The mobile supply chain

Mutli-modal is expanding mobility in the DC

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Judging by the commercials I see on television – or by my 20-something daughter – most of us are living our lives on our mobile phones. We’re talking, texting and tweeting, e-mailing and IMing, trading stocks and balancing our checkbooks, updating our Facebook status, browsing for a new restaurant or the best deal on a TV or getting directions for a trip, all from a mobile device. And, we appear to be doing it 24/7. Life: There’s an App for that.

That got me to wondering whether the supply chain is going mobile as well. That’s what I wrote about for the March Big Picture, which we’ll be posting soon and will be on display next week at ProMat. I talked to a dozen or so materials handling automation and software vendors – everyone from SAP to Intelligrated – to find out how they and their customers are approaching mobility.

What I discovered is that we are still very much at the early adoption stage, but our business lives are slowly catching up with our consumer lives. In some respects mobility in the supply chain means what it has always meant, which is how do we bring tools and information to the point where the work is going to be done so the worker doesn’t have to take the work to the point of information. That’s been the point behind barcode scanning, voice recognition technology, RFID and other mobile computing solutions for years.

At the same time, we are seeing the emergence of new mobile devices, new processes enabled by mobility and an expansion of the pool of mobile workers. As one individual said to me, there’s no longer a place in workplace – work is wherever the work needs to be done.

One of the individuals I spoke to was Alain Poirier, vice president of sales and logistics for Aldata. Although Aldata is not presently focused on applications for mobile phones, the supply chain execution provider is seeing increased interest in multi-modal data collection. “Voice logistics was a single-threaded application,” says Poirier. “It was a dedicated device for voice picking. If you went to the receiving dock, you had to take off the voice gear and get a scanning gun to start the receiving process.”

Just as the cell phone has evolved into a multi-function device, voice, scanning and data entry are evolving into a flexible, multi-modal device that allows the mobile worker to transition from one application in the distribution center to another.  “That also means there’s just one piece of hardware to support from an infrastructure perspective, one set of chargers and batteries,” says Poirier. “It simplifies the process for everyone.”

The food industry has been an early adopter of multi-modal technology, driven by the requirement to capture lot and catch weight information. “If you only have voice, it’s not practical to speak a ten digit number,” he says. “With a multi-modal device, voice directs you to a location, you can speak the amount picked and then scan the barcode for lot information.”

And while Aldata has not developed a suite of downloadable apps, it is spinning off pieces of functionality from its suite of solutions, including a standalone, multi-modal data collection application. “We recognize that companies are looking at what they can take on in a bite size version that can be implemented quickly,” he says. “By unhooking voice logistics from our WMS, you can plug the solution into any WMS or ERP system and get mobility.”

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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