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Mobile computing: Flexible mobility

Data collection devices for the warehouse have long been RF enabled and mobile, but heavily focused on simple data capture routines. Now tablets, smart phones and other devices are supporting richer apps and management activity, while wearable, wireless printers give warehouse workers the capability to perform efficient, on-demand printing.

The consumerization of information technology—the trend of smart phones and tablets driving technology more so than business software—is being felt in warehouses and distribution centers. Traditional radio frequency (RF)-enabled data collection devices, either in handheld form or mounted on a lift truck, are still widely used, but newer device types, which include rugged tablets with newer operating systems (OS), are catching on.

“The big advantage of rugged tablets is that now you’re able to present a lot more information than you could with a smaller, rugged mobile computer,” says Dave Green, chief operating officer with Supply Chain Services, a provider of data collection solutions. “Now with a rugged tablet, you can do supply chain monitoring, access management applications and dashboards, and monitor warehouse conditions and labor productivity trends.”

Others agree that DCs call for a mix of mobile device types, from more traditional units to the latest rugged tablets. Mike Maris, senior director of transportation and logistics with Zebra Technologies, says rugged tablets can serve multiple roles. A supervisor can use one, someone doing quality control procedures can use one, but the same model can be mounted to a lift truck where a large, rugged touchscreen is an effective user interface, even if the truck operator must wear gloves for working in cold storage.

Maris agrees that a big advantage of tablets is that they give managers access to dashboards and applications while they are out on the front lines. “Now tablets have become the supervisor’s desktop out on the floor,” says Maris.

The evolution of mobile devices for the warehouse isn’t all about tablets, however, especially consumer-grade devices. After a wave of excitement about consumer smart phones and tablets in DCs, some companies are reverting to highly ruggedized tablets or phones that meet standards such as MIL-STD-810, or they are using them more selectively and pairing them with protective sleds.

Other devices such as smart glasses are also hitting the DC, and on printing side of data collection, smaller, wearable mobile printers are gaining momentum to support processes like reverse logistics. This environment makes for more device choices for users to sift through, but also permits greater flexibility to tackle today’s complexities.

Manage on the go

In a recent survey of warehouse data collection trends that Peerless Research Group (PRG) conducted for Supply Chain Services, the key findings included a significant increase in plans to use rugged industrial tablets, as well plans to access higher level applications such as labor management system (LMS) software.

In the study, 37% of respondents said they had plans to deploy industrial grade tablets, while only 29% planned more consumer grade tablets. Meanwhile, when asked the most important qualities in a device, ruggedness/durability and scanning performance tied as the leading characteristics.

In effect, the shine appears to be off rapid adoption of consumer-grade tablets and smart phones in warehouses, at least for data collection heavy tasks. Green says clients are realizing that while consumer devices might carry a lower initial price point, and have slick user interfaces and a powerful OS, they fall short on qualities like ruggedness, battery life and scan performance.

“Not only do rugged industrial tablets have a long battery life to begin with, they also typically offer a ‘hot swappable’ capability so that if you do run low toward the end of a shift, you can swap out the battery without missing a beat,” says Green. “That’s something you can’t do with consumer-grade devices.”

Bruce Stubbs, director of industry marketing for Honeywell Scanning and Mobility, agrees that for some tasks, a more rugged, industrial handheld or vehicle mount unit (VMU) is best way to go to ensure low total cost of ownership because they last for years, can be powered from lift trucks without special converter gear, and support terminal emulation.

However, for some roles, such as managers or someone doing inventory control, a tablet or smart phone with a protective sled might work well. “There are some instances where a tablet might make sense, but to just use one in typical consumer form without putting it into a sled would become counter-productive,” says Stubbs.

VMUs today are, in many cases, ruggedized tablets that use an OS, such as Android or Windows 7 or 8.1, and have touchscreens. These rugged tablets make it possible for warehouse management system (WMS) suppliers to devise bigger, color-coded displays, maps of the best routes to take in case of bottlenecks, or pictures that show the operator what to pick, says Maris. “You need to think about how to use the fuller capabilities of these larger touchscreens to present color-coded buttons, or graphics, or product images on a screen to support greater speed and accuracy,” he says.

Panasonic’s lineup of Toughbook tablets is seeing use in warehouses both as a VMU and by managers, says Dan Diliberti, Panasonic’s senior category manager for mobility products. The tablets have multiple vehicle mount options, can be detached for mobile use for tasks like receiving or inventory counts, and also can be slipped into a docking station with a keyboard to function as a PC to do e-mail or access reports.

While one product won’t fit all mobility needs in a warehouse, a rugged tablet with scanning capability and mounting/docking options can fill diverse needs that in the past would have required a mix of rugged VMUs, rugged handhelds and more conventional laptops or PCs, contends Diliberti. “What used to take a purpose-built device can now be met by rugged, multi-purpose device,” he says.
It’s important that mobile device providers offer end user organizations a stable product lifecycle so that the user company can buy a device and be sure it will be fully supported for several years without frequent OS upgrades or a push to get onto the next-generation hardware. “Enterprise users want to use their devices for five to seven years,” says Diliberti. “They want stability around the investments they’ve made in the units.”

In rugged form, the consensus is that tablets have their place in the warehouse, especially when it comes to supporting managers who want to get out on the floor to check conditions before pulling the trigger on changes like labor reassignments, says Jason Franklin, Intelligrated’s product manager for labor and business intelligence solutions. “It’s about having information on hand while you’re actually witnessing conditions, so you can make better decisions,” he says. “We call it having actionable information at the point of contact.”

Flexibility = productivity
Of course, multi-channel fulfillment is changing data collection requirements, with more need to track reverse logistics, apply labels to small orders and generally account for more complex movement of goods. In some DCs, notes Stubbs, there are specific dock doors for returned materials, with a staging area near those doors.

For these situations, a rugged RF handheld with a camera-based imager that can capture an image, or scan 1D or 2D codes is a good solution, especially when paired with a small, wearable printer, he adds. “On the fly you can create the right label to put on an item or package being returned so that the next person moving it can scan that label and take it where it needs to go next,” says Stubbs.

These small mobile printers, often called “belt printers,” are widely used in route sales and delivery, says Green, but are seeing increasing use in warehouses because of the productivity benefit of not forcing workers to sift through a stack of preprinted labels to find the right label to apply, or walk to a stationary printer to generate more labels if they’ve run out.

There are multiple reasons why labels might need to be printed on demand, says Green. In receiving, labels might need to be applied to support putaway and inventory control within the DC. And to facilitate crossdocking, there may be labels that need to be applied to goods. Many DCs also see seasonality surges that require expansion of pack/ship lanes, and small mobile printers can be a solution versus installing fixed, wired printers.

For lift truck operators especially, says Green, travel to a fixed printer can be a productivity drain, since they have to stop, park the truck in a safe place, and walk to a print station to get more labels. “With mobile bar code printing, the right labels are being printed on demand, exactly when and where they are needed,” says Green.

One logistics client of Supply Chain Services did a productivity study of how much time could be saved unloading trucks and applying labels to the inbound goods using small mobile printers versus stacks of preprinted labels, says Green. The company found that the time saved was more than 50%.

Another means of efficiently tracking moves is to monitor lift trucks in real time. Real-time locating systems (RTLS) use optical technology and bar codes mounted on a warehouse ceiling to precisely track the movement of lift trucks within up to a 1-inch accuracy, and can generate management reports to identify trends, says Bill Leber, manager of business development for warehouse solutions with Swisslog, which partners with RTLS vendor TotalTrax on an RTLS for lift trucks that integrates with WMS.

By integrating RTLS with WMS, says Leber, it becomes easy to track movement of goods that in the past would have been hard to accomplish without extensive manual inputs into a WMS. For example, many DCs have overflow areas marked off on open floor space where goods can temporarily be placed by lift truck operators if an aisle gets congested or goods can’t be put away for some other reason.

If those trucks are being tracked by an RTLS that is integrated with WMS, all a lift truck operator has to do when leaving goods in an overflow area is to drop the goods and make a quick input that the goods were dropped off. The RTLS automatically conveys to the WMS the exact location of the goods. “Two key benefits we see in the use of RTLS is to have it talking to the WMS and also the management reports,” says Leber. “These two factors bring a greater level of control over your operations.”

Wearable technology
Smart glasses are another new mobile device technology that can be used for order picking. For industrial users, Google Glass smart glasses are available, and so are smart glasses from providers such as Vuzix. For picking, smart glasses can be more productive than conventional RF handhelds because the operation is hands free, says Jan Junker, chief marketing officer for Ubimax, which offers a smart glasses picking solution.

“The primary productivity benefits comes from the hands-free operation,” says Junker. “The users can have their hands free for performing work tasks, but they can still see in the display the information they need for their tasks.”

DHL ran a production pilot using Ubimax’s xPick picking solution at a warehouse in Bergen op Zoom, the Netherlands, that involved filling orders for printer replacement parts. In the three-week pilot, 10 order pickers were equipped with devices from Google and Vuzix, using xPick to replace order picking normally done with pick lists and wireless handheld scanners. DHL measured a 25% average improvement in picking efficiency, says Junker, mainly due to the hands-free operation.

Smart glasses can be used by lift truck operators, says Junker, but the productivity increase versus smart glass picking by pickers on foot tends to be less dramatic. This is because with lift trucks, the picks tend to be further apart, and thus there is more travel time between picks during which the hands-free picking benefit isn’t coming into play. Secondly, adds Junker, a mounted terminal already frees the hands of the operator to some extent.

While smart glasses are new to warehouses, another “hands-free” picking technology—voice solutions—have been widely deployed. “There is still a strong trend to replace RF scanning with voice because of the hands-free benefits,” says Doug Brown, Intelligrated’s director of product strategy for voice solutions. “When it comes to lift trucks, a key advantage of being hands free is that it’s easier to move about the facility safely because operators do not have to take eyes off where they are headed to glance at a screen.”

Intelligrated sees smart warehouse glasses as being in the “early market” stage, but sees potential since they are hands free, says Brown. The company also has worked to “abstract” the hardware “end point” technology for a picking solution from the underlying pick process the end user company wants to achieve, adds Brown. By abstracting the hardware from the process at the warehouse execution system (WES) software level, adds Brown, it’s possible to have one layer of software that can drive different pick technologies, including RF-scanning, voice and pick-to-light.

Ultimately, the market should keep an open mind about mobile devices and data collection for DCs, since no single technology is right for every application. But for sure, the market has changed from the days when mobility meant RF-enabled terminals with small monochrome screens, terminal emulation and laser scanning. As Stubbs concludes, “That’s why we offer a wide variety of solutions, so that we can apply the technology that will enable best practices and deliver lowest cost of ownership.” 

Companies mentioned in this article
Honeywell Scanning and Mobility
Supply Chain Services
Zebra Technologies

Article Topics

Automatic Data Capture
Honeywell Intelligrated
Information Management
Mobile Computing
Supply Chain Services
   All topics

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About the Author

Roberto Michel's avatar
Roberto Michel
Roberto Michel, senior editor for Modern, has covered manufacturing and supply chain management trends since 1996, mainly as a former staff editor and former contributor at Manufacturing Business Technology. He has been a contributor to Modern since 2004. He has worked on numerous show dailies, including at ProMat, the North American Material Handling Logistics show, and National Manufacturing Week. You can reach him at: [email protected].
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