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Delivering on wireless' potential

Of all the technological problems in United Parcel Service's highly computerized distribution centers, the most common involves a little wire that runs from the compact scanners worn on package handlers' fingers to small computers on their hips.

"It's always snagging on sharp edges, getting cut," UPS technology guru David Salzman says. "It costs us millions of dollars a year."

So the Atlanta shipper is cutting the cord.

The delivery giant is rolling out wireless scanners at its 1,700 distribution centers around the globe. Worn like oversize rings, the scanners transmit information about packages to the hip computers, and ultimately into UPS' worldwide package tracking system.

Going wireless is the hottest trend in technology these days, but few industries are embracing the wireless movement with quite the fervor of the major package delivery companies.

At a time when many big companies are only thinking about loosening the purse strings on technology spending, the major delivery companies are embarking on spending sprees, primarily on wireless devices.

UPS' scanner project is part of a $250-million technology upgrade that includes outfitting its drivers with 70,000 wireless handheld computers beginning early next year.

Chief competitor FedEx Corp. also plans to give nearly 50,000 couriers wireless handhelds at a cost of more than $150-million beginning next year. Additionally, FedEx is equipping its new aircraft with wireless networks that transmit information about planes' mechanical conditions to ground personnel before they touch down on the runway.

Airborne Inc. also is in the middle of rolling out wireless handhelds to its army of nearly 18,000 delivery drivers.

Package delivery companies often have been in the forefront of technology.

UPS' 1991 introduction of clipboardlike tablet computers for drivers was one of the first major commercial implementations of handheld computing. FedEx helped pioneer wide-scale wireless technology in shipping when it rolled out a custom-built radio network for its drivers more than 20 years ago.

"They're all . . . considered very tech-savvy," ARS Inc. analyst Sam Bhavnani said. "If you look at how detailed they track all this stuff, they have to be."

While some of the newest technology upgrades are aimed at saving money and making life easier for workers, they're just as much about meeting growing demands by customers to track packages more closely than ever before.

To eliminate the need for costly inventory, many manufacturers and distributors _ typically the packaging companies' biggest customers _ depend on the delivery companies to essentially become their supply chains.

Package tracking "is absolutely important now, and it's going to be even more so in the future," said Anne Gilmore-Feith, a consultant with Technology Forecasters Inc., a supply chain management consulting company for electronics manufacturers.

Threats of terrorism make knowing where cargo is at all times even more important, she said.

Currently, the delivery companies track a package by scanning a bar code after a driver picks it up, when it's loaded on a plane, when it arrives at a distribution center, when it's delivered and other times in between. At FedEx, for example, a domestic package is typically scanned 12 times and international packages are scanned 23 times, spokeswoman Traci Barnett said.

Delivery drivers typically feed data to tracking systems when they return to their trucks after a pickup and when they return to a distribution center at the end of the day. Sometimes, such as when a driver spends hours collecting and delivering packages inside a big office building, data is temporarily unavailable.

With the wireless handheld systems, data is put into the system immediately when a driver picks up or delivers a package, regardless of location. Dispatchers also can send electronic messages to drivers' handhelds when they're in the field, telling them to make an unscheduled pickup or verify their location for a customer awaiting a delivery.

"What we're doing is uploading real-time information that customers can access 24-7," said Ken Lacy, UPS' chief information officer. To businesses that rely on delivery companies as their supply chains, that makes a big difference.

"It's the whole logistics thing," said Lacy, who with a $1-billion budget spends more on technology than UPS spends on trucks. "Five years ago, people used to talk about just-in-time inventories. Now they're talking about inventory on wheels."

UPS' s new handhelds _ the company calls them DIADs, for Delivery Information Acquisition Devices _ rely on three radio and cell links to transmit package information.

Within distribution centers, the fourth-generation DIADs can switch to the wireless local area network used by the package handlers' scanners. Currently, drivers have to manually download and upload data by plugging the DIADs into the computer network.

Lacy said the upgrade to a single, unified wireless network will replace 11 scanning technologies used by UPS. That in itself should speed the flow of package information and make it more readily available to UPS workers and customers, he said.

The new handhelds come with other bells and whistles, too.

With embedded Global Positioning System software, the devices can not only help find pickup and delivery points, but eventually help UPS say with more precision when a package will arrive or where it is on the road.

And with additional wireless capabilities based on the Bluetooth standard, the DIADs can transmit package information or receipts directly to some customers' printers or computers just by getting within a few feet of them.

Salzman, UPS' project manager for wireless initiatives, said the new gadgets are about more than following the latest tech trends.

"We don't put technology in for technology's sake," he said. "We know our customers are demanding more and more capability. As the technology permits, we want to enable our drivers to provide it."

United Parcel Service's new ring scanners, which use short-range Bluetooth wireless technology, replace wired versions that were "always snagging on sharp edges, getting cut," says the shipping company's technology guru, David Salzman.

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