Consumer devices expand mobile warehouse management

Inexpensive consumer-grade devices are gradually opening the door to new use cases for mobile warehouse management.

Tablets and smartphones are transforming every corner of the enterprise -- from the front office to the manufacturing floor -- and, slowly yet surely, these devices are making mobile warehouse management more accessible.

"You see a lot of warehouse management system [WMS] vendors offering mobile solutions specifically for tablets and smartphones," said Tom Singer, principal at Tompkins International, a supply chain management consultancy. "However, the transformation in the warehouse isn't going to be sudden, because mobile has been in the warehouse for years, in the form of relatively expensive RF [radio frequency] handheld devices."

From RF to mobile devices

While ruggedized RF units are well suited for warehouse applications, next-generation tablets and smartphones do offer a number of advantages, specifically in the areas of cost, integration with other core business systems, and the ability to visually communicate information in a way that's more impactful than what can be displayed in the small real estate of a text-oriented RF terminal screen, Singer said.

As a result, he sees modern-day mobile devices slowly replacing some traditional RF handhelds for specialty applications or, in some cases, for broader use if a company wants a more cost-effective alternative. "Depending on if it's a handheld or wearable model, an RF terminal can cost a couple of thousand dollars, and an iPhone or Android is significantly cheaper than that," Singer explained. "The warehouse is a harsh environment, but some people question whether they really need a device to survive a drop from 12 feet high or to keep dust particles out if they can get away with iPad."

Salt Lake City-based human resource consulting and services company O.C. Tanner is eyeing iPads and other tablets as a more cost-effective alternative to RF terminals, noted Dan Murphy, supply chain systems analyst for the firm. More importantly, these devices open the door to new use cases, given the larger screen size and familiar user experience.

"Users are familiar with the iPad at home, so it makes a lot of sense to let them use the iPad at work," Murphy said. "It's all about allowing the user to be comfortable and familiar with what they're using."

New mobile warehouse management use cases

Familiarity aside, the new class of iOS, Android and Windows mobile devices advance the ball when it comes to visualizing what's going on in the warehouse, guiding workers on what to do next or providing managers with a snapshot of data to aid in real-time decision making. Mark Fralick, president of GetUsROI, a firm specializing in WMS consulting and implementations, pointed to some notable examples of these advancements. Specialty apps might highlight workflow bottlenecks using red, yellow and green indicators, Fralick explained, or serve up visual instructions on how to handle exceptions.

"They provide uses with a more natural interface to the rest of the business systems, compared with the older text-oriented, siloed systems," Fralick said. "They also better integrate with sensor alerts or allow warehouse workers to hook into Skype to have a conversation with someone in lieu of walkie-talkies. I don't see them having impact for the average forklift driver or pack-out guy, but more for high-end users that share data and want to integrate current business workflows."

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Using tablets and smartphones to track deliveries as they come into the warehouse instead of RF terminals is another sound use case for consumer-grade mobile technology, noted Steve Phillips, an independent supply chain consultant. "A lot of companies have very remote warehouses where it's not really cost-justified to put in a complete RF network," he explained. "It's a cost-effective way to get communication going and track shipments once they leave the distribution center."

There is also potential for leveraging new mobile devices and apps to help warehouse management. Instead of a warehouse manager having to physically be in their office or at a PC station to run a report in the WMS, the ability to roam the aisles, device in hand, and pull up reports and have quick access to key performance indictors facilitates real-time decision making, said Ken Mullen, a partner with supply chain consulting firm Envista Corp.

The touchscreen, camera and video capabilities of mobile devices also come in handy for a range of tasks, from taking pictures of damaged products as they come in and out of the warehouse to running video clips that provide instruction in a particular workflow, such as the proper way to pick an order, Mullen said.

While the new devices definitely deliver, there will be cultural hurdles getting managers that have become comfortable parking themselves at PC workstations to transition to a mobile workflow. "There's the cultural shift for a warehouse manager to carry around a tablet more so than any technology limitations," said Ian Hobkirk, managing director at supply chain consultancy Commonwealth Supply Chain Advisors. "As they get more comfortable with the technology in their personal life, we will start to see that shift."

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