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Warehouse and DC Management: Mobility has arrived

Mobile and wireless technology is making a measurable impact on today’s warehouse & DC operations. Savvy users are going multi-modal, pulling multiple technologies and software capabilities together to increase productivity, cut pick-rate errors, and increase inventory accuracy.
By Maida Napolitano, Contributing Editor
February 01, 2012

For a number of years now, mobile computing devices have been electronically capturing data on assets and resources and uploading them to host systems over wireless networks. But thanks to the raging successes of smartphones and tablets, as well as the rise of much improved wireless networks, mobility solutions for logistics management are reaching new levels of ubiquity.

“You’re not going to see any large warehouse or distribution center today operating without these types of technologies,” says David Krebs, vice president of mobile and wireless practice for VDC Research, a market research and consulting firm. “It’s too important and the benefits are too great for an organization not to make these investments.”

A survey of mobility end-users recently conducted by VDC highlights the top three benefits achieved by today’s enterprise mobility solutions: (1) improved real-time decision making; (2) increased mobile worker productivity; and (3) improved inventory accuracy. 

Bruce Stubbs, director of industry marketing for Intermec, says the VDC findings certainly match up with what he’s seeing from his customers.

“Logistics professionals want access to accurate information and data, and they want to be able to proactively act upon it,” says Stubbs. “The faster you get information that is actionable, the quicker you move a step ahead of your competition.”

Mike Maris, senior director for transportation, distribution, and logistics for Motorola Solutions points out that by scanning bar codes, paper is eliminated. “It also eliminates the errors and delays associated with a paper-based operation,” adds Maris. “This improves accuracy, adds efficiency, and improves the speed of how you do business.”

With these benefits in mind, let’s explore current trends in mobile technologies and how today’s vendors and solution providers are helping logistics professionals put them to work inside the nation’s warehouses and DCs. Then let’s examine how a Canadian distributor of building and hardware materials made its real-life transition to mobility solutions, causing pick-rate accuracies to skyrocket while giving its customers real-time visibility into the status of their orders. 

Trends in mobility
Mobile technologies have been rapidly evolving over the past few years. Rugged mobile computing devices—which, according to VDC, account for 88 percent of total mobile hardware used in the DC—are getting lighter and more ergonomic with better touch-screen user interfaces. 

One clear trend has been the convergence within one device of multiple data capture technologies from bar code scanning to voice input to RFID. Workers have been going to multi-modal scanning bar codes for receiving while using voice for picking and RFID for loading completed pallets onto trucks. 

Today’s devices are also able to connect and automatically switch to multiple network infrastructures from wireless local area networks (such as Wi-Fi) for operations within the DC, then switch over to wireless wide area networks (such as 3G, 4G/LTE) for operations beyond the DC into a retailer’s stores—without missing a beat. Some are equipped with Bluetooth connectivity for wireless printing and advanced GPS capabilities.

In response to the iPad, Motorola’s even got a new rugged, industrial grade tablet—the ET1 Enterprise—a tablet so advanced it realizes when it’s being dropped (via built-in sensors), according to Motorola’s Maris. “It actually shuts down in nanoseconds to protect itself,” he says. Although geared toward more enterprise applications, he can see the ETI being used on receiving docks because it’s equipped with a camera that can capture and send images of the condition of inbound merchandise to trading partners in real-time mode.

Finally, emerging supply chain execution software providers continue to integrate manufacturing, warehouse management systems (WMS), and transportation management systems (TMS). They’re now leveraging Cloud technology as a common collection area for data shared among trading partners. “It’s taking information and putting it into a readable format that the next partner can use,” explains Maris. This integration and ability to easily share real-time information are allowing enterprises to quickly address problems as soon as they arise, seamlessly collaborate with trading partners, and basically revolutionize supply chain management.

About the Author

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Maida Napolitano
Contributing Editor

Maida Napolitano has worked as a Senior Engineer for various consulting companies specializing in supply chain, logistics, and physical distribution since 1990. She’s is the principal author for the following publications: Using Modeling to Solve Warehousing Problems (WERC); Making the Move to Cross Docking (WERC); The Time, Space & Cost Guide to Better Warehouse Design (Distribution Group); and Pick This! A Compendium of Piece-Pick Process Alternatives (WERC). She has worked for clients in the food, health care, retail, chemical, manufacturing and cosmetics industries, primarily in the field of facility layout and planning, simulation, ergonomics, and statistic analysis. She holds BS and MS degrees in Industrial Engineering from the University of the Philippines and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, respectively. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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