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The Wireless Popping Machine

Dale and Thomas Popcorn, based in Englewood, N.J., makes a broad spectrum of retail flavored and wholesale popped corn products, supported by a 100,000 square foot warehouse of materials and ingredients.

Manager of Information Technology (IT) Infrastructures Norm Steiner joined the company shortly after it had finalized design of a new, wireless warehouse tracking system.

“Two years ago, it was a new installation, a greenfield,” Steiner says, “and a very interesting application. I was really happy to be instantly in charge of the installation of a totally new system.”

Dale and Thomas ships products to its own stores, other retail establishments nationwide and to wholesale customers. Prior to popping, corn must be kept in controlled humidity and temperature. Once popped, the product needs to move as quickly as possible to an outlet, so timely delivery is a must.

The wireless portion of the company’s systems, developed in conjunction with Munich, Germany-based Siemens Enterprise Communications, and involving components from Cisco Systems Inc., San Jose, Calif., and other equipment suppliers, uses Siemens HiPath Wireless Manager to create a wireless local area network (WLAN).

A warehouseful a day

“Wireless is about the only way we could handle the flow of information,” Steiner says. Three-shift production is currently at a level that turns the warehouse once a day, so the 16 handheld computers used by mobile warehouse personnel are in continuous use as materials are bar-code labeled, scanned in, stored, pulled and sent to production, then brought back for outbound shipment.

“We do have some static stations,” Steiner says, “but everything else is mobile. We even have scanners on forklifts so materials can be scanned on the move. Plus, there are four wireless hip-printers, so if a bar code or label is needed on the fly, it can be squirted out.”

Across the warehouse area, five access points (APs) of the 19 in the system act as guard probes, fishing for rogue APs, and maintaining a secure perimeter via Siemens HiGard software. As the system manager, Steiner is especially appreciative of the stability. “I might have to reboot an AP every three months or so, but it’s been a case of set it up and forget it. A new network or subnet takes maybe ten minutes to set up.

“The new asset tracking and management system gives us great visibility into our inventory and how items are moving through the warehouse,” Steiner says. “We have a continuous, real-time picture of what our warehouse looks like, and we instantly know where things are and what purchasing needs are building up.”

In a case of multiple functionality, the same system provides a conduit for visitors to the plant to access the Internet—but not the company’s systems. “Naturally, on the logic side, the guest system is totally separate from the warehouse systems using virtual network services,” Steiner says. “But physically, it’s the same equipment. And our guests appreciate being able to get work done on their own.”

Dale and Thomas is currently evaluating linking the new wireless infrastructure with wireless networks operated by its retail outlets in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts and other states. It’s also considering links with third-party storage warehouses that the company uses during busy seasons. “Our system offers scalability and an easy way to extend our coverage externally, if needed,” Steiner says. “It’s literally plug-and-play, and it’s been great to work with here. We’re hoping to extend its coverage in the near future.”

Feature - Manufacturing on the Move
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