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Mobile Technologies For Supply Chains

Emma Johnson

Enterprise apps on mobile devices are transforming the way transportation and logistics professionals manage their supply chains. Tracking consignments, teaming-up with internal and external supply chain partners, and implementing unified processes and operations across geographies, currencies and languages, are much easier to accomplish now with enterprise mobile apps running on smartphones and tablets.

That was then, this is now

Starting with portable mini-computers in warehouse environments, technology moved on to special-purpose hand-held devices, and are now on the verge of complete takeover by incredibly power-packed smartphones and tablets. With a plethora of easy-to-use features and functionalities such as built-in cameras, voice-enabled, RFID capabilities, and barcode scanners, smartphones are ergonomic, safe, and far more intuitive than any special purpose device (or reams of paper stuffed in a folder). And, back at the warehouse, they afford the mobility needed for the basic yet imperative tasks from picking and packing to receiving and inspection across the entire warehouse.

And, there is more.

Mobile printers and scanners linked to smartphones and voice solutions with printing are just some examples of a whole suite of mobile devices that work in synch with each other to increase performance.

As for the venerable special purpose handheld devices – they are grappling with far too many factors – weight, complexity, high upfront costs, inflexible and proprietary platforms, high Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) and difficulty in training users to just name a few.

“Should play well with others”

Step outside the warehouse – and supply chain access on-the-go is now far easier with mobile devices. Logistics managers can now access TMS (Transportation Management Systems) or ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) platforms, retrieve business intel, communicate with peers, tap into reports, and even track delivery packages in real-time.
So, where is the technology that runs on these smart devices? Welcome to the surge – from incumbent enterprise software vendors offering mobility add-ons to newer entrants offering DIY tools – choices abound.

One key factor though in deciding what will work for you: Unlike other enterprise systems, the supply chain network spans several players, often spread across the globe across languages, currencies and more. These include manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, third-party logistics providers and more – and every one of them uses a different system and, in some cases, have no systems. Any mobility solution that you select should integrate with multiple systems – with ease and minimal training. And they should be able to adapt to changes and upgrades to any system anywhere in the supply chain. On this key count, mobility from incumbent enterprise vendors may not always make the cut – they are not inherently geared to work with other systems (and they do offer workarounds that are, well, workarounds).

Third party vendors – sometimes called best of breed – not wedded to a single back-end system can effectively leverage the power of cloud and mobile technologies to integrate more readily across multiple systems, thereby providing greater flexibility.

Can Consumer-grade make the cut?

Smartphones are on their way to becoming the most widely adopted mobile device in the logistics domain, with handheld computers ranking second (based on a recent study by ARC Advisory Group). Their lower price range, ever-increasing capabilities, and extreme user-friendliness makes tablets and smartphones the ideal choice for supply chain environments, and replace the outmoded rugged hand-held mini-computers. Tim Zimmerman, of Gartner Research, believes warehouse applications require these type of consumer-grade devices, and their capabilities make for an attractive package – data backup for batch functionality, extra-long battery life, hi-tech digital cameras, and proper keyboard input capability in addition to the likes of barcode scanners and speech identification.

And, are smartphones rugged enough for the warehouses? There are relatively low-cost and low-tech solution – shielding, rugged covers and more are commonly available to address this issue. This may well turn out to be the biggest benefit of “consumer-grade” in the warehouse – users around the world have subject them to extreme conditions – from dropping them to using them in the snow and in the desert – and solutions abound for pretty much every situation!

Today’s logistics fast lane needs tools that work with a great degree of adaptability, and efficiency; tools designed to make freight data, for example, available to anybody not sitting at their computer all the time – information, exceptions and intelligence delivered wherever you are and when an event occurs. Smartphones, tablets and the enterprise apps that run on them are here to stay!

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