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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.
By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
March 01, 2011

Voice recognition
Intermec’s intention to acquire Vocollect illustrates how voice is moving from a standalone solution to an integrated approach to order fulfillment. “Voice is coming of age to the point that it is now considered in the design of the warehouse,” says Joe Pajer, Vocollect’s CEO.

It is changing in other ways as well. Voice was once only available on dedicated hardware from voice solution providers. Today, voice solutions can be accessed on a variety of devices and from a variety of providers. It is also working in multi-modal situations with bar code scanning and data entry.

“At the end of the day, a smart phone, a ruggedized mobile device and a PDA are interchangeable,” says Scott Yetter, president and CEO of Voxware. “Regardless of the method of data collection, it’s all just data to the system.” For that reason, Yetter expects voice to eventually expand outside the warehouse to applications such as delivery confirmation.

“Business requirements and not hardware should be determining the optimal way to collect information,” Yetter says. “That’s part of the whole market maturation.”

As mobile technologies converge, a concept taking shape is the distinction between the mobile worker, the mobile application and mobile content. In the early stages of mobility, technology was focused on enabling a mobile worker by making applications available wherever the worker went. The next evolution is the idea of mobile content—that is the ability to collect and deliver the same data in multiple ways. “There’s an ad that shows a guy taking a television off the wall and putting it in his pocket,” says Chris Sweeney, vice president of sales and marketing for Lucas Systems. “The idea is that the content is mobile and can be delivered in a variety of ways, depending on where the worker is located.”

In the context of a factory or warehouse, the goal is to push out information traditionally associated with a PC or laptop as mobile content on a voice application. Instead of just enabling the mobile worker, the technology is moving toward enabling the mobile management team. “The last thing you want is a supervisor stuck behind a desk,” says Sweeney. “If you have 12 waves on the floor and two are falling behind schedule based on their progress, there’s no reason you can’t send a voice alert to a supervisor that a specific wave or even specific employees have fallen behind or that a supervisor couldn’t call in a short to the WMS.”

Supply chain software and automated materials handling
No one is talking about delivering a complete enterprise resource planning (ERP) or WMS to a smart phone­—at least not yet­—but software providers are beginning to look at their suite of applications and ask: What slices of functionality can we move from the desktop to a mobile device like a smart phone? They are developing the ability to go outside of the warehouse with warehouse information, and provide the ability to react to that information, make a decision and then execute a solution.

SAP, for instance, is focused on creating applications for reporting and decision support. These apps combine event management and alerts that something has gone awry with functionality that allows someone to address an issue. “Instead of just sending an alert to a pager that a dock door didn’t open, I can provide the functionality to reschedule a truck to another dock door,” says Karen Peterson, vice president of supply chain execution solution management for SAP.  “And I can do that whether I’m in the warehouse, at home in the middle of the night or down the street at lunch.”

The leading WMS providers are make similar strides.

• Manhattan Associates is focusing on workers who may have an inventory management function outside of the reliable RF infrastructure within the warehouse. That may be a worker receiving inventory in a crossdock application, for instance, who loses connectivity when he steps into a trailer but still needs to scan bar codes to receive merchandise. “We have an application that continues to capture information while the worker is offline,” says Scott Fenwick, senior director of product strategy. “When the worker steps out of the trailer and reconnects with the RF infrastructure, we automatically update the system the same way your Blackberry updates e-mails and messages.”

• Like SAP, RedPrairie is focused on delivering information, but also allowing the user to take actions as well. “If I’m cycle counting and find that there’s only 10 items where there is supposed to be 12, I’ll be able to update the database there from my phone,” says John Spencer, a technical consultant.

• HighJump has opened an app store to deliver functionality, like a forklift inspection check list, to mobile phones or pads. “The idea is to look at functionality that may be important to some users, but not all,” says Chad Collins, vice president of marketing and strategy. “Instead of including that functionality in the standard product, the ones who want it can download it very quickly and turn it on. The others don’t have to have it in their application.”

Leading automated materials handling providers are also delivering pieces of their warehouse control systems to mobile devices.

• Intelligrated has put together an app that delivers alerts to maintenance personnel when a piece of equipment fails. What’s new is the ability to access a video that shows how to swap out the failed part, bring up schematics and drawings, and even dial in to an electronic catalog to order a replacement part, all from a mobile device. Similarly, the warehouse control system can deliver reports to management-level phones, allowing them to dial in and see what’s going on in the system from wherever they are located.

• Dematic is also developing apps based on its warehouse control systems. One example is an app that will provide track and trace capabilities, alerts and warehousing monitoring to smart phones. “We’ll provide a map of the warehouse on the phone that you can zoom in and out of,” says Mary Elliott, manager of software development. “If you need your rates for the day, or need to know what’s going on in a particular area of the warehouse, you’ll be able to do that.” At the same time, the system will allow a supervisor to take corrective action, such as moving resources from one picking area to another, from the mobile device.

“Computing is ubiquitous now,” says Elliott. “Everyone expects it to be available everywhere. Our customers can order from on their phone. They don’t understand why they can’t use our products from their phones. Our industry has no choice but to change and go mobile.” 

Companies interviewed for this article
ARC Advisory Group,
HighJump Software,
Lucas Systems,
Manhattan Associates,
Motorola Solutions,
Newcastle Systems,

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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About the Author

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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