Goin’ Mobile: How Mobile Devices Improve Distribution Center Operations

By  Mark Fuentes, Contributor

In an effort to keep up with growing consumer demand and remain competitive, retailers are making serious technology investments across eCommerce operations, especially within the distribution center (DC). While a majority of the hype around DC technology is focused on flashier topics (think robots and drones), simple adaptation of mobile devices within DCs has been a major factor driving efficiencies and, therefore, customer satisfaction through warehouse operations.

CROSS-FUNCTIONAL TOOLS

The versatile, portable nature of mobile devices and tablets means they can support a range of tasks across the fulfillment operation. “It’s not easy to find a warehouse today that doesn’t depend heavily on the wearable computers, bar-code scanners and forklift-mounted terminals used for most aspects of inventory control, shipping and handling,” states Marco Nielsen, VP of managed mobility services at Stratix.[1]

According to a study conducted by Peerless Research Group, mobile devices “leading tasks” include inventory management and tracking; picking, packing and sorting; and shipping and receiving. Approximately two thirds of companies expect to increase investments in handheld mobile devices and tablets in the future, with a focus on rugged devices that can stand up to harsh warehouse environments.[2]

ENHANCED USABILITY

Traditionally, warehouse management systems have not been known for having simple user interfaces. Training new employees could often feel like trying to teach a crash course on a foreign language.

With mobile devices and tablets, applications that include simple interfaces create a much improved user experience—with a look and feel that is similar to using any smartphone—while still providing real-time data. New users are fully trained on the devices in minutes; this is a dramatic change from the days or weeks previously required for legacy systems, and employees are equipped to support cross-functional areas instead of a single task. With clear, step-by-step instructions for even the most complex packing solutions, efficient workflows take away any confusion and enable faster processing, with fewer errors.

With a growing selection of mobile apps available for warehouse operations, these devices are equipped to handle complex tasks with minimal implementation effort and cost. The right application equips warehouse teams with access to the warehouse management system (WMS) from anywhere in the DC. Where previously, they had to make their way to the nearest desktop station, team members now have real-time order information at their fingertips, and managers can action tasks from anywhere in the DC.

The productivity benefits resulting from the enhanced user experience span across eCommerce fulfillment operations. For example, one major jewelry brand experienced a notable increase in speed, accuracy and consistency across orders with the implementation of tablets at pack-out stations. At the same time, use of mobile devices also greatly increased the speed and accuracy of order picking and packing activities.

SCALABILITY

The affordability, simple setup and short training period enabled with mobile devices and tablets makes them very appealing to brands that experience frequent volume fluctuations, due to seasonal peaks or promotional sales. Brands can quickly implement additional devices with rapid training for temporary support staff without sacrificing quality. The clear interface also gives employees, especially seasonal workers, more confidence in their actions—ultimately, enhancing productivity.

COST SAVINGS

Cost savings is a leading factor driving businesses to implement mobile devices and tablets. Operations managers are happily saying goodbye to clunky, expensive desktop computers and the pricey software licenses required to operate them. Beyond the obvious operational benefits of being able to take the WMS with you around the DC, each mobile device used in place of traditional desktop computers saves a company thousands of dollars. This means they can afford to implement more devices. For instance, they can set up more pack-out stations and get more orders out the door more quickly.

As a result of the “Amazon Effect,” consumers expect increasingly shorter delivery times, and patience with delivery errors has waned. A recent PFS study found that brands get three strikes before the majority of customers will abandon them for good, and 69% of millennials won’t hesitate to share their negative experiences. Mobile devices and tablets are paving a path for brands to compete with larger online marketplaces by helping them keep up with modern delivery standards and consumer expectations through increased efficiencies across DC operations. WMHS

Mark Fuentes is CIO at PFS; www.pfscommerce.com

[1] https://www.supplychainbrain.com/articles/27569-rugged-mobile-devices-a-supply-chain-necessity

[2] http://www.dcvelocity.com/articles/20191111-time-for-a-trade-in-/