As the warehouse and distribution center (DC) become more and more complex, and as transaction volumes rise, the need for automated technology that can effectively and efficiently manage skyrocketing volumes and roller coaster customer demands has increased exponentially.
To help fill those gaps, hardware and software manufacturers in the automated data collection (ADC) space have been introducing newer and more affordable ways for logistics operations of all sizes to roll out automated solutions within the four walls of their warehouses and DCs.
By definition, automated identification (Auto-ID) and ADC technologies comprise the voice systems, radio frequency identification (RFID), optical character recognition (OCR), radio frequency (RF) terminals, vehicle-mounted computers, and other tools that work independently or in tandem to automate warehouse and DC activities. An unmanned forklift that buzzes around a warehouse moving pallets and delivering goods to dock doors, for example, represents a convergence of both ADC and robotics.
“It’s all about being able to pick faster, pack faster, ship faster, and receive faster by enhancing the warehouse’s levels of automation,” says Michael Liard, an independent analyst and ADC expert. He points to Amazon’s 2012 acquisition of mobile robotic fulfillment systems’ manufacturer Kiva as one example of how retailers are focusing on increased automation in the warehouse. “By bringing unmanned vehicles and robotics into the fold, employees and labor can be assigned to different tasks other than searching for and locating products.”
In addition to the growing number of unmanned robots that are zipping around today’s warehouses, Liard is also seeing more fixed-position barcode scanners and barcode imagers being used on conveyor belts and other pieces of warehouse management equipment.
Used to automatically track and orchestrate shipping and receiving activities, these scanners and imagers are helping logistics operations achieve faster throughput and improved scan times with less worry over barcode-scanner orientation. Add 2-D symbologies and 1-D barcodes to the equation (QR codes), and the potential for business process improvements increases exponentially, according to Liard.
Over the next few pages we’ll explore the increased use of ADC technologies in warehouse and DC operations across the U.S., find out what types of hardware and software are being used to increase throughput and speed delivery times, and explore some of the newer ADC innovations that are on the horizon.
Key ADC drivers
According to David Krebs, executive vice president of enterprise mobility and connected devices for VDC Research, the ADC market is largely being driven by new and emerging compliance requirements.
“Be it vendor and partner compliance, government compliance, or industry compliance, these forces are all key drivers for this industry,” says Krebs. In addition, he says that the ADC technologies themselves are evolving, and with these changes come new opportunities that affect business operations. “Moreover, in today’s age of Big Data and analytics, ADC plays a central role as a conduit of that data,” says Krebs. “Consequently we’re seeing even greater emphasis on end-to-end visibility and traceability.”
In addition, Krebs says that new business models such as omni-channel fulfillment are emerging to better address the needs of today’s consumer. “The impact on data collection technology is great as the operational focus shifts from pallet shipments to fulfilling the ‘perfect order,’” says Krebs.
And while bar code technology remains the primary emphasis when it comes to data collection solutions, Krebs adds that VDC is also seeing greater adoption of other solutions such as RFID—especially in the apparel sector—and Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) solutions from vendors like iBeacon. “However, most of these investments are focused less in the warehouse and more in retail or customer-facing environments.”
While in the past ADC technology investments have been concentrated among large enterprises, Krebs says that, currently, the small to mid-sized business segment accounts for approximately 15 percent to 20 percent of demand within the space. “A focus on modernizing logistics infrastructure is driving demand for ADC solutions as next generation warehouses are developed at all levels,” says Krebs.
On a sector-by-sector basis, Krebs says that the largest portion of demand for ADC is concentrated among retail, transportation and logistics, and manufacturing organizations. “ADC technology is now ubiquitous, especially in core manufacturing, logistics, transportation, and retail sectors,” Krebs notes, adding that primary uses for such technology include inventory management, shipping, and receiving automation, point of sale scanning/checkout, and work-in-progress tracking.
From a technology perspective, Krebs has picked up on a continued shift from laser data collection solutions to imaging technology. “While more pronounced in the more mature regional and country markets, the trend toward imaging extends in virtually every application environment including warehousing, retail, and logistics.”
According to Krebs, imaging technology has overcome prior functionality limitations and provides end users with greater application functionality in the long term. The same trend is also making an impact on stationary scanning applications such as point of sale and over-the-belt scanners.
ADC for the masses
As he surveys the current ADC space, Liard says he sees healthy adoption levels across the board thanks not only to the new innovations that are being introduced, but also to the fact that many of the options have become more affordable.
This affordability has put ADC within closer reach to smaller firms that in the past were tied to their clipboard/pen/radio approach to warehouse and DC management. “Just looking specifically at ADC hardware, and whether it’s scanning technology, barcode printers, or something else, the equipment itself is more affordable and durable,” says Liard.
This improved “ruggedness,” says Liard, has become particularly poignant for today’s logistics operations looking to increase speed on the floor. “The ‘ruggedization’ requirements in the warehouse and logistics space has certainly grown over the last few years, and we’ve seen the vendor community respond accordingly,” he says.
Also helping to buoy the use of automation in the facilities is the proliferation of consumer handheld devices like smartphones and tablets, both of which can now be used in conjunction with “sleds” or other apparatus that make even the most fragile devices more rugged.
“Employees are being armed with consumer-grade devices that most of them are already comfortable using in their personal lives,” says Liard. “You can take an iPhone or an Android tablet, for example, put it into a ruggedized sled, and then use it in a harsh environment like a warehouse or DC. That device can then be used a similar way to more traditional ADC technologies.”
Krebs says that VDC is also closely tracking the increased use of mobile scanning in the warehouse and the DC. “The impact of consumer technology here is great, with organizations looking to leverage ubiquitous smartphones and tablets, especially in the retail sector,” he says. “Software solutions are emerging that turn embedded cameras into more powerful scanners. In addition the ecosystem of third-party scanning peripherals—like sleds and Bluetooth scanners—is only growing.”
Within the four walls, barcode scanners and imagers are also being attached to forklifts and other vehicles in an effort to attain higher levels of automation. “It’s not just workers walking around the DC with their key-ring scanners, mobile computers, or barcode scanners,” says Liard, “but also automated vehicles—some of them manned—equipped with camera-based imagers and long-range bar code laser scanners.”
In the latter scenario, Liard adds that ADC equipment can read at long distances and top-rack heights—and even those 2D symbologies that might be hanging from the ceiling on a placard.
Ahead for ADC
Ultimately, Liard says that advances in ADC support better returns on investment, lower total cost of ownership, and better price points on the equipment and software itself. So, whether a logistics operation invests in a full-blown, robotic solution or simply purchases a few dozen ruggedized sleds to accommodate employees’ existing mobile devices, the road to the completely automated warehouse and DC is getting shorter and shorter every year.
And while interest in ADC-related technologies is clearly on the rise, the rate of adoption remains slow-but-steady. From a mobile device perspective, for example, Krebs says that rugged “brick-styled” devices with full keyboards remain the norm in the warehouse.
“Rugged handheld OEMs are investing more in touch-only devices,” Krebs notes, “which will be popular in logistics and retail environments.” Specifically within the warehouse, he expects continued demand for more traditional keyboard-centric devices, most of which run either Windows Mobile 6.x or embedded CE operating systems.
“With Microsoft discontinuing support for these platforms, we’re seeing a lot of evaluation of alternative solutions among end users, especially Android,” Krebs adds. “Rugged Android adoption is still in its infancy with enterprises concerned about security and manageability. However, these solutions are maturing and we are seeing organizations become more open to this platform.”