Today’s ultra competitive business environment, coupled with the current state of our economy, has challenged most companies to do more with less. This is certainly true for distributors managing warehouse and distribution center operations that already operate with razor thin margins.
For distributors, “operating with less” translates into less warehouse space, less inventory, fewer resources and a smaller budget to invest in technology. A tall order, especially when it is technology in the warehouse that often drives efficiencies and enables reductions in required warehouse space, inventory levels and resources. With this as the baseline, it is critical that the budget allocated for technology investments be targeted and spent wisely.
In order to operate warehouse and distribution center operations more efficiently, distributors will leverage their existing investment in warehouse management systems to optimize space and resources. Options that provide improvements in warehouse accuracy and productivity will be targets of technology investments. One option that should be considered is upgrades in radio frequency equipment that will provide for hands-free activity on the warehouse floor. Let’s take a closer look at three of today’s hands-free options and some of the benefits they each offer.
Wearable Mobile Computers
Wearable mobile computers are a hands-free option that has been around for a number of years. This option may also be the easiest way to enable hands-free operations in the warehouse. Wearable computers are just as the name implies: devices that are attached to the body. These devices are typically attached to the forearm, a shoulder strap or hip-flip style holster. Since the wearable computer is attached to the body, there is no requirement for the worker to pick up, remove or re-holster the device during or after use, therefore making it hands-free. Configurations typically include a screen, keyboard, battery and scanner. Forearm mounted devices are often configured with a tethered ring scanner that is attached to the finger.
While the obvious benefit of wearable computers is that they free up a worker’s hands for more productive use, there are some less obvious benefits as well. In most cases this equipment will operate with the existing warehouse management system without requiring any software changes or retraining of users. There is often less damage to the devices from being dropped, and there is less time lost locating misplaced equipment. For many reasons, the use of wearable mobile computers can yield both an increase in productivity and accuracy.
When evaluating a wearable computer there are a number of factors to be considered to ensure you select the right wearable for your environment. These include: scan distance requirements; ergonomics such as screen and keypad size, keypad layout and weight as it relates to fatigue and comfort; and environmental factors such as temperature and other elements.
Voice-enabled Wearable Mobile Computers
Voice-enabled wearable mobile computers offer another hands-free option. Where the wearable computer option without voice improves hands-free operation, a voice-only wearable implementation can yield a 100 percent hands-free solution. A voice-only setup typically involves a wearable computer that is attached to the user’s belt. This computer is equipped with a headset but no screen, keypad or scanner. While voice-enabled solutions are often integrated and implemented as part of a warehouse management system, the lines often get blurred and some companies have chosen to implement a voice solution independent of a full-blown warehouse management system.
As with the wearable computer implementation, the first recognizable benefit of a voice-only implementation is that it frees up a worker’s hands. However, in this case, the workers hands become 100 percent free. Damage that occurs to a device from being dropped is practically eliminated, as is the time spent locating misplaced equipment. Eyes and hands are totally free to focus on voice-directed work activities, creating a more focused worker and the opportunity for that worker to be more accurate and productive.