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New kids on the blocks


Anywhere-to-anywhere connectivity will simplify communications for logistics professionals while posing new challenges for business software and hardware vendors. Armed with the latest browser- and wireless-Web-enabled smartphones and tablet computers, practitioners can now access data, activate business applications as well as send and receive alerts without resorting to sophisticated handheld tools.

“Many small and medium-sized business owners are tempted to use consumer-grade remote devices instead of industrial grade ones to run their operations,” says Dan Bivona, sales director of Ronkonkoma, N.Y.-based Vormittag Associates (VAI). “One of our customers uses an iPad rather than a scanning gun to read product bar codes in stores to help determine which items to order.”

Saving money is driving the switch. The newest smartphones and tablet computers – aka productivity devices – sell for about $500 while professional hand-held devices can cost more than $1,000.

Some believe that the days of supply chain management software accessible only through sophisticated remote hardware are coming to an end. “Many users of our transportation management system (TMS) are small and medium-sized carriers,” says Ken Ramoutar, vice-president of product and industry marketing at Dublin, Ohio-based Sterling Commerce, an IBM company. “Before, they avoided buying the software because of the high cost of the specialized hardware.  

“But now that is accessible on consumer-oriented remote devices, more carriers are buying the application.”

But some hardware vendors disagree. “We’re not seeing that happening,” says Jon Rasmussen, marketing director of computer strategy at Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based Intermec. “If companies are doing it, they tend to be first-time logistics software adopters who were working off paper documents.”

Rasmussen stresses that using everyday cell phones for business purposes is a false economy. “Consumer-grade devices are cool, cheap and light,” he says.

“But their failure rate is 30% to 80% in the first year.

“Most warehouses have harsh environments, so companies need equipment that will survive those conditions – not to mention user abuse.” They include hot and cold temperatures, humidity, dirt, dust and errant electric signals, not to mention wayward forklift trucks and clumsy employees.

In the world of handheld industrial devices, Intermec products are more like Hummers than SUVs. “We sell tools, not computers,” he says. “Short of having a forklift truck drive over one of our handhelds or the forklift falling off the loading dock, our equipment will still work.”

To update its product line, Intermec recently launched the CS 40 ruggedized tool that, besides having a useful life of three to five years, can also withstand dust and splashed liquids as well as a four-foot drop onto a concrete floor. At around US$900 each, it is pricier than typical smartphones or netbooks.

Such durability helps reduce the total cost of ownership. According to Rasmussen, the CS 40 offers all the benefits of a smartphone plus greater productivity. Employees can get more work done by avoiding the hassles of constantly replacing consumer-grade devices that also involves time spent on transferring data and loading new software onto replacement devices.

Nevertheless, professional handheld devices will likely have to make room for the upstart gadgets. According to Jim Burleigh, San Francisco-based senior vice-president of on-demand solutions at RedPrairie, “The new technology makes it possible for firms to mix and match the devices they can use to access systems remotely more quickly, conveniently and at lower cost.”

Current users are primarily 3PLs and manufacturers that need the flexibility to track and monitor inventory from the field. According to RedPrairie spokesperson Albert Fong, food service and wholesale distribution companies are also seeing increased usage. 

“They use devices such as netbooks, tablets and iPads as well as the traditional barcode readers,” he says. “The ease of implementation which comes from the on-demand approach provides an extra incentive. 

“On the flipside, their customers enjoy the visibility that our solution provides, and they can also access this information from anywhere on numerous mobile devices. If you’re a 3PL, for example, you can input information and make changes as needed, while your customers can view that information in real-time.”

In this way, major logistics software developers are all riding on the coattails of the exponential growth of ever more powerful consumer devices to expand access points to their products and services.

Ramoutar outlines Sterling Commerce’s two-prong strategy for mobile business applications. The first is to manage logistics operations such as product fulfillment. The second is to link companies and their external partners through secure file transfers to support common supply chain management functions.

