Manufacturer readies its wireless efforts

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Ingersoll-Rand, maker of Bobcat heavy equipment and other industrial machines and products, is one of many companies grappling with how, when and why to go wireless—a process fraught with difficult questions.

As early as next year, the Woodcliff Lake, N.J.-based company will begin sending wireless messages to its distributors to pitch special sales offers, invite new orders and allow users to restock inventory, said Barry Libenson, VP of e-commerce.

The company also is contemplating pushing its sales catalog onto a wireless network. Ingersoll-Rand sells the bulk of its products to distributors, who in turn sell them to users. These products include portable power units, air compression devices and club car vehicles.

"Ideally, anything a dealer could do over the Internet [with our company] should be doable on a wireless device," Libenson said.

Technology trials

Before any new system can be adopted, Ingersoll-Rand must first decide what kind of infrastructure it will build to support a wireless network and which devices it will use for delivery, Libenson said.

Because the technology is evolving so quickly, the company is working carefully to adopt a common application that will be user-friendly to its distributor clients and flexible enough to adjust to future developments, he said.

The company is conducting a number of test pilots among its employees to explore different devices and applications. Some of the devices being tested include Palm Pilots with attached modems, Kyocera telephones (devices that integrate a phone and Palm), and Blackberry devices that can push out messages instantly without requiring the user to check an inbox.

"We are aggressively moving forward in this area with the belief that our dealers will adopt this technology once we show them the benefits," Libenson said.

The benefits to distributors employing wireless technology lie mainly in improved productivity. For example, an employee at a Bobcat dealer can walk around a shop floor, look at depleted inventory bins and use a wireless device on the spot to order goods instead of taking notes and later keying in the order on a desktop, Libenson said.

Ingersoll-Rand executives say many of the larger dealers who already use electronic systems have indicated they will adopt a wireless system as soon as its available. Those dealers represent about 30% of Ingersoll-Rands revenues. Others will wait for the technology to become more widely used, and somelikely smaller dealerswill lag behind the rest, Libenson predicts.

What will adopting a wireless network cost? For Ingersoll-Rand, the vast majority of its 50,000-plus employees around the globe already have cell phones, and many have laptops and Palm devices, so the cost for hardware will be minimal, Libenson said.

The larger cost will come in the conversion of many of those devices to a wireless system. He estimates it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to wirelessly enable the infrastructure that already exists.

"Cost is definitely taken into consideration, but the potential value [of a wireless network] is high enough that the cost is not much of an issue for us," he said.

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