Warehouse/DC Management: Modern mobility

Seeking better efficiencies and workforce productivity, logistics organizations are slowly, but consistently embracing the idea of mobile technology within the four walls.

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Using ruggedized and consumer mobile devices and ADC components such as handheld barcode scanners and imaging devices, savvy logistics organizations are gaining benefits like increased accuracy, improved productivity, and more informed decision making. And while the benefits of mobility have been proven over the years, many companies are simply waiting until their existing technology becomes obsolete to upgrade. As a result, adoption rates for mobility within the warehouse remain fairly low—at least for now.

Over the next few pages, we’ll explore the reasons adoption rates remain surprisingly low, discuss the available and evolving mobile technology that’s keeping many of today’s distribution operations ahead of the curve, and then learn from leading analysts where mobility is heading within our four walls.

Improving service, gaining efficiencies
Seeking better efficiencies and a way to tackle the rigors of the omni-channel distribution environment, logistics professionals are increasingly turning to mobile equipment and applications for put-away, replenishment, picking, packing, labeling, shipping, cycle counting, and myriad other warehouse-related tasks. “Logistics organizations continue to drive investments in mobile solutions and represent some of the most sophisticated end users of mobile technologies,” says David Krebs, president of enterprise mobility and connected devices at VDC Research.

According to VDC’s most recent research project, the greatest drivers of warehouse mobility right now include improving service quality, boosting workforce productivity, and achieving cost-effective track and trace. According to Krebs, three out of four transportation and logistics organizations agree that mobility is “more critical to their organizations today than it was last year.”

That said, Krebs adds that mobility budgets in the logistics and transportation sector are increasing at a fairly modest pace, with 6 percent year-over-year growth projected. One of the key mobile themes within this sector has been the sunsetting of legacy Windows OS—Windows Mobile and Windows CE—prevalent on rugged handheld devices. This development is pushing shippers to replace their Windows OS-supported platforms with more modern and flexible options.

“As applications are not forward-migratable and will need to be recoded—regardless of next generation OS selection—organizations are struggling with this decision,” Krebs says, noting that Android is emerging as an increasingly viable option with increased OEM support and broad support from the vendor community. “Next generation Windows 10 for handheld devices is more of an unknown, with devices expected to become available in the first half of 2016.”

Application modernization is also coming into play in the warehouse, where organizations want solutions that will help them more quickly deliver new applications and functionality. In response, Krebs says that vendors are developing mobile applications that can interact more fluidly with other applications and respond dynamically to the surrounding environmental data.

These applications are helping logistics mangers gain seamless integration of workflows and applications across multiple channels, react more intuitively via smart alerts and prompts, and attain improved levels of customer service. “At a high level, modern mobility is finding its way into the warehouse and replacing traditional solutions and ruggedized hardware,” says Clint Reiser, research analyst with ARC Advisory Group.

Credit the fact that nearly two-thirds of Americans now own—and already know how to use—a smartphone with boosting those adoption rates. “We see vendors making ‘vocal vests’ that incorporate smartphones for smart picking and data collection,” says Reiser. “Comprising a vest and a microphone, these vests provide a lower-cost solution for warehouses looking to integrated more mobility.”

Waiting on the sidelines
As he surveys the warehouse and DC environment, Norm Saenz, managing director at supply chain consultancy St. Onge Company, gets a sense that many logistics organizations are still using spreadsheets to manage activities within their four walls.

“I know they’re out there,” says Saenz. “We’re talking about a huge distribution industry with tons of warehouses, some of which still operate with paper-based solutions.” And while some companies are standing on the sidelines, others have been using radio frequency (RF) terminals, barcode scanning, and automated inventory management systems for years.

In many cases, those existing systems hold organizations back from making an investment in warehouse mobility. “If a company has already made the investment in RF devices, and if those systems are working, then it really doesn’t see the need to invest in smartphones and tablets,” says Tammy Bishop, principal at Capgemini USA. “As a result, the adoption of mobility in the warehouse isn’t nearly as high as we would have expected.”

And even when a facility is equipped with mobility tools, many of the devices are limited to the supervisory or management level, where devices like iPads are used to check dashboards, review metrics, and see whether key performance indicators (KPIs) are being met—all while standing on the warehouse floor. In most cases, device usage has yet to spread to the rest of workforce.

“However, a lot of these devices just aren’t rugged enough yet for forklift drivers and other warehouse workers to use on the job,” adds Bishop.
Dwight Klappich, research vice president for Gartner, sees potential for consumer-grade devices in the warehouse, where expensive, bulky, ruggedized devices are slowly going the way of the 8-track tape. “The company using an iPhone or Android device for barcode scanning is doing it for a fraction of the cost of what it would pay for a traditional, ruggedized device,” says Klappich. “Knowing this, we’re seeing a lot of shippers testing these out. However, I’ve yet to see anyone pull the trigger on rolling out consumer-grade devices on a large scale.”

More growth in 2016
As the market continues to shift, and as logistics organizations ask for more flexible information technology infrastructures and tools to help them adjust to these changes in a more nimble fashion, Krebs expects mobility to gain momentum inside the four walls.
Omni-channel, for example, shifts the distribution focus to the item level, thus exposing the cost of errors and increasing the importance of compound KPIs. “Organizations need to be able to respond to these shifts in how inventory is being managed and handled throughout their supply chain,” says Krebs.

Growing interest in the Internet of Things (IoT)—or the network of physical objects embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity that enables these objects to collect and exchange data—could also help ramp up adoption rates in 2016.

“When you have technology that’s providing information faster and more accurately on products coming in and out of order status, both inventory flow and inventory management improve,” says Reiser, who envisions a time when warehouse management systems (WMS) and warehouse control systems (WCS) work together to redirect and re-prioritize tasks, provide visual analysis, or determine the status of various areas within the warehouse and DC.

“Under IoT, the mobility-enabled warehouse data can be captured, integrated with WCS and WMS, and work in more of a ‘sense and respond’ atmosphere,” adds Reiser. “This dovetails with the shorter time horizons and other requirements like higher cost per order, higher pro forma cost, and the next-day delivery associated with e-commerce.”

As companies’ existing technology infrastructures continue to age—and as shippers seek out systems that include more modern functionalities and capabilities—Bishop predicts an uptick in mobility adoption in the DC. “As companies replace their older WMS with newer versions,” she adds, “there’s little doubt that they’ll introduce more smart devices and mobile capabilities into their processes.”


About the Author

Bridget McCrea, Editor
Bridget McCrea is a Contributing Editor for Logistics Management based in Clearwater, Fla. She has covered the transportation and supply chain space since 1996, and has covered all aspects of the industry for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review. She can be reached at [email protected]

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