working on projects that make sense — updating them more into back-end systems.”

Purchases of wireless hardware reached $US2.2 billion in 2002 and are expected to top $US3.9 billion by 2006, according to research firm In-Stat/MDR. Units sold will skyrocket from 18 million to 75 million in 2006, which suggests that the cost of deploying wireless will continue to fall.

To learn how wireless is being adapted to meet changing needs, we took a look at the most innovative uses of it in 10 sectors of the economy.


The Challenges of Being First

Four years ago, Carnegie Mellon University was voted “Most Wired Campus” by the online publication Yahoo Internet Life for its pioneering use of wireless access in more than 30 buildings.

Today, almost six years after the university installed its first wireless LAN, administrators are looking to upgrade the system with new standards and faster speeds, which will require 1200 new access points for the 7000 registered wireless devices on campus.

Rough estimates of the cost of Carnegie Mellon’s upgrade are about $US3 million, three times what the university has spent so far on wireless. What’s more, funding isn’t as plentiful as it was five years ago, says Chuck Bartel, director of network services. But one simple truth has bumped the project up the priority list: “If you don’t deploy it yourself, it will probably get deployed by someone else, and in a manner you don’t want,” most likely by tech-savvy students, Bartel says.

Bartel is concerned that if students don’t have the wireless access they need, they’ll find cheap hardware at a local electronics store and bring it onto campus. “If we haven’t put the proper security in the mix, anybody can access university data,” Bartel says.

The combination of wireless access and tech-savvy students uncovers another truth — a network that’s always available sometimes shouldn’t be. “At times,” says Bartel, “faculty doesn’t want access to the Internet or instant messaging between students” — during tests, for example. But now that wireless is being embedded into laptops and handheld devices, “it’s a little more problematic”, he notes.

But don’t expect this technology institution to step back from the bleeding edge anytime soon. Carnegie Mellon is developing new uses for its wireless network in handhelds, laptops, robots and wearable computers.

Students in one graduate-level development course are working on intelligent agents embedded in handheld devices that will offer weather reports, restaurant options and even the location of friends, based on the user’s location. The university’s robotics institute is experimenting with collecting information by attaching wireless components to robots. “Once you have the infrastructure in place,” Bartel says, “the juices start flowing in terms of how somebody can use it.”

“They’re using wireless LANs in classrooms because of the need to move around and just to give students the freedom to move anytime, anywhere,” says Gartner’s Dulaney. “They do it for convenience. Plus, they love to play with that stuff.”


When Time Is Money

Soon after launching its first wireless offering in 1998, Fidelity Investments realised that wireless subscribers were very attractive customers. “They have more assets, they’re more financially active and more tech-savvy,” says Joe Ferra, chief wireless officer. That appealing combination keeps the Boston-based firm listening to its customers’ demands for new wireless features and monitoring their use of every new function.

Today the company’s wireless offering, Fidelity Anywhere, lets 170,000 customers get real-time stock quotes, make after-hours trades, short-sell and, with phone-integrated BlackBerry handhelds, call a Fidelity rep with the touch of a button. The firm also now lets customers manage their retirement accounts, charitable donations and insurance needs wirelessly.

While wireless capabilities expand, security issues remain an obstacle. “The level of security just isn’t high enough yet” for many financial services functions to be deployed wirelessly, says Wai Sing Lee, an analyst at Frost Sullivan in Toronto. Until Wireless Application Protocol 2.0 or 802.11 standards come out, real innovation will be put on hold, he says.

Some two-thirds of the financial services industry uses wireless technology today, with about 20 per cent of those users in the initial stages of a rollout, according to IDC. What’s more, 29 per cent of financial services companies surveyed have or plan to provide online trading capabilities to their clients.

Ferra says security remains a paramount concern, and Fidelity continues to “look at what’s out there” in terms of security standards. But right now it relies on encryption and authentication developed using the Handheld Device Markup Language.

The firm even chooses which functions will be offered on each type of device based on security concerns, browser capabilities and latency. “It would be very difficult for me to convince people at Fidelity to offer real-time quotes over a given device if we know the latency is 30 to 40 seconds. It’s got to be a lot quicker than that,” Ferra says, adding that those discrepancies are becoming less of an issue.

“I’m convinced this will become a predominant way that people conduct their business with us. These devices are convenient, more reasonably priced and easier to use than ever before.”

Energy Chemicals

Wireless Powers Sales Force, Productivity of Maintenance Crew

Like most executives in the energy and chemicals industry, the upper echelons of Celanese Chemicals are fairly conservative, says Bill Schmitt, the director of e-business at Celanese. “Anything that looks or smells like bleeding-edge technology makes us pretty nervous,” he says.

But the $US3 billion chemicals company was comfortable enough with handheld devices and wireless LANs by 2002 to adopt the technology primarily as a productivity tool for sales staff. Now the company is looking at wireless technology to speed maintenance at its chemical plants.

