Warehouse and DC Management: 4 ADC Trends

Automated data capture (ADC) products and solutions are established and proven, but they’re changing to help meet the pressures of today’s omni-channel fulfillment environment.

Technologies and devices for automatic data capture (ADC) are about as proven as technology gets in the supply chain. Rugged, wireless handheld scanners, vehicle mount scanners, and bar code printers are mainstay solutions for getting processes done faster, better and cheaper in warehousing and logistics.

However, that doesn’t mean, that ADC solutions aren’t changing, because they are—and like almost everything else in supply chain management, the reason behind the change is omni-channel fulfillment. The ADC solution market is adapting to needs that include much more item-level or “each” picking, more forward bin locations and stock-keeping units (SKUs) to select from, and bigger warehouses and DCs to navigate.

Supervisors want mobile access to applications to tweak labor resources and monitor real-time trends while walking the DC, while returns processing has become a complicated process that requires data collection and sorting of saleable product from bad. Customer and regulatory requirements around traceability and package conditions have also become more demanding.

Meanwhile, out in the field with various delivery, route sales, field service, and other mobile processes, all of those orders need to be delivered on-time and with the proper documentation—which includes scanning of items, signatures and returns pickups. Mobile workforces might also need to print labels on demand, and access alerts and applications.

Combine all these needs, and you have ADC requirements that exceed what used to be the norm. As a result, ADC products are changing, with newer operating systems, touchscreens, rugged tablets and smart phones, mobile printers and wearables that enable improved approaches to common logistics tasks such as picking. To find out more about these ADC trends, Logistics Management spoke with experts from VDC Research, an analyst firm known for its tracking of the ADC market, and Tompkins International, a supply chain consulting firm.

Overall, the ADC market is healthy and growing. VDC estimates the five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for handheld barcode scanners to be 3% to 4% through 2019 within the U.S. logistics and transportation market. Some other categories have an even faster CAGR in this market, such as mobile thermal printers (7% to 8%), and rugged mobile computers (5% to 6%). While there are numerous ADC trends at play, what follows are four worth watching.

TREND 1: Adapting consumer devices
The impact of the “consumerization” of information technology (IT) can be seen in the ADC market. While the market has long been dominated by “purpose-built” devices that combine scanning and keyboard input in rugged enclosures, the availability of highly capable consumer mobile devices has led to their adaptation for ADC tasks.

VDC calls this trend “mobile scanning,” says Richa Gupta, director of auto ID and data capture at VDC Research. Mobile scanning spans three approaches to leveraging consumer devices:

  • use of small form factor scanners, called “companion scanners” by some providers, that pair with a consumer device like a smart phone or tablet;

  • use of sleds or dongles that attach to a consumer mobile device to give it scanning capability; and

  • using the camera in a consumer device for scanning purposes, typically with the help of application development using a software development kit for the device platform to achieve better scan performance.

While mobile scanning is gaining some use in sectors such as retail, says Gupta, at this point, these approaches tend to be better suited to low-volume scanning applications. “It comes down to what is suitable for a specific application,” says Gupta. “For heavy-volume scanning, the rugged, purpose-built devices still have the edge.”

Because of the heavy volume of item picking and use of temporary labor with e-commerce fulfillment, some DCs are looking for ways to adapt low-cost consumer devices to make them effective for warehouse tasks, says Tom Singer, a principal with Tompkins International. “Some operations are challenged by price point of traditional devices, so there is interest in finding ways to adapt lower priced devices for work in the warehouse,” he says. “So you see a lot of interest in Android or even iOS devices for supply chain applications.”

Sleds and dongles for consumer devices are being tested and used by some DC operations or logistics companies, says Singer, but there are challenges involved. For one, the scan function needs to be fast enough for the application, and if the device lacks a dedicated keyboard and must rely on touchscreen “soft” keyboard, then a purpose-built scanner might still win out for productivity reasons.

Some companies have experimented with using consumer Android devices mounted as a wearable, says Singer, but have run into challenges such as not being able to adequately control screen orientation. Factors like scan throughput, ruggedness, keyboard input needs, and how devices will integrate with supply chain execution solutions such as warehouse management systems (WMS) all need to be weighed when examining consumer mobile devices for possible ADC use, concludes Singer.

“Consumer devices will make their mark simply because of the attractive price point, but anyone considering them for the warehouse floor should take a good look at their suitability for the intended use in the operation,” says Singer.

TREND 2: A new take on traditional
Rugged wireless scanners and vehicle mount units remain the de facto standard for higher volume ADC tasks in DCs, but that doesn’t mean they’re standing still from a technology standpoint. In many cases, notes Gupta, ADC equipment vendors now have devices that run on Android, and they are pushing larger touchscreen devices for some applications.

In effect, the purpose-built data collection device of today may have a lot in common with a consumer device, but more in keeping with the requirements found in the logistics market. “The build quality is rugged because that is what the warehouse operators are really looking for, but in terms of a look and feel, the traditional vendors are designing these units to be as easy to use as a consumer device like a smart phone,” says Gupta.

Purpose-built scanners and handhelds also differ from the units of the past in that they’re much more likely to have a camera or image-based scan engine, rather than a simple laser scanner for reading 1D barcodes. With a 2D scan engine, DC workers can capture images of product shipments and packages as they enter or leave a point in the supply chain, notes Gupta, an increasingly important requirement due to e-commerce.

Singer agrees that major ADC device vendors have seen the appeal of consumer mobile devices, and are trying to address that interest in part via rugged units that run on platforms like Android or newer versions of Windows. “The traditional vendors are offering some attractive solution sets, but still they tend to carry a higher price point than consumer devices.”

For some applications, such as transportation, rugged tablets are a good fit, adds Singer. “Transportation is less scan-intensive than a DC, and you also need a device that is good for access applications and capturing electronic signatures,” Singer says.

Another great fit for rugged tablets is for use by managers in DC or logistics operations, says Singer. “So for supervisors, a tablet basically allows them to take their desktop applications out on the floor and also have access to alerts and key performance indicators,” he says. “So for managers, a tablet offers some distinct advantages through its mobility and form factor.”

Tablets, even rugged ones, aren’t generally considered desirable for DC associates whose main tasks involve a lot of scanning, However, in transportation, a rugged tablet can be paired with a companion scanner and may be capable of handling the expected scanning needs, says Gupta. “For lower-volume, occasional scanning, [a tablet] could work,” says Gupta.

Another possible use for a tablet would be to use a tablet app to mimic a pick-to-light (PTL) system on a cart, says Singer. Under this scenario, an app running on a tablet would show the picker which cart slot to place an item in, in essence serving a lower-cost version of cart-based PTL system. The caveats to such uses, adds Singer, is that it would have to be thoroughly tested, and, ideally, the end user organization’s WMS provider would be involved in supporting the needed interface.

TREND 3: Mobile printers on the rise
Mobile, belt-worn printers have long been widely used in field service, route sales, and other mobile environments, but they’re also starting to see use in DCs, where their mobile “on-demand” operation carries the benefit of eliminating the need for workers to walk or otherwise travel to a stationary printer to retrieve a stack of labels.

“It helps out with productivity because now workers don’t have to travel to stationary printers that, within these enormous warehouses, could involve some distance and time,” says Gupta. “With mobile printers, workers have access to the labels, receipts or other types of documents, right from where they are standing.”

Like nearly every ADC hardware trend, however, the suitability of belt-worn printers comes back to the application requirement. If you need to churn out hundreds or thousands of the same bar code or label, or have a point in a DC operation well-suited for a print-and-apply station, a mobile printer is not the best option, adds Gupta. But the attractiveness of small, mobile printers can be seen in the growth outlook—a CAGR through 2019 of nearly 8%.

TREND 4: Heads-up on wearables
Wearable tech such as smart glasses are not taking over the world of consumer IT, but in enterprise circles, wearable devices are starting to find a niche. For ADC applications, wearables including ring scanners and other wrist or finger mounted units, head-mounted displays, and hip-mounted products are growing at a CAGR of 6% to 7%, according to VDC.

For applications such as order picking, wearables hold interest because they free operators to focus on the task at hand, notes Singer. “With wearables such as smart glasses, the operation is not only hands-free, but it’s also heads up,” says Singer. “The operators are concentrating on their tasks [with glasses], not looking at a terminal.”

High cost has been an adoption barrier for wearables, says Singer, but costs of products such as ring scanners have come down slightly. Even so, Singer adds, outfitting a large labor force with ring scanners tends to be expensive, but also carries “a huge potential productivity gain” versus more traditional methods.

Smart glasses hold interest because a glasses display can potentially be leveraged to give additional visual cues to operators in what amounts to an “augmented reality” approach to picking. However, says Singer, such uses need careful testing, and any end-user company would have pilot vision-based picking to see if it worked with their execution systems.

“If I ran a lot of warehouses, I’d keep my eye on this type of application, but generally, it needs to be more proven,” says Singer. “It needs to mature.”

Voice picking solutions also deliver productivity benefits by allowing hands-free, heads-up operation, says Singer, and are proven in the marketplace. However, voice picking with proprietary, belt-worn terminals have tended to be relatively expensive, he adds, which has opened the door to voice picking solutions that allow for a more open choice of hardware, with some even using consumer-grade Android devices.

Again, open hardware voice picking needs to be carefully evaluated, adds Singer, with one major concern being how well it will interface with a WMS. A closed system may cost a bit more, he adds, but if it’s proven hardware with an “out-of-the-box” integration to WMS. That tends to be important to operators of DCs who want a low-risk solution.

Proceed at your pace
Use of ADC technology is becoming more innovative, with more device variations and valuable potential uses. Consumer mobile technology has exerted a positive influence on the ADC market, pushing traditional ADC vendors to offer their own rugged spins on consumer devices, and create a market for sleds, dongles and companion scanners to make consumer gear enterprise capable.

The market for ADC equipment, however, doesn’t change overnight. User companies that have purpose-built, rugged handhelds or VMUs that are several years old and still working fine are not likely to ditch their gear just because there is a slick new Android device in an ADC vendor’s lineup. At the same time, they may need to consider new devices if a new need arises, such as new warehouse operation, or new requirements around 2D codes or image capture. 

In other words, adoption of new ADC gear typically needs to follow each user organization’s pace of change. As Gupta explains: “These [ADC] decisions are not made overnight, especially given the scope of an operation, how many operators might be involved, and the training needs, along with the upfront investment in the equipment.”

The bottom line: It comes down to what stage of the lifecycle your existing devices are in, says Gupta. “Are they requiring more maintenance than you want? And, are the devices still capable of meeting the application or customer requirements?” Answering those questions can help companies plot their next move on ADC products and solutions. •

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