The Ups of Wireless for UPS

By Adam Stone

June 09, 2005

The delivery service's new information device will put four types of wireless technology (including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) in the hands of thousands of mobile employees.

Parcel delivery service UPS is rolling out a major new technology initiative, with Wi-Fi as a central feature.

The fourth generation of UPS's Delivery Information Acquisition Device, or DIAD, hit the streets in April. It's slated to be deployed globally by 2008, eventually taking up residence on some 100,000 handheld wireless devices. DIAD will support four different wireless technologies, including Wi-Fi, GPRS, CDMA and Bluetooth.

The Wi-Fi capability will speed the processing of packages and make it possible for drivers and dispatchers to make important last-minute changes, according to Donna Barrett, a technology spokesperson at UPS.

"We put Wi-Fi in there because we are in the process of deploying Wi-Fi networks in our package centers, which are the facilities our drivers work out of," Barrett says.

In those centers, DIAD utilizes Wi-Fi to download delivery manifests right up to the moment when the truck leaves the dock. That's a significant step up in terms of efficiency. "Without Wi-Fi, you were limited to doing a batch download overnight," Barrett says. "The drivers would plug their DIADs into a bay to charge their batteries, and the delivery schedule was batch downloaded to the DIAD at that time."

With the Wi-Fi link, "you can have last-minute customer changes and requests," Barrett says. "You can have last-minute packages that come in that require changes in what is loaded onto what truck, in order to be sure you are optimizing every driver's delivery route."

When an organization as big as UPS integrates Wi-Fi into its chief technology platform, analysts sit up and take notice. With an implementation of this magnitude, "the scenarios and concepts that folks have been dreaming about for years are now a reality," says Jupiter Research senior analyst Julie Ask.

It's not just that UPS is big. The deployment has also raised eyebrows because UPS is different. This kind of Wi-Fi usage takes the technology beyond the more commonly recognized use of Wi-Fi by corporate road warriors and students in Starbucks.

"This is a good high-profile deployment for the Wi-Fi industry, but also another example of how certain verticals -- with non-office environments and the need for mobility -- can utilize this technology very well," says Jupiter Research associate Ina Sebastian. "One of the advantages and decision factors in these settings is that the benefits of deployment can be quantified more easily, which is something that companies with WLANs in the office tend to find difficult."

"In one of our recent enterprise executive surveys, we asked how companies measure the success of their deployments," Sebastian says. "Seventy-five percent of companies with a WLAN chose 'increased employee productivity,' and 53 percent chose 'improved employee satisfaction,' compared to only 31 percent that calculate in terms of ROI."

If UPS can move more packages, save employee time, use less gas and so forth, it becomes possible to associate real financial savings with the use of Wi-Fi.

Still, the UPS rollout is a complex endeavor, and there have been challenges to overcome. Engineers, for example, wanted to have Bluetooth integrated into the system in order to scan and track packages. That information is then forwarded via Wi-Fi to a main terminal.

The problem, says Barrett, is that Bluetooth and Wi-Fi can experience interference due to spectrum overlap. To overcome the issue, UPS designers wrote software that stops Bluetooth and Wi-Fi from working simultaneously. Essentially, the two technologies swap blocks of time so they don't cross paths when functioning side by side.

That said, Barrett is more than ready to declare that Wi-Fi's technical virtues at this point far outweigh such minor limitations.

"Because of our service commitment to our customers, our networks have to be operational virtually 24/7, which means the technology has to be stable -- and for our applications, Wi-Fi has been stellar, as has Bluetooth," Barrett says. "No technology is a panacea, but if you understand your application and you define the scope of it, you can find the technology that fits. [With Wi-Fi], it works. It's reliable. It's robust. You can count on it, even in UPS, where the scope and scale of things is pretty daunting."

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