“When you run continuous production units, time is money,” Schmitt says. When a pump goes down, for example, maintenance workers travel through football-field-size plants by foot or bicycle to inspect the problem and then travel back to the control room and storage room to arrange for repairs — which could take up to an hour, he says.

In the future, employees will use H-P Pocket PCs to report problems and arrange for repair equipment to be brought to the site. The company was in the process of running a pilot test at the end of 2003.

Schmitt also wants to extend wireless capabilities globally to customers in China and Asia. But he acknowledges that the technology “isn’t there yet”. Europe and Asia were quick to adopt mobile phones and Short Messaging Service messaging, he says, but “in wireless data, the US is still ahead”.


Hands-off Technology in a Hands-on Business

As nurses whisk a critically injured patient into the emergency room at St Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, a physician grabs his PDA and with a few stylus strokes accesses the patient’s medical history from the hospital’s vast clinical data repository.

An admitting clerk scans the patient’s insurance card and driver’s licence using a handheld device at the patient’s bedside. After tests and surgery, caregivers will be able to access lab results, medication orders and surgery notes through wireless notebook computers or Pocket PCs that are synchronised with hospital systems for up-to-the-minute accuracy.

These everyday uses of wireless represent just the beginning of St Vincent’s plans for the six-building hospital campus, part of Ascension Health, an $US8.9 billion health-care provider based in St Louis. The St Vincent’s wireless network is the largest such network in health-care in the Southeast United States.

“The heart of health-care is information,” says CIO Tim Stettheimer. “When you can make information available anytime, anywhere, you’re laying the groundwork for huge strides in quality and patient outcomes.”

Health-care workers “are in highly mobile environments where there’s a requirement to gain access to information”, says Meta analyst Chris Kozup.

The first phase of St Vincent’s project, which cost $US1.6 million, included installing 167 Cisco Aironet 350 Series access points around the campus and a Cisco WLAN. The wireless network went live in July 2002 with 35 users, including physicians and admitting clerks who used Compaq iPaq Pocket PCs, Fujitsu Stylistic 3500 Tablet PCs and some Dell and Compaq notebook computers using Cisco Aironet 350 network interface cards. By March 2003 the number of users had doubled.

As part of a “total leap” into wireless, Stettheimer’s team is piloting wireless voice technology from Vocera Communications that allows clinicians to speak into badges worn on their lapels to contact co-workers.

Ultimately, 600 hospital workers, including doctors, nurses, physical therapists, transporters, social workers and pastoral staff, will send and receive information wirelessly using role-based security, which restricts the kinds of information these workers can access.

Return on investment is measured in terms of time saved and patient satisfaction. In the future, administrators will measure the time it takes to get a medical order through the system.

Stettheimer says the technology will succeed because physicians have been closely involved in designing and implementing the system. “That puts them in a position of ownership and investment in making sure that it works well,” he says.


The Shortest Distance Between Two Points Is Wireless

Automotive and aerospace plants lead the manufacturing pack in wireless device use, with about two-thirds of all companies actively using the technology.

General Motors’ Cadillac and Buick assembly plants mounted wireless computers from Symbol Technologies, on forklifts so drivers can wirelessly collect and transmit data from the factory or warehouse floor. The forklift operators can also receive work instructions and updates without leaving their vehicles.

The wireless network is expected to save $US1 million at one GM assembly plant, according to a company statement. Forklift traffic has declined by 650km each day. After nine months of wireless use, forklift operators were averaging 60 to 70 deliveries a day, double the number of deliveries they were making before the system went live.

In a few years, manufacturers may be able to catch product defects by sensing out-of-range vibrations in industrial equipment using “smart dust”.

Carnegie Mellon University’s MEMS Laboratory is developing the devices, which are tiny wireless microelectromechanical sensors (MEMS) that can detect everything from light to vibrations. Thanks to recent breakthroughs in silicon and fabrication techniques, these “motes” could eventually be the size of a grain of sand, though each would contain sensors, computing circuits, bidirectional wireless communications and a power supply. Motes would gather scads of data, run computations and communicate that data using two-way band radio between motes at distances up to 300m.

Manufacturers are already experimenting with triangulation, which uses wireless access points strategically placed throughout a plant. The precise location of multimillion-dollar equipment that moves around the plant can be tracked using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags mounted on the equipment. “This allows asset tracking,” says Meta’s Kozup. “That’s a bit of a future application, but some are experimenting.”


This Season’s Must-Have: An RFID Tag

Retailers are old-time users of wireless technology for communicating between the checkout counter and the back room and mobile point-of-sale terminals. But today’s wireless technology can improve inventory accuracy, fight fraud and increase sales.

Forward-thinking retailers are venturing into RFID technology, chip-embedded tags that hold more information than a barcode and don’t require direct contact with a reading device. And one US retailer is downright aggressive: Wal-Mart has laid out requirements for its suppliers to tag all cartons and pallets with wireless RFID sensors by January 1, 2005

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