How inexpensive would a supply chain software application have to be before you would give it a try, not knowing whether it would really meet your requirements?
For Tim Markley, the answer to that question was $2.99.
That's what it cost Markley for an application to help run a warehouse management solution on the key new piece of hardware in his company's warehouse.
The hardware? The Apple iPad.
Growing into Distribution
Markley is president of Markley Enterprises, a family-owned, full-service company, in business since 1962, that specializes in the design, production and distribution of sales and marketing support products such as point-of-purchase displays, trade show displays, large format graphics and similar products. Always looking for new and innovative ways to expand the business, about 10 years ago, the Elkhart, Ind.-based company moved from being strictly a manufacturer into operating as a distributor for its customers, too.
"It was kind of like, in the middle of manufacturing, we decided to be a distributor, and those are two very different things," Markley says. "But we felt that we needed to try it out — and it turned out to be really a big advantage for us because we were connected to the inventory, we got to see the usage, we could schedule the way we wanted to, to carry the proper amount of inventory."
Five years ago, with a number of Markley Enterprises' larger customers taking advantage of its distribution services, the company built a separate facility to handle that side of its business. To run the distribution operation, Markley initially extended its proprietary manufacturing system and adapted it to do distribution, a solution that worked for a time. But as technology evolved and customers began asking Markley to provide capabilities like inventory visibility, access to orders and tracking functionality, the company sought out a more specialized solution.
Moving to On-demand
Markley says that in looking for a warehouse management system (WMS) to run his company's operation, he wanted a solution that would put the minimal burden on his internal IT resources. "I've worked with enough of the installed type of system to know that if you're going to go that route, you're probably going to take on an IT responsibility, and I didn't really find that to be appealing," he says. An alternative that he did find appealing, however, was an on-demand inventory management system offered by San Francisco-based SmartTurn, which was acquired in May of this year by Wisconsin-based RedPrairie.
SmartTurn has been an innovator in bringing full-strength warehouse management to "the Cloud," offering receiving and put away, inventory control, order fulfillment, shipping and purchasing functionality accessed through the Web on any Internet-connected computer. On-demand applications in general have won growing acceptance in the mid-market and beyond, including with large enterprises, for their inherently light IT "footprint" within a company's four walls, and that was certainly a key decision factor for Markley. But he says that the SmartTurn/RedPrairie solution's ability to handle multiple tenants within a single warehouse, providing each customer with visibility to their inventory while shielding other customers' data, was also an important factor.
In addition, the decision to go with an on-demand solution enabled Markley Enterprises to avoid moving away from its Apple Mac-centric computer base. "We're heavily into the graphic arts end because of our products, and so we've always been more of a Macintosh-based system than we have been PCs," Markley explains. "When we saw the on-demand inventory system, because it was all browser-based, it took the platform part out of the equation — as long as you could access the Internet, you were in business."
Enter the iPad
Markley Enterprises went live with the RedPrairie On-Demand WMS on January 1 of this year in its 20,000-square-foot warehouse facility. Tim Markley says that his company has seen increased control over its inventory, while also being able to offer customers "self-service" visibility into their inventory, along with customer service information and reports available through the WMS. "Our corporate customers' dealers and distributors order from our online store, and our customers can log into RedPrairie to see their inventory and all their orders," Markley says. "So if they get customer service enquiries on their end, they're able to answer those questions most of the time by just going into the system."
Integration between the online store and the WMS allows orders to be sent out, within seconds of being placed, to the warehouse floor for action. Typically, for Markley Enterprises, that would mean that an employee would pick up an order from a workstation computer before heading out into the warehouse to pick the necessary items. However, Tim Markley discovered that RedPrairie offered a mobile application capable of sending information out to wireless devices on the warehouse floor, and he hit upon the idea of using iPod Touches, the mp3 player with a built-in Web browser and a touch screen, as his mobile device of choice. He says that he preferred the iPod namely because of its touch screen, versus the stylus-driven interactivity he saw in devices based on the Windows Mobile operating system. The only problem with the iPod was that the application was written for Windows Mobile, and so the application screen wound up being difficult to read on the Touch.
