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A Busy Plastics Manufacturer Uses Palmtops to Help Control Costs

A Busy Plastics Manufacturer Uses Palmtops to Help Control Costs

By connecting a serial cable between an HP 100LX and a high-quality Setra scale, this company has streamlined its data collection process.

By Joe Goeke

As the Administrative Projects Manager of a busy plastic parts manufacturer in northern Arkansas, I am constantly thinking of different ways to automate our processes and methods of data collection. I deal with many different employees who are less than computer literate and who need an easy way of collecting data that is also easy to learn. The HP 95LX and 100LX are the perfect tools for the type of data we gather on a daily basis.

In the beginning

The HP 95LX was initially used at our company to help organize the daily routines of some of the upper-level management people while they were away from the plant on business. From there, the use of the palmtop spread to different people and departments within the company (myself included). We found that the HP 95LX was perfect for use in the quote department. (The quote department figures the cost of tooling and production for each customer's order.) Using the Lotus 1-2-3 application, we wrote a simple macro that greatly increased our response time when quoting new jobs. The palmtop is the perfect tool to use in this area because of its low cost as compared to a full-sized, full-function desktop computer. The unit is reliable and easy to use, and transferring a macro from a desktop computer was a snap using the connectivity kit.

Using the HP Connectivity Pack and DataComm to satisfy our customers

We also use the HP Connectivity Pack and desktop computers to transfer and manipulate data from the HP 100LX. When one of our major customers needed SPC (Statistical Process Control) data to accompany each shipment made to them, the HP 100LX was the ideal tool to gather the data. The customer requires that we send the individual weight of each piece we send, measured in grains. Using a Setra 500C electronic scale fitted with an RS-232 port, we can weigh each item and transfer the data from the scale to the palmtop via the COM port.

We first set up the scale to transmit at 9,600 baud. Next, we set the HP 100LX to transfer data between the scale and the palmtop. We open the DataComm application and press (MENU) Connect, Settings to go to Datacomm's Settings screen. (See Screen 1 on previous page.)

 Datacomm's Settings screen is accessed by opening DataComm and pressing (MENU) Connect Settings.>

 We set the baud rate to 9,600, leave the rest of the default settings alone and press (ENTER) to return to Datacomm's main screen. Then we press (F5) (Capture), which brings up the "Capture File" screen.

Then we enter a file name for the captured data and press (ENTER).

 At this point the palmtop should be back to the main DataComm screen and ready to be hooked up to the scale. We connect the 100LX to the scale using the HP Connectivity Pack's serial cable. The scale has a 25-pin RS-232 port on the back of it, and the cable uses a 9-pin connector, so we use the 9-pin-to-25-pin modem adapter that comes in the connectivity kit (HP part #5181-6642).

When we press the (F10) (Connect) key, the palmtop and the scale are connected to each other. Using the Capture feature in the DataComm application, data transfer is easy and straightforward. No additional software is required to connect the scale and the palmtop; all the features we require are built into the palmtop.

Next, we send an upper case "P" from the palmtop to the scale. (It is the scale that is anticipating the "P" character; the character has nothing to do with DataComm or the palmtop.) The "P" character instructs the scale to send its current weight reading to the computer screen. (For example, if the scale display reads 1.168 grams, pressing the (P) key on the palmtop causes "1.168" to be sent to the palmtop's screen.)

 Each piece is weighed individually and the data is sent to the palmtop immediately, one piece at a time. On the palmtop, each piece's measurement appears on its own line, placing the data in column fashion.

 After gathering 100 samples from the production run, the data is then placed into a simple Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet in the 100LX. This is done by pressing (MENU) Quit, to close DataComm. (All the data collected so far has been saved in SAMPLE.CAP.) Then we start 1-2-3 and press (MENU) File, Import, Numbers, type in the name of the file to import (SAMPLE.CAP in this example) and press (ENTER).

After the first 100 entries are transferred to the spreadsheet, we go back to the DataComm application and collect another 100 sample weights. (We ship the product in barrels that contain several thousand pieces per barrel. The customer requires 100 samples from each barrel and each column represents one barrel.) The data is transferred into the same spreadsheet, in the column next to the first one. The process is repeated until all of the 100 piece samples have been recorded for the day.

The spreadsheet is then given a name that corresponds with the date the data was gathered. At this time, the HP 100LX is taken to a desktop computer and the spreadsheet is loaded into it via the HP Connectivity Pack at 115,200 baud, making data transfer very quick. The Connectivity Pack software makes downloading data into the desktop computer easy and fast. After the data is downloaded, the spreadsheet is then opened on the desktop computer, and a simple formula is used to convert the weight entries from grams to grains. With this setup, data can be gathered from virtually anywhere in the plant without regard to how to get the samples to an available computer.

Moving inventory to a new warehouse

 We have also used the 100LX in other areas of the factory where data collection was a problem. We recently moved our shipping facility to a new warehouse, and we were faced with the problem of setting up a new computerized stock location system. This system allows us to locate any item in inventory by entering the part's name or identification number.

Our stock location system uses three numbers to identify the row, bay, and shelf that the boxes are located on. For example, location number 010503 refers to row 1, bay 5, shelf 3. We enter the item number in the spreadsheet, then enter the location number of the item.

 With over 14,000 boxes in the warehouse that needed to be individually entered into the location system, we were faced with a huge task. Each box had to be verified and its location entered into our AS-400 minicomputer system. Each terminal on this network is in a fixed location and cannot be moved easily. We were faced with the task of walking through the warehouse and manually writing down the box number and location on paper, and then at a later time entering those numbers into the AS-400. We have tried several times to use wireless terminals to gather and enter data directly into our minicomputer system, but the metal buildings at our facility caused so much interference in the signals that the data was unreliable and difficult to transmit.

The HP 95LX and 100LX, with the built-in Lotus 1-2-3 application, proved to be the perfect portable tools for the job. A simple two-column spreadsheet was set up in each palmtop to enter each box location along with the corresponding item number. For example:

 Item # Location




 After only a few minutes of instruction for the inventory team, the data collecting began. Each person collecting data had to learn only six keystrokes to enter the data, and eight keystrokes to save the data. At the end of the day, I backed up each spreadsheet one final time and then dumped each spreadsheet into a desktop computer. The files were then translated into ASCII format and loaded into the AS-400 minicomputer system.

 The HP 95LX and 100LX are a low-cost alternative to buying stationary, single-use computer work stations. The palmtops have enough power to handle most of the data collection jobs that we can think of. Their portability and use of standard "AA" batteries are another definite plus when considering them against most other data collection methods. The palmtop's portability also allows us to use a computer in an warehouse environment where a regular computer would not be feasible.

Our use of palmtops also saves us money. We can use one palmtop computer to gather SPC data for an hour in the morning, then use the same palmtop to do stock locations the rest of the day. It is more cost effective to have one $600 unit being used for two different jobs in one day, than to have two $2,000-dollar desktop units being used for an hour or so each day and sitting unused for the rest of the day.

Palmtops are an ideal choice

The extraordinary portability, power, and low cost of the HP 95LX and 100LX make the palmtop an ideal choice in the manufacturing sector. With the built-in features and the ease of connecting them to desktop units, the HP palmtops are a sure bet for gathering data, and for on-the-go record keeping. I am constantly amazed that there is a product on the market that boasts the power that the HP palmtop possesses, and which runs on batteries that are cheap and readily available.

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