The mobile supply chain is on the move

Mobility is the hottest marketing trend in the supply chain. Modern looks behind the hype to see what’s changing in the mobile supply chain.
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By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
March 01, 2011 - MMH Editorial

Everyone is going mobile. As consumers, we’re snapping up smart phones, downloading apps, uploading photos, texting and tweeting. Thanks to mobility, we’re never more than a Wi-Fi hot spot or cell tower away from the information that’s most important to us.

It should come as no surprise that providers of supply chain technologies want to capitalize on the mobility craze in our business lives. They are certainly talking the mobility talk. But are they walking the walk?

To find out, we talked to solution providers to learn just what mobility means today. They represent mobile computing and voice recognition technologies, supply chain software providers and several providers of automated materials handling solutions.

Here’s what we learned:
Sure, there’s some hype, but there’s also some evidence that mobility is top of mind for materials handling and supply chain professionals, even if we are all still trying to figure out where these tools fit in our business lives.

For instance, the smart phone craze appears to be getting traction at the management level, according to “Mobile Technologies Used in SCM Today,” a study co-authored by Adrian Gonzalez and Steve Banker, analysts with ARC Advisory Group. Smart phones were cited by 69% of the 60 supply chain executives who responded as mobile technologies they were using in their daily operations; 22% said they were using their phones to scan bar codes; and another 22% said they were using the devices to take pictures of receipts at the dock.

“We were surprised by the large number of smart phone users,” says Banker.

Now, before you hand out iPhones to all your floor associates, Banker notes that ARC did not talk to floor-level associates and that the warehouse is probably the last place that consumer mobile technologies will show up. That’s because the warehouse was ahead of the rest of the enterprise when it came to the adoption of mobile technologies like RF bar code scanning, voice recognition and RFID. Businesses may be willing to support managers who want to use their smart phones to scan a bar code. But they aren’t about to chuck proven technologies and processes just because something glitzier has come along.

In fact, Banker believes supply chain managers probably came up with the idea of using their phones to snap photos of damaged goods or scan the occasional bar code because they realize they had the tools to do so on their hip, not because the IT department came up with a new business process. In that sense, they may be ahead of the business in the adoption of new mobile technologies.

At the same time, Banker also says that mobile technologies are expanding the pool of mobile workers and extending the reach of supply chain technologies like warehouse management systems, both inside and outside the four walls of the warehouse. “Companies like Intermec and Motorola tell us that how customers are using mobility, how that is rippling back through the supply chain and how we think about fulfillment is beginning to change,” says Banker.

What does mobility mean today?
If that’s true, what does mobility in the supply chain mean today? In some respects, it means what it has always meant: Providing tools to deliver information to the worker at the place where the work will be performed rather than requiring the mobile worker to take the work to the information.

Those tools are continually being refined, with the introduction of products like mobile powered carts that can integrate a variety of tools, including a computer, printer, scanner and scale in one powered unit that can go anywhere in the facility, regardless of whether there’s a power outlet. “We have a customer using a number of our units on their shipping and receiving docks,” says John O’Kelly, president of Newcastle Systems. “They can roll a cart with a computer, scanner and printer right up to a skid and receive all of the items on that pallet without taking a packing slip into an office.”

A major driver, O’Kelly says, is the push to wring every ounce of efficiency out of existing processes. “Numerous customers have told us they have marching orders to improve what they’re already doing before they even think of hiring additional personnel,” says O’Kelly. “When you hear that story two or three times, it registers.”

The dynamics of mobility are evolving, according to Sheldon Safir, director of global product marketing for Motorola Solutions. 

Mobility is pervasive: Like consumers accessing Facebook from everywhere, there is no place in workplace anymore. “Work takes place wherever you need to be,” says Safir. “Almost every worker has some sense of mobility associated with their job.”

Devices are evolving: Mobile computing was once a one-size-fits all deal. Today, a range of task-appropriate devices are coming to market.

RFID is moving from promise to reality: As item-level tracking becomes more prevalent, we are moving to a real-time view of inventory across the supply chain.

Better labor management is possible: As mobile technology becomes more pervasive, managers are able to re-assign tasks to workers in real time to drive more productivity.

Better management is possible: The introduction of consumer devices into the supply chain is in the early stages, but as it evolves, we will be able to extend supply chain information not just to truckers, field techs and product managers, but also to C-level executives.

Last, let’s not forget that a generational shift is already happening in the workforce. “A new generation that has grown up with technology is coming into the enterprise,” says Safir. “Our expectation is that every associate in the enterprise will have some kind of appropriate mobile device paired with their job.”

That, of course, is the dream of every solution provider. What follows is a look at how that concept is being rolled out in the most common areas.

Mobile computing
As the name suggests, mobility in the supply chain got its start with mobile computing. In that facet of the supply chain, we continue to see improvements on existing devices as well as evolutionary change, says Doug Brown, business development director for LXE. Those changes are being driven by the consumer world. “It’s not practical for someone to carry a laptop down on the shop floor,” says Brown. “But people want connectivity and they’re asking why they can’t use the devices they use in their personal lives.”

LXE is introducing a new ruggedized tablet that measures 8 inches by 8 inches—about the same size as a netbook but without a lid—it is less than 1-inch thick and runs Windows 7. It has a touch-screen, a functional keyboard and a camera. A user can add a 2D bar code scanner and a headset for a voice application. “It is bigger than a cell phone,” says Brown. “But a supervisor could easily take it down on the floor and have access to the full warehouse management system (WMS) capabilities on his desktop at the point of attack.” 

Intermec is focusing on the challenge of connectivity as users move in and out of the physical four walls of the enterprise. “We are beginning to expand the definition of who is a mobile worker,” says Larry Klimcyk, vice president of Intermec’s Global Solutions Unit. “It is no longer just Wi-Fi inside the four walls of a distribution center.” Intermec’s solution is a communication layer that manages mobile connections, whether they are a warehouse worker using Wi-Fi, a worker in the yard on a wide area network (WAN) or someone in the field communicating over a cellular network.



About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Executive Editor

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. More recently, Trebilcock became editorial director of Supply Chain Management Review. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.


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