Mobile phone operator Orange has transformed operations and exposed the value of assets trapped in the WIP ‘black hole’ using sophisticated wireless asset tracking. Brian Tinham looks at how it helps both Orange and its sub-contractors Mobile computing, in the form of rugged industrial hand-helds packing the punch of powerful notebook PCs, is moving onto trucks and forklifts – anything that moves. Equipped with everything from wireless e-mail, to wireless data transfer, Internet access and global positioning systems, they’re providing for more than mere warehouse management. It’s all about tracking assets. And one recent project, involving following millions of pounds worth around the country, was that undertaken for Orange, the digital mobile network. It involved mobile computing supplier Intermec Technologies setting up the ultimate in near real-time supply chain goods management and simultaneously delivering more devolved responsibility to sub-contractors. Installing transmitter sites is expensive, involving a network of specialist sub-contractors – in Orange’s case including EVE Transmission Group, Bailey Telecommunication, Nokia, RT Masts and Greenwoods Communications – working together with the installation owner. Orange wanted to ramp up operational effectiveness and its relationships with these sub-contractors, while also improving its accuracy of tracking hardware worth millions of pounds – and in many cases owned by outside investors – throughout the lifecycle for auditing purposes. So from the outset, it was clear that any system would need the backing of sophisticated supply chain technology. Essentially, Orange needed to implement a system whereby fixed assets could be tracked through the supply chain from delivery to a central store, on to installation at site and, in the reverse direction, back through to refurbishment and redeployment. Second, the system had to be able to operate wirelessly enabling the sub-contractors to capture and upload equipment data without fixed telephone lines. Orange was faced with a total re-vamp of the way it carried out the distribution, tracking, installation and management of its assets. Traditionally, the firm had issued parts from a central store to a virtual work-in-progress store (WIP) for its sub-contractors, for installation at a site within an agreed time-frame. Whilst electronically in the WIP store, assets could be anywhere en route to site and would remain untraceable for weeks: job progress wasn’t recorded; neither was product location or project status. The next locator point would be when the contractor completed an installation sheet on-site and posted it back to Orange, where the information would be manually entered into its IMS database. Orange wanted a system that would: provide for real-time data transfer; offer integration with existing software; be rugged enough for the field environment; be upgradeable; and be easy to operate yet functional. Orange selected Intermec’s 6400 ruggedised mobile computer with integrated laser scanner. According to Orange senior controller Keith Glasby, the choice was easy: “Over the past four years, Orange has been using the ‘Batch’ and ‘Live’ variants of the Intermec Janus 2020 unit. Whilst using the Janus units, Orange has had excellent software and maintenance support backup … The 6400 offers an enormous amount of application flexibility and also provides field workers with a GSM link for communications.” Reg Koster, Intermec’s mobile specialist, says: “From Day One, we were clearly briefed by Orange as to the technical specifications they needed.” The 6400, along with its Wavecom active modem (communicating on Orange’s GSM 1800 network), was adapted to fit into a reinforced case with external access point for power and antenna. This avoided the need to modify the vehicles, also providing additional site protection and allowing for in-cab charging during transit as well as GSM connection whether in remote locations or on the move. It has revolutionised the way Orange works with its sub-contractors and helped deliver near real-time asset tracking. As goods are collected from the store, they are scanned and transfer to the sub-contractor recorded. Simultaneously, the installation address, date required, etc, are automatically entered. Then, when they reach the sub-contractor’s delivery to site (DTS) store, they are scanned again before going onto a five-day installation time schedule – thus also giving Orange a way of chasing jobs. Once on-site contractors have installed and tested the asset, they scan the barcode details and enter any other information on the 6400’s keypad for transfer to the IMS over the Orange network using Intermec’s InterConnect software. Similarly, if an engineer is removing an outdated part, the old asset is scanned on removal and the detail uploaded, so it can be tracked through the refurbishment and redeployment cycle. Another benefit of real-time data transfer is the almost total elimination of manual data entry – and resulting errors. And an example of the value of this was demonstrated on a recent quality visit to an installation. Glasby explains. “During the system’s trial a member of Orange’s quality control staff accompanied one of our sub-contractors to site to see how the 6400 would work in practice. As the equipment installation details were being entered on a site conformance sheet, the Orange quality staff member tested the scanning capabilities of the 6400. It was at this point that he noticed the number had been incorrectly recorded on the conformance sheet. The reading on the 6400, however, was correct.”