Wireless networking is applicable to all industries with a need for mobile computer usage or when the installation of physical media is not feasible. Such networking is especially useful when employees must process information on the spot, directly in front of customers, via electronic-based forms and interactive menus. Wireless networking makes it possible to place portable computers in the hands of mobile "front-line" workers, such as doctors, nurses, warehouse clerks, inspectors, claims adjusters, real estate agents, and insurance salespeople.
The coupling of portable devices with wireless connectivity to a common database and specific applications meets mobility needs, eliminates paperwork, decreases errors, reduces process costs, and improves efficiency. The alternative to this, which many companies still employ today, is utilizing paperwork to update records, process inventories, and file claims. This manual method processes information slowly, produces redundant data, and is subject to errors caused by illegible handwriting. The wireless computer approach using a centralized database is clearly superior.
Retail organizations need to order, price, sell, and keep inventories of merchandise. A wireless network in a retail environment enables clerks and storeroom personnel to perform their functions directly from the sales floor. Salespeople are equipped with a pen-based computer or a small computing device with bar code reading and printing capability, with the wireless link to the store's database. They then can complete transactions such as pricing, labeling bins, placing special orders, and taking inventory from anywhere within the store.
When printing price labels that will be affixed to the item or shelves, retailers often utilize a handheld bar-code scanner and printer to produce bar-coded or human-readable labels. A database or file contains the price information, located on either the handheld device, often called a batch device, or a server somewhere in the store. In batch mode, the price clerk scans the bar code (typically the product code) located on the item or shelf edge, the application software uses the product code to look up the new price, and then the printer produces a new label the clerk affixes to the item.
In some cases, the batch-based scanner/printer has enough memory to store all the price information needed to effectively perform the pricing function throughout a shift or entire day. This situation makes sense if you update price information in the database once a day, typically during the evening. The clerks load the data onto the device at the beginning of their shifts and then walk throughout the store, continuously pricing items within the store. If the memory in the device is not large enough to store all the data, however, a wireless network is probably necessary. If the handheld unit is equipped with a wireless network connection, the data can be stored in the much larger memory capabilities of a centralized PC server or mainframe and then can be accessed each time that the item's bar code is scanned. In addition, a wireless network-based solution has merits if it is too time-consuming to download information to a batch device.
Warehouse staff must manage the receipt, storage, inventory, and pickup and shipping of goods. These responsibilities require the staff to be mobile. Warehouse operations have traditionally been a paper-intensive and time-consuming environment. An organization, however, can eliminate paper, reduce errors, and decrease the time necessary to move items in and out by giving each warehouse employee a handheld computing device with a bar-code scanner interfaced via a wireless network to a warehouse inventory system.
Upon receiving an item for storage within the warehouse, a clerk can scan the item's bar-coded item number and enter other information from a small keypad into the database via the handheld device. The system can respond with a location by printing a put-away label. A forklift operator can then move the item to a storage place and account for the procedure by scanning the item's bar code. The inventory system keeps track of all transactions, making it very easy to produce accurate inventory reports.
As shipping orders enter the warehouse, the inventory system produces a list of the items and their locations. A clerk can view this list from the database via a handheld device and can locate the items needed to assemble a shipment. As the clerk removes the items from the storage bins, the database can be updated via the handheld device. All of these functions depend heavily on wireless networks to maintain real-time access to data stored in a central database.
Healthcare centers, such as hospitals and doctors' offices, must maintain accurate records to ensure effective patient care. A simple mistake can cost someone's life. As a result, doctors and nurses must carefully record test results, physical data, pharmaceutical orders, and surgical procedures. This paperwork often overwhelms healthcare staff, taking 50 to 70 percent of its time.
Doctors and nurses are also extremely mobile, going from room to room caring for patients. The use of electronic patient records, with the capability to input, view, and update patient data from anywhere in the hospital, increases the accuracy and speed of healthcare. This improvement is possible by providing each nurse and doctor with a wireless pen-based computer, coupled with a wireless network to databases that store critical medical information about the patients.
A doctor caring for someone in the hospital, for example, can place an order for a blood test by keying the request into a handheld computer. The laboratory receives the order electronically and dispatches a lab technician to draw blood from the patient. The laboratory runs the tests requested by the doctor and enters the results into the patient's electronic medical record. The doctor can then check the results via the handheld appliance from anywhere in the hospital.
Another application for wireless networks in hospitals is the tracking of pharmaceuticals. The use of mobile handheld bar code printing and scanning devices dramatically increases the efficiency and accuracy of all drug transactions, such as receiving, picking, dispensing, inventory taking, and tracking of drug expiration dates. Most importantly, though, it ensures that hospital staff can administer the right drug to the right person in a timely fashion. This would not be possible without the use of wireless networks to support a centralized database and mobile data collection devices.
Hospitality establishments check customers in and out and also keep track of needs, such as room service orders and laundry requests. Restaurants need to keep track of the names and numbers of people waiting for entry, table status, and drink and food orders. Restaurant staff must perform these activities quickly and accurately to avoid making patrons unhappy. Wireless networking satisfies these needs very well.
Wireless computers are very useful in the situations in which there is a large crowd, such as a restaurant. For example, someone can greet restaurant patrons at the door and enter their names, the size of the party, and smoking preferences into a common database via a wireless device. The greeter can then query the database and determine the availability of an appropriate table. Those who oversee the tables also would have a wireless device used to update the database to show whether the table is occupied, is being cleaned, or is available. After obtaining a table, the waiter transmits the order to the kitchen via the wireless device, eliminating the need for paper order tickets.
As seen in this article, the benefits of wireless LAN applications provide many opportunities for companies to improve efficiencies that have significant return-on-investments. As wireless technologies advance and proliferation continues, the performance of wireless LANs will increase and the prices will decrease. This will enable companies to benefit even more from wireless network implementations.