WhereNet Tracks What the Army Assembles

By Michelle Megna

March 03, 2005

The Wi-Fi-based RFID system is helping the DOD's 2-million square foot Tobyhanna Depot track not just assets but also workflow.

When parts are missing in action at the U.S. Army's Tobyhanna assembly depot—a facility the size of 35 football fields— it causes operation glitches and costs a lot of money. That's why WhereNet's wireless, real-time parts tracking technology is being deployed by the military (as well as car makers, high-volume seaports and other industrial enterprises) to quickly locate inventory and manage assembly in vast work spaces.

WhereNet, based in Santa-Clara, Calif. and employing 80 people, sells systems that use radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, wireless networks, sensors, telemetry and software to show where components are as they make their way through the manufacturing process. It's also used to track containers and trucks in shipping and receiving environments. As a result, companies can cut labor costs associated with manually finding lost items. Inventory can be managed more effectively since workers can see exactly what's on hand, avoiding duplicate orders of missing parts, and the whole operation can be done in less time for less money since bottlenecks can be prevented.

Right now WhereNet's Wi-Fi-based Real-Time Locating System (RTLS) are used in about 100 automobile plants worldwide, several food distribution warehouses here and in Europe, dozens of marine terminals and in 22 hospitals.

Matt Armanino, senior vice president of corporate development, says WhereNet's Wi-Fi-based tracking systems are customized for each client and can be installed in 90 days, with prices ranging from $200,000 to millions. But the company's real selling point is the promise of a return on investment (ROI) within a year.

"In this market, you have to show a very strong ROI," he said, "and all of the numbers from our customers validate that."

To see if he's right, the U.S. Army in November began a one year test of WhereNet's technology to see if it should be used permanently at the Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania. The depot personnel fix and tune-up computer, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems for the Armed Forces. For example, about every five years, radar antennas need to be refurbished. The units are shipped to Tobyhanna, disassembled, repaired and tested before being shipped back out—a labor-intensive process that can take a year. With thousands of parts and staff spread across the 2-million-square-foot work space, the WhereNet RTLS network lets each work station see the antenna parts as they go through the process.

Ronald Rains, a management analyst who serves as the automatic identification technology coordinator at the depot, said "We are able to see if a part moves to a zone not intended for the part. In these instances, work center supervision can quickly re-route the part back on track for delivery to the intended work center, reducing delay time."

Here's how it works: Tobyhanna personnel assign an active 2.4GHz WhereTag transmitter to the radar components. The tags transmit a 32-bit unique ID number and a caption input by the depot workers, continually updating the corresponding database entry. In this case, Armanino says it's important to note that the signal is 1 to 2 milliwatts, typically 150 times less than what is used in most wireless devices. Lower signals mitigate interference with other applications.

He said it also sustains battery life for up to seven years "because if you're frequently replacing thousands of batteries, you lose a lot of the cost savings." The tags are programmed to emit data at set intervals and have a range of about 300 feet inside and 1,000 outdoors.

Should a tagged unit move to another location between timed intervals, a WherePort device triggers the tag to emit a signal immediately so workers still know when units are entering or leaving a specific work center. The WherePorts use magnetic waves, Armanino says, because they are easier to control than radio waves.

WhereLAN location sensors relay the tag data wirelessly through 802.11b(g) Wi-Fi (or in some cases) through Ethernet cables to WhereNet's Visibility Software Suite. The software maps and displays where everything is, using algorithms to compute a part's distance from two sensors up to 10 feet. It can also issue status reports and be programmed to issue alerts based on operation variables.

Because the WhereNet system automatically records when the parts arrive, how long they stay, and what time they move on, the depot personnel can pinpoint the whereabouts and status of each tagged item at any stage during the refurbishing process. This makes it easier to analyze work-flow and adjust to changes on-the-fly to prevent backups, said Rains.

"The system is also useful," he said, "in alerting workers when an item has been stored outside for more than six hours and will need treatment to prevent rust and corrosion."

And slackers beware: if a part is loitering at your workstation too long, an alert can be automatically blasted to management.

Tobyhanna is the first Department of Defense contract for the eight-year-old WhereNet—that we know about. Amanino says they do have other initiatives with the Department of Defense and Homeland Security branches of the government that he can't talk about. He does say, however, that most of the military initiatives mirror commercial use of the company's products.

WhereNet's RTLS/WLANs are being used in everything from Hummer plants to hospitals, in part, because of the flexibility of the system architecture. The systems can work with existing WLANs and applications and accomplish several tasks. In the case of one food distributor, Amanino says WhereNet technology does four things: IDs delivery trucks as they arrive, tracks inventory as it moves around the yard, keeps tabs on refrigerated storage facilities' stock, temperature and status (open, closed) and then stores and automatically transmits all this data to personnel.

"Other wireless solutions are deployed for one thing, say just to track forklifts, but there's no other purpose and it can't be expanded," he said. "We bundle it all into one integrated application so there's coordinated calm instead of chaos, there's no more guys running around the floor screaming and flapping their arms with clip boards in their hands."



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