Critical Development

Language design, framework development, UI design, robotics and more.

Panatracker – Mobile Inventory/Asset Tracking System

Posted by Dan Vanderboom on December 14, 2007

For the past three and a half years, I’ve been developing software for Panatrack to track inventory, assets, time and attendance, and more, using primarily Symbol PDAs with integrated barcode and RFID scanners.  This software system is called Panatracker, and it has modules that integrate into DynamicsGP (formerly called Great Plains) as well modules that can run independent of a back-end system.  Here are a few screen shots of the splash and menu screens:

Panatracker SplashPanatracker Menu

Pretty, isn’t it?  One of the reasons we consistently win when going up against our competitors is the nice looking, easy to use interface.  We take advantage of the color touch screen, making sure everything is easy to manipulate with a simple touch, without having to pull out the stylus (which is annoying and not very practical in warehouse and retail environments).  The menus have big, easy to push buttons (even when wearing gloves, while working in a freezer, for example), and all workflows are streamlined for extreme efficiency and an intuitive feel.  Compare this to old monochrome telnet applications that are all text and provide poor formatting, navigation, and connectivity options.  It’s displayed in the picture above running on a Symbol MC50, but we also deploy to MC70, MC9090 (which looks like a gun with its trigger handle), and occassionally other devices.

This has been a labor of love, and it shows: in breadth of functionality, ease of use, modularity, upgradability, extensibility, and much more.  It’s been designed with solid object-oriented principles and is positioned to remain a significant and relevant product for the long run.  It’s built upon a highly reusable framework; new transactions and supporting user interface screens can be plugged into its shell easily.  It operates not only in a connected environment (over a wireless network), but also supports occassionally-connected workflows, using data synchronization so that it can be used when disconnected from the server.  Data is collected out in the field, and then synchronized over a cellular network in a secure manner once a connection is available again.

There is a complete administrative website as well that provides access to reports, centralized configuration and management of all handheld devices, and more.  Here’s a teaser screen shot of that (shrunk down a bit to fit better on the blog page):

Panatracker Website

It is growing so rapidly now (in functionality as well as sales) and is always exciting to work on.  I remember looking at an empty shell, a single menu item, and now we have to use multiple menu levels, grouping our workflows into several modules.  Pretty soon we’ll support so many different supply chain workflows that we’ll run out of menu space!

The retail RFID module of Panatracker was even shown on TV in the news.  It’s about 3:15 into the video clip.

Before Gen 2 of RFID came around, before Symbol’s MC8069R hardware want into mass production, we got our hands on one and I figured out how to integrate into it, in a realistically performant way (using several threads and some clever tricks) when companies many times our size couldn’t figure it out and even came to us for help.  We got several contracts with large companies that I don’t think I can name publicly, but one of them was a major big box retailer (hint: their/our app was in the news).

But ultimately, RFID is a difficult technology to justify.  Once you’ve waded through the hype, you realize that the engineering is more difficult to justify and satisfy that one would optimistically expect.  Radio waves are easily reflected and distorted by metals, liquids, special surfaces, and magnetic sources.  You can confirm failed writes to tags, but you can’t always confirm a successful write, nor can you easily determine what tag or tags were written to.  If many tags are in the vicinity, they are difficult to isolate and verify which tags you’re reading.  High-density environments, we call them.

One project I was involved with was based upon a Symbol Apex device (Apex may be a code name and not a model name), which contains a proximity sensor, an accelerometer, and an RFID radio (plus a wireless network radio) running Windows Mobile.  To minimize the damage done to product moved with clamp trucks in warehouses (millions of dollars per year), we would need to detect when the clamp truck slowed down and approached product, activate the RFID scanner, determine the number and stacking configuration of products, look up in a database the correct amount of pressure to apply, and then activate the clamp device to close with the correct pressure.  The largest obstacle and challenge was the chosen device and lack of leeway and budget in using additional sensory devices, and therefore the ability to realistically determine the stacking configuration.  How do you count RFID tags when there are likely to be many others within reading range?  Can you come up with a scheme for raising and lowering the radio power settings depending on the mode the device is in (what function it is trying to accomplish)?  How accurately can you model the physical geometry to isolate what you’re aiming at from a fast moving vehicle with a 400–600 MHz processor that is already overburdened with tasks?

Mobile devices are a challenge not just because of their space-constraint-caused limitations, but because they are mobile and therefore involved more in dynamic situations and environments.  A computer that sits stationary on a desk isn’t very interesting, but there are some cell phones that really get around and are starting to be used in some interesting ways.  The trend is growing exponentially.  Mobility is the seed of digital ubiquity, and we all know deep down that’s where we’re headed.  But that’s just futurist speak.  The point is that we’re at the beginning of a very exciting thing.  The technology seems clumsy and immature to me right now, but I have no doubt that we’ll see large strides forward in the near future.  Google’s Android open-source operating system and development platform looks fantastic, and their marketing is brilliant: to give away millions of dollars in programming contests to build applications for it.  I have a feeling this is going to grow a huge community and many good products, and that’s coming from a real .NET-C#-Microsoft fan.

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One Response to “Panatracker – Mobile Inventory/Asset Tracking System”

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