April 2006 | Commentary | IT Matters

Printing on the Go Can Help Profits Flow

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Companies are investