As is often the case at manufacturing sites facing warehouse management problems, warehouse employees at Pactiv...
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Corp. were having difficulty entering radio frequency (RF) transactions on their mobile devices.
A touchscreen GUI created other headaches, leading the Lincolnshire, Ill.-based company to turn to a new mobile Internet platform, called Internet Transaction Server (ITS) Mobile, from SAP.
Pactiv is best-known for making Hefty trash bags. In 2008, the consumer and food packaging company had sales of $3.6 billion.
The company's warehouse employees use mobile devices to access SAP R/3 4.6 ERP and SAP Warehouse Management (specifically the Logistics Execution module) to perform online transactions such as order picking for shipments, inventory put-away and the creation of production order receipts. These logistics-related transactions are radio frequency (RF) transactions, and are specially written so they can be entered by users on the small screens of their mobile devices.
That means warehouse workers need continual access to manufacturing and logistics systems when roaming in a plant or warehouse. "They cannot perform these online transactional processing tasks without a persistent connection," said Tarkesh Patel, lead technical architect for Pactiv and the project lead.
Connecting back to R/3 via mobile terminals
In 2006, when Pactiv was using RF-linked mobile terminals that were text-based, its mobile users had to connect back to R/3 through SAPConsole Server (which is part of R/3, and translates SAP WebGUI screens to text-only pages for character-based mobile terminals). The workers accessed SAPConsole Server via the Telnet protocol.
In early 2007, the company decided to move away from character-based terminals and move to a touchscreen GUI in the hope of making the RF transactions easier to enter. As a result, Pactiv purchased Intermec CV30 handheld terminals. The pilot site for the change was the company's Beach Island, Ga., manufacturing facility, which spans several hundred thousand square feet.
The warehouse workers soon began encountering problems with the touchscreens as well as Internet connectivity. For one, it was hard for the warehouse employees to see the touchscreen, because the text on it was so small and the lighting in the warehouse was less than optimal. Also, the users wanted to rely on function keys for navigation, but they could not do so because the default Web browser on the Intermec terminals was Internet Explorer, which trapped all the functions, preventing user access to the keys.
But the biggest problem was online connectivity. "They kept getting disconnected," Patel said. "We could never find the actual dead zone in our warehouse, but the users always found it, usually in the middle of a transaction. And when that happened, the transaction was completely gone. They had to reenter it from scratch."
SAP ITS Mobile overcomes limitations of mobile devices
Patel fortuitously stumbled on a solution to all of the company's mobile problems during a call with an SAP executive in Germany about another matter. The executive mentioned a new SAP mobile solution, called Internet Transaction Server (ITS) Mobile, scheduled to be released in the spring of 2007. The purpose of ITS Mobile was to overcome some of the limitations of mobile devices by Web-enabling the RF transactions used in warehouse management.
ITS Mobile was initially available on NetWeaver 7.0, but was also made available in R/3 4.7. It uses an Internet Application Component (IAC) programming model to convert screens to HTML, but a simpler HTML than SAP WebGUI (which was causing problems for Patel because mobile operating systems did not support it and because it could not be customized).
Patel particularly liked the flexibility of ITS Mobile. When the SAP executive in Germany told him about it, "Instead of saying they only supported certain browsers and devices, SAP said, 'We don't support anything in particular. You can make it work with anything'," Pactiv became an early adopter of ITS Mobile 6.20, according to Patel.
According to Patel, one advantage of ITS Mobile is that it leverages the stateless nature of HTTP. "If a user is in the middle of a transaction and the signal is lost, he can just hit the refresh button and not lose the transaction."
Pactiv used ABAP Workbench to create its mobile application. The company's primary requirement was to minimize changes to its existing ABAP screen development efforts, in order to avoid impact to SAPConsole and WebGUI. "If we were to make changes to existing screens, all of our users would be impacted, and we would have to do a lot of regression testing," Patel said.
Streamlined ABAP development effort
The company was able to reduce its development effort by using the SAP-delivered ITS template generator for mobile devices. The generated templates are used by the ITS to convert ABAP screens to HTML screens, using a combination of HTML for layout and HTMLB for dynamic content. Pactiv was then able to change the appearance of the ITS Mobile screens using cascading stylesheets. This method allowed Pactiv to adapt to different device types simply by creating a new stylesheet with appropriate display attributes to suit the new mobile device.
Pactiv went live with its ITS Mobile system in August 2009. The system has since been rolled out to five more facilities, and Patel expects several hundred employees to be using the new ITS setup by early 2010. The users will be accessing R/3 via the standalone ITS 6.20 until Pactiv upgrades to ECC 6.0 in 2010. At that point, Patel said, ITS will be integrated into the SAP system. Users will access the ITS Mobile solution directly in the ERP system. At that point, Pactiv will decommission its standalone ITS 6.20 servers. Once all the users are converted to ITS Mobile, the SAPConsole servers will also be decommissioned.
In the end, all of Pactiv's connectivity issues in its warehouse have been resolved, Patel said. "Our users are showing a strong preference for the ITS Mobile solution over SAPConsole."