Warehouse/DC Mobility: Moves to Stay 3 Steps Ahead of Failure

A systems failure is never acceptable in any industry, but the implications of such an occurrence in the Warehouse or Distribution Center can ripple all the way to the manufacturer, the retailer, and the consumer. That’s why it takes more than smart planning to keep operations running smoothly – and keep you in business for the long-haul.

There’s an industry-wide consensus that mobile technologies are the future of information technology infrastructures both inside and outside the warehouse/DC. Tapping into a plethora of mobile technologies for transportation and logistics operations outside the warehouse/DC "four walls" seems like a no-brainer. Mobile technologies provide real time tracking of goods on the move and allow for realtime routing assistance, resource planning, and inventory control. Yet inside the four walls, where an on-demand culture demands fast order fulfillment, many are trying to make do with mass amounts of paper documents that are often outdated the minute they leave the printer.

So if you want to shorten lead times, reduce errors, improve quality controls, an blog-warehouse-mobility-Feb16-300d reduce inventory overruns, you need to act on those mobility plans now.

As my colleague Bob Ashenbrenner mentioned last week, the right rugged tablet PC platform won’t require you to abandon all of your existing technologies. And you certainly won’t have to abandon your tried-and-trued processes. You are just replicating what already works on a mobile PC platform and, finally,making real-time data sharing and decision making a reality both inside and outside the four walls. You are preventing a system failure by improving the system function, and you are giving yourself a game-winning advantage that will allow you to champion any unforeseen operational or industry challenge for years to come.

So how do you stay three (or 10) steps ahead of failure?

  1. Turn your attention to business process improvement (BPI) first and foremost. Which tasks can be done better than today? Which workflows should be completed faster? Which capabilities have been compromised completely until now?
  2. Identify a set of key performance indicators (KPI) and align your efforts with them every remaining step of the way. If the solutions you’re considering can’t elevate workflows to the levels needed to meet 3-5 year growth expectations, then you need to evaluate other options.
  3. Conduct an audit of the piecemeal technologies in place and measure their current contributions against future requirements. If they offer sustainable benefits, then plan to keep them in play. If not, don’t try to force them into the fold as you design your mobility solution.
  4. Opt for an OS that will allow for a more confident and rapid transition to a total mobile solution. There’s no right or wrong here; only what’s best for you. Both Windows and Android offer flexibility with minimal migration requirements (if you’re using the right mobile PC, which we’ll get to.) While Android may work best for your competitor’s environment, it may not fit with your legacy Windows back-office systems.
  5. Establish hardware, software, peripheral, and accessory criteriabased on your workflows and how the end users typically flow through their day . A manager’s role in quality control inspections may differ from that of a receiver on the loading dock. Therefore, even within that same workflow, different tools and PC support may be required. Talk to all end-users, spend time performing every task that will be supported, and define a set of minimum requirements to expedite the research process. Selecting the device and software in unison will also minimize compatibility issues later.
  6. Recognize the value of a rugged mobile PC, and more specifically a rugged tablet, even indoors. I’ve sold and integrated multiple consumer-grade mobile devices, rugged laptops, notebooks, and even handhelds in my career. I can honestly say that for the warehouse/DC environment, a rugged mobile PC is a must and a rugged tablet PC is best. Even though most operations are indoors, many warehouses and DCs have refrigerated storage units, use vibration-prone forklifts to move inventory, and have wide temperature swings inside and on the docks. All of these climate conditions require a certain “tolerance” by the mobile PC that only rugged devices offer. Plus, tablet PCs are the only truly mobile device with a screen large enough to do real work, a pen to “write,”and the full PC power of a laptop or desktop.
  7. Test the solution rigorously in real, stressed operational scenarios . Rugged tablet manufacturers have to rigorously test their devices in the most extreme environments before they can determine MIL-STD-810G drop, temperature, shock, vibration, humidity, and contamination tolerance levels. You need to follow suit by testing your entire mobility solution against daily stressors, with real end-users, for an extensive amount of time before confidently understanding performance output. You may expect a password authentication method to suffice on the warehouse floor, when it becomes evident during testing that fingerprint scans are the fastest, one-hand log-on solution. Don’t assume what works outside the walls will translate well inside either. Wireless signal strength may be weaker and in-hand use of tablets on DC aisles may unveil different data input preferences than a docked tablet in a truck.
  8. Always be ready to adapt – and act on all feedback. No solution will be perfect on day one – or month one – no matter how perfectly it is packaged and presented to end-users.
  9. Train all employees on the new technologies long before you go live. Show them how the new mobile solution emulates existing familiar processes. Be open to suggestions for improvement even before full implementation. If something is confusing during training, it can likely be addressed with an easy fix.
  10. Test again, train even more, and make more adjustments. These aren’t “one and done” steps. These should become best practices implemented over the lifetime of the solution.

It’s easy to wait for everyone else in the industry to make the first move. It’s easier if you take the lead. Yes, you can learn from others mistakes by waiting and watching. But the only way you can prevent system failure over time is to allot enough time now to design, test, and implement a custom mobility solution that can reach peak performance before your old paper or piecemeal tech solutions completely fail and you’re left playing catch up.