Enter the iPad. When Apple's tablet computing platform, with its bright, crisp 9.7-inch (diagonal) screen, debuted at the beginning of April this year, Markley says that he immediately saw its potential in his warehouse. "When the iPad came out, we really felt like we had what we wanted because it gave us more real estate on the screen," he says. Markley promptly bought three entry-level iPads (WiFi-enabled only, with 16GB of memory, retailing at $499 through Apple) to supplement the four iPod Touches being used in the warehouse.
And that's where the three-dollar application entered the picture, too. To get the RedPrairie software running on the iPad, Markley needed an application that would scale the mobile app to fit on the tablet's screen. He found a mobile browser app, written by a Japanese programmer, that did just that on the Apple App Store — for $2.99. "The buttons and everything on it are even in Japanese — we can't even read them," Markley says. "But we're just pushing buttons on the screen furnished in English by the RedPrairie application, so we don't have any problems with the language. If we want to go to inventory, we press the inventory button; if we want to go to fulfillment, we hit the fulfillment button, and it works that easy.
"And," Markley adds, "I wasn't really fearful of making a mistake because for $2.99 it was worth trying."
The Challenge of Innovation
Currently Markley Enterprises has an iPad mounted on a forklift for receiving and put away, and on picking carts within the warehouse for picking orders. Staff pull orders off the WMS, arrange them into a spreadsheet how they want the orders picked, and then e-mail the orders directly to the iPads, each of which has its own e-mail address. The order picker opens up the iPad and brings up the spreadsheet, which tells them which location to go to and how many to pick. "It's paperless and very visual," Markley says, "and it's very easy to use. I'd say that we normally have somebody using it well within an hour or two because it's so intuitive."
Automating order entry by integrating the Web store with the WMS helped Markley Enterprises eliminate employee time previously spent manually entering orders, while the customer self-service capabilities have saved additional time for the company's staff. Arming employees with the tablet computers also has resulted in efficiency gains, according to Markley, who had staff use pedometers to count their steps during a shift, revealing that the mobile devices helped reduce a warehouse worker's steps taken by 30 percent. The iPad also has eliminated reams of paperwork and increased inventory accuracy (up to 99 percent), as workers feed the WMS directly from the tablet with real-time information on items put away and picked. The results have sufficiently impressed Markley that he is looking at introducing the iPad on the production side of his business, too, to track labor time, again using a Web-based application.
Markley is quite open about his affinity for the Mac platform and enthusiastic about finding new ways to apply Apple products in his company. "I think since 1984 I've had at least one of every device Apple has ever made," he says. "I just like the products, and it's intriguing to me to find ways to use them to get things done more efficiently and better. That's the kind of a challenge I always like."
iPad in the Supply Chain
Just weeks after Apple debuted the iPad, Sterling Commerce unveiled the Sterling TMS Carrier Mobile app, which provides carrier users of Sterling's Transportation Management System with the ability to manage shipment tender requests via a mobile device like the iPad or the iPhone. (sterlingcommerce.com)
Since then, other supply chain solution providers have debuted apps for the iPad or demonstrated their solutions running on the tablet. Examples include:
¦ Management Dynamics offers a smartphone client for its supply chain visibility application that lets its clients' partners and customers tap into the application to update a status related to an order or shipment. (managementdynamics.com)
¦ NetSuite for iPhone, available on the Apple App Store, provides mobile access on iPhones and iPads (and iPod Touches) to NetSuite's business management suite, including real-time dashboards, financial and customer data, and activity and task management. (netsuite.com)
¦ Next View Software supports the iPad for its productivity solutions, including labor management and workforce productivity, as well as WMS. (nextviewsoftware.com)
¦ Vormittag Associates, Inc.'s S2K iPad interface (pictured above, also available for the iPhone) provides a company's sales force with mobile access to the company's S2K Enterprise Management Software. (vai.net)
Of course, the iPad isn't the only mobile device at work in the supply chain. Panasonic Solutions Company (panasonic.com), for example, offers the Toughbook U1 ultra-mobile-rugged PC. DC workers can use the Toughbook U1 with an integrated barcode scanner to track cargo as it moves through the warehouse. The U1 also is built to withstand bumps, drops and bruises that can occur in the DC.