Overall, the goal is to increase employee productivity and boost customer service and satisfaction. In all, Sterling Commerce offers eight mobile applications which are extensions of their core business software applications aimed at increasing employee capabilities and improving their responses to customer needs.

Such a shift will also make it easier to keep track of inventory wherever it is stored, even if it is stored beyond the four walls of distribution centres. That’s because field staff – sales reps, engineers, maintenance staff and others – all now carry smartphones or tablet computers with them.

Still, it will take time before we see a true universal network delivering seamless connectivity linking all devices anywhere, any time. Successfully connecting the wide variety of different software, devices, Internet service providers and others is years away. What’s missing is a standardized global Internet access agreement that would bring together the current tangle of device vendors, operating systems, Internet network service providers, business software developers and others.  

In the meantime, some companies, such as Elkhart, Ind.-based Markley Enterprises, have developed their own creative solutions. Markley designs, produces and delivers marketing and sales support materials supplier including point-of-sale (POS) items to retailers. To keep track of inventory stored in its 20,000-sq. ft. warehouse, the firm uses RedPrairie WMS software.

Since its activities are graphics-based, it has been an Apple shop for years.

However, RedPrairie WMS software is available only in a Windows format.

When employees needed to call up the pick lists on an Apple iPad attached to a picker’s cart, the transferred image occupied only one-quarter of the iPad screen.

Company president Tim Markley solved the problem by buying a US$2.99 app(lication) developed by a Japanese programmer from the online iTunes store. It transmits full-screen Windows images to Apple remote devices. There is one minor glitch since the instructions on the screen are still in Japanese.

However, that’s irrelevant since the full-sized image of the pick list on the screen is in English.

That breakthrough launched paperless picking in Markley’s warehouse.

Workers can now see a consolidated, organized pick list on the iPad screen. Before, pickers took a stack of individual paper customer orders from the office and headed onto the warehouse floor to find the items to fill the individual orders. Since they had to pick each order separately, they often had to keep going back to the same bins to get items that showed up on different orders.

“With the electronic pick list, we consolidated all the orders, set out the picking order based on item location and optimized the picking route to eliminate backtracking,” says Markley. “With pickers spending less time
walking around, we can now reassign some of them to conduct cycle counts and other duties.”

The new approach has started to pay dividends. As measured by pedometers, the distance that pickers walk has been reduced by 30%. More important, Markley estimates that the time spent picking has gone down even more dramatically – about 60%.

“The new system improves overall employee productivity,” says Markley. “The more pickers walk, the more fatigue sets in, especially if they have to keep retracing their steps. And when they are not sharp and alert, they make more errors.”

But under the new system, picking accuracy has improved to 99%. As a result, pickers have more confidence in the system. If it says a bin contains 20 items, they believe that is how many they will find there.

Sterling Commerce has started to formalize the availability of its applications on Apple products through the iTunes app store. It currently contains an estimated 300,000 apps – the vast majority of which are for leisure activities such as music and games.      

The online store serves as the distribution mechanism for the app that enables access to the mobile application from the user’s handheld device. For security purposes, after registered users download the app from iTunes, they can access the application by logging in with credentials provided by Sterling Commerce. Says Roumatar: “All eight will be available on smartphones and tablet computers – not specialized hardware,” he says.

He notes that when smartphones were first introduced, most companies were trying to get consumers to shop more by sending them alerts and personalized messages. “But now, businesses are focusing on less sexy topics such as making their workers more productive,” he says.

A recent Forrester Consulting study commissioned by Sterling Commerce came to the same conclusion when it found that the top three uses of mobile applications by surveyed enterprises were to increase employee productivity and responsiveness, resolve customer issues faster and boost revenues.

The study also stated that it is still too early to confirm any reliable ROI (return on investment) figures from the switch. But despite the lack of hard numbers, Ramoutar is convinced that remote tools are changing IT’s role in business.

He notes that first thing in the morning, executives now grab their smartphones to check their personal dashboards containing overnight performance results rather than waiting until they go to the office.

As for himself, he says, “I estimate I use my own smartphone 60% for business and only 40% for personal reasons.”


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