Mobile Communication: Connecting Supply Chains On The Go

Tags: Logistics I.T.

Mobile communication tools deliver shipment visibility, worker performance, and asset-tracking data directly to managers, no matter where they are.

As transportation and logistics managers seek new ways to compete in challenging markets, many are implementing mobile technologies to optimize their supply chain. It shouldn't be surprising: the ability to monitor operations in real time provides the visibility to fine-tune them — from warehouse to dock to transportation, and eventually to customers.

"Mobile technologies allow retailers and shippers to push interaction closer to customers," says Mike Giguere, principal, supply chain and operations, at New York, N.Y.-based consulting firm PwC. "Getting closer to customers provides a huge advantage in understanding the market."

Mobile solutions offer two more advantages:

  1. Interactivity. Companies using mobile solutions are not just pushing information out, but allowing collaboration across the supply chain. This connectivity generates significant efficiencies and maximizes asset utilization.
  2. Data capture and analytics. "Being able to leverage the data gathered by mobile solutions for analytics allows ongoing operational optimization," says Giguere. "For example, shippers who have implemented mobile computing devices can manage operations remotely, and assess the impact of daily activities. They can use analytics to optimize route management, fuel efficiency, and time per stop. The technology gives them a strategic advantage."

Mobile computing provides other significant analytical benefits. "Mobile tools are ideal for collecting important data points from the field, such as different warehouse or manufacturing facilities," notes Irad Carmi, founder and chief technology officer at TOA Technologies, a Beachwood, Ohio-based mobile workforce management solutions provider. "Companies can use this data to forecast and predict activities and their potential impact on the supply chain."

Mobile solutions are at work in every part of the supply chain. They are a key part of many warehouse environments, especially in directed picking applications. In transportation, mobile technology has been particularly significant for expedited parcel carriers that use it to improve customer service and continually optimize operations. Private fleets and motor carriers also use mobile devices for tracking shipments and collecting driver performance data.

Impacting Today's Supply Chains

Better, faster communication enabled by mobile computing has improved operations for Carlton & United Breweries, the Southbank, Australia, maker of Foster's Lager. The company relies on a mobile enterprise application and app development platform tool from Houston-based Retriever Communications to leverage mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets to improve workflow, and enable data transfer between the home office and field workers.

"These tools have helped us with real-time delivery information," says Garry Smith, program manager, supply, at Carlton & United Breweries. "Our mobile solutions tell us exactly where our trucks are in transit, and whether we need to make any adjustments. Implementing mobile computing gives us flexibility to manage and optimize throughout the day."

Mobile solutions are also effective across all operations at Goya Foods, a food company based in Secaucus, N.J. "Outside the distribution center, mobile computing gives us the opportunity to visit customers, then record and transmit orders wirelessly through the available cell phone network to our host system for processing," notes Luis Ramos, Goya's general manager.

This process is much more efficient than non-mobile methods, which at one point involved a Goya salesperson taking orders on paper, then phoning a call center operator to enter them into the system. Now, as long as there is network access, the salesperson can transmit the order.

Field and Data Stream

With these mobile tools in the field, Goya has achieved greater efficiency through increased visibility and connectivity. The company is also leveraging mobile technologies within its facilities. "We're employing mobile data collection devices to gain inventory visibility," Ramos says. "We're able to use these devices on our local network to assist with putaway, picking, and order verification."

Using Avalanche, a mobile device management system from South Jordan, Utah-based technology provider Wavelink, Goya manages 250 wireless devices at 14 warehouse locations. The solution allows Goya to deploy new applications on a regular schedule or on the fly, without requiring an IT worker to travel to the various sites.

At Goya, pickers carry handheld devices and wear headsets, enabling both bar-code scanning and voice-directed picking. Because Goya runs day and night shifts, it wanted devices that were not tied to individual pickers' voices. Wavelink's Speakeasy mobile emulation-based voice application provides this capability.

When workers arrive for their shifts, they can pick up any device, select either English or Spanish, then use a calibration wizard feature to help the device understand them. Within minutes, they are ready to begin pulling items from inventory. They scan the task ticket, then a voice directs them where to go and confirms each step and item quantity.

Keeping Goods Moving

Mobile solutions are becoming the tool-of-choice for supply chain optimization. "We use handheld computers to process goods received, put away, moved, picked, and shipped," says Steve Cain, IT manager at London, Ontario-based Chalifour Canada, a hardware and building supply distributor. "Forty percent of our sales transactions are also scanned and entered into a mobile computer; with these types of orders, virtually every step—from when an order is accepted to when it ships—is performed on a mobile computer. For optimum speed and accuracy, these devices are critical to our operation."

A Perfect Pairing

Chalifour recently implemented a full warehouse management system that tracks all warehouse materials. After engaging with Mukilteo, Wash.-based PathGuide Technologies to implement the WMS, Chalifour paired the solution with mobile computers and printers, increasing productivity by an average of 10 percent almost instantly.

Carlton & United currently uses mobile solutions only for its delivery fleet, but plans to adopt them in all departments.

"The most effective way we've leveraged the power of mobile is having native applications that can work across different devices and operating systems," says Smith. This makes it easy to ensure that no matter what devices truck drivers are using, the apps and platform are compatible.

"Investing in quality, industrial-grade mobile devices helps ensure they will be reliable when combined with software applications," advises Cain. "Providing process training and ownership to the employees who use the tools creates a productive environment."

From a high-level perspective, mobile solutions make it easier to know what everyone in the organization is doing. "These tools offer instant access to information no matter where you are," says Smith. "Mobile computing helps drivers organize checklists, delivery schedules, and inspections."

A further benefit of using mobile solutions shows up in productivity. Chalifour's mobile workforce management system features built-in metrics that allow employees to view each team's daily performance by employee. This transparency creates accountability. Workers compete to reach the top of the list, and the rankings put peer pressure on employees who are not pulling their weight.

Into the Future

Mobile technology continues to evolve, and will have far-reaching effects across the supply chain. "Wearable mobile devices will help track activities throughout all logistics operations," notes Giguere.

For companies tracking multiple assets, shipments, or workers, mobile technologies represent a leap forward in visibility and communication.