It used to be that you could rely on the collective knowledge of yourself and your colleagues to get the job done. Now that machines do part of the work and commerce operates on a more frenzied pace, however, not only do tasks need to be accomplished faster, but they are also a different set of tasks. In fact, it seems impossible to put in a full days’ work without accessing a database or dashboard. And now that it’s easy to connect to the Internet from virtually anywhere, it’s easier than ever to find the answer to your question or solution to your problem with the hardware that’s connecting you to the software or application that holds the key to your particular quandary.
While this hardware technology was originally made for techies and gadget geeks, the equipment is gaining ubiquity throughout the warehouse and distribution center (DC) in one form or another. Mobile computers and tablets, smartphones and wearables, which are essentially vehicles for information and applications, can reduce safety hazards, accelerate employee training, and enhance human and machine communication. Warehouse and DC employees are gaining from the abundance of hardware, but, of course, it is only as good as the applications and software running on it. There are countless options that are compatible with contemporary tablets, smartphones and wearables to choose from.
Bruce Stubbs, the director of supply chain marketing at Honeywell Sensing and Productivity Solutions, says, “There are a variety of applications that can run on these warehouse devices. Most DCs utilize a warehouse management system (WMS) or warehouse control system (WCS) that manages work process-directed tasks for inbound [logistics], outbound [logistics], inventory control and labor management in real time. The devices give workers the ability to communicate with these systems in real time and allow them to access multiple systems—WMSs, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, transportation management systems (TMS), yard management systems (YMS), labor management systems (LMS), etc.
“Other edge software can be accessed from the devices easily as well, or even come packaged with the device as a total solution, and can include document imaging software, address verification software, vehicle performance software, device management software and more.” The possibilities are endless.
Hardware that Benefits Your Hard Workers
What employees really gain through the use of mobile computers, smartphones and wearables—which can include everything from digital eyewear to ring scanners—is access to real-time information. Data is increasingly valuable in the warehouse and DC, especially as customer expectations escalate to include very short shipping turnaround times due to increasing competition form large e-tailers like Amazon. In warehouse and DC environments, conditions are ever-changing, so being able to consult with a WMS, on a moment’s notice, to determine if an order got out the door on time is beneficial. According to Stubbs, “With data accessible in real time and shared across multiple systems, the workforce and the management team are able to make proactive, informed decisions based upon actionable intelligence as opposed to reacting later to historical information.”
The most touted benefit that hardware bestows upon users is productivity. The ability to have a hardware device on you at all times—and all the data you need at your fingertips—eradicates the paper-based orders and spreadsheets that cause headaches and delays when they can’t be located easily, and saves on unnecessary travel throughout the warehouse or DC, which has more impact the larger the facility is. In addition to saving time, eliminating unnecessary motion in the warehouse and DC reduces worker fatigue and the risk of accidents, especially when you consider the other employees, lift trucks, etc. that are crisscrossing the aisles of inventory. In turn, this can improve employee morale and wellbeing.
“The greatest benefit of using automated data capture solutions for distribution workflows is the documented significant increases in productivity, accuracy and employee well-being,” concurs Stubbs. “Traditional paper-based and manual methods introduce greater error and wasted effort in accomplishing the workflow tasks. By automating manual data-entry processes—traditionally paper-based efforts—DC operators can typically experience up to 50 percent improvements in productivity. We have seen documented accuracy levels increase to 99.99+ when deploying automated data capture over manual data-entry processes, which eliminates a lot of the rework associated with error correction.
“The cost savings are derived from the accumulation of the gains in productivity, accuracy and management effectiveness,” Stubbs continues, “This can help DC operations contribute to the company’s bottom line by reducing overall operating costs and increasing customer satisfaction levels. While all types of DCs benefit from implementing automated data capture solutions, the largest and most complex operating environments, by default, show a greater return on investment (ROI) quicker due to the amount of material typically handled and the larger workforces deployed. The more complex the warehouse operations are, the faster and greater the ROI tends to be. However, operations of all types achieve significant levels of ROI when deploying automated data capture solutions to replace manual processes. These ROI timeframes are usually less than 18 months, with some of them being achieved in as little as nine months.”
While wearables may seem like a buzzword, these devices have been around since the ‘90s. This kind of hardware is growing in popularity because it allows warehouse and DC employees to work their data capture devices without tying up their hands, which improves their productivity and efficiency. It’s much easier to pick and pack stock-keeping units (SKUs) when you’re not toiling with a clipboard or scanner. While it may not seem like a burdensome or time-consuming task, picking up, putting down and locating a scanner hundreds of times throughout the day not only takes a toll on worker fatigue, but also reduces operational speed.
“The trend is toward hands-free technologies—such as wearables and voice solutions—to drive greater productivity and accuracy while promoting safety, ergonomics and employee morale,” says Stubbs. By definition, wearables are hands-free devices (although a user may wear a scanner or mobile computer on their finger, wrist, glasses, etc.), but voice technology can be available for most hardware.
Voice direction permits near real-time, two-way communication, which helps facilitate tasks that require immediate attention and other event-based needs.
Rugged Devices for Industrial Environments
For these devices to be useful, they should not only be intuitively easy to operate, but also rugged enough to perform in the tough industrial environments of warehouses and DCs. When looking to purchase new hardware, make sure to seek out industrial-grade devices unless they will only be used for commercial environments or light-duty applications. Even then, tread carefully and be sure to add aftermarket protection such as screen protectors or smartphone cases. “The market is inundated with hardware solutions. While smartphones and other commercial-grade devices are being tested by some companies for DC workflows, they are proving to lack the ruggedness to consistently perform optimally in the DC environment,” warns Stubbs.
“Rugged, purpose-built devices are still the best option for optimal performance and workflow efficiency,” he continues. “These include both handheld and vehicle-mounted mobile computers, wearables utilizing mobile computers and Bluetooth ring scanners, wearables utilizing voice technology and sleds that enhance commercial devices to perform more like rugged devices.”
What Capabilities Are Available?
“These devices can be simple, with features that provide basic functionality for scanning one-dimensional (1D) barcodes (laser scan engines) to improve efficiencies, or they can be quite extensive in the functionality provided to enhance multiple workflows across the entire operation.”
According to Bruce Stubbs, the director of supply chain marketing at Honeywell Sensing and Productivity Solutions, “Advanced features allow the workforce to perform optimally without interruption at the point of process with an enhanced user experience.” Some of these more advanced features on the market include:
- Imaging technology, as opposed to laser technology, to read both 1D and two-definition (2D) barcodes. These imaging devices can also come with near/far reading capabilities to support workers who need to scan information up close and at greater distances.
- Optical character recognition (OCR) technology, which permits scanners to read text from paper, whether printed, typed or handwritten, and translate it into a data format that can be digitally manipulated.
- Direct part marking (DPM) capabilities, which means that the hardware contains imagers that can read barcodes that are imprinted directly into the surface of materials like plastic or metal.
- Camera capabilities to document quality or damage conditions.
- Embedded radio frequency identification (RFID) readers to capture information quickly from multiple sources that contain RFID labels or tags.
- High motion tolerance for scanning while in motion.
- Extended battery life.
- The ruggedness to perform in the harshest of environments (including those that may be dirty, wet or hazardous).