Mobile devices for warehouse inventory management come in a bewildering variety. They range from barcode scanners to voice-recognition units to radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. They have touch screens and keyboards and can be held by hand, worn, or mounted on forklifts. All-in-one or standalone, they are often powered by a desktop-class computer.
Mobile data collection software is the glue that ties this warehouse management infrastructure together. It's also the user interface that workers see every day and the forms that manage data. Software is a make-or-break component in warehouse management. Bert Moore, director of communications and media relations for AIM, an association of automatic identification and mobility vendors, explained the key issues to consider.
"Companies have two options in developing mobile data collection: fully functioning programs on the mobile device or thin client," Moore said. "Full programming on the mobile device allows for continued activity in the event of wireless disconnect." But they pose challenges to the IT department, including updating each devices' software and developing applications that differ significantly.
The reverse tends to be true for thin-client software. "Thin client simplifies software/hardware maintenance issues but usually requires 100-percent wireless uptime, and does require more wireless bandwidth," said Moore. But greater flexibility makes it easier to redirect workers to different tasks without physically reprogramming each device.
Communication technologies for mobile data collection
The standards for mobile data collection software typically involve wireless communication technologies such as WiFi. The issues center on whether communication will take place in a TelNet session, or whether Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption or some other method will be employed. Some software packages translate screen prompts to speech (and back again) using TelNet or SSL, according to Moore.
Each data collection terminal must conform to the host's requirements. "Each product varies in how it deals with specific standards, but because there are standards, communication can be fairly transparent," he said. "Ease of setting up sessions, however, varies with product vendor.
"Many mobile computers use some version of Windows but some host systems are still legacy green screens. Making these devices communicate effectively sometimes requires a third-party application running on a PC or Mac or on the mobile data collection device itself."
Moore recommended analyzing your infrastructure's ability to support such consumer devices as Blackberrys and Apple iPhones, which are growing more popular as platforms for specialized business applications.
Moore offered this other advice on choosing mobile devices:
- Understand your operation from the worker's perspective, and get their input into device selection. Engage them in the selection and evaluation process.
- Evaluate the equipment's ruggedness, key placement, and screen readability under various lighting conditions. If it has a touch screen, find the workers with the biggest and smallest fingers in the workplace to test the screen's usability.
About the author: Freelancer David Essex has covered information technology for BYTE, Computerworld, PC World, and numerous other publications and web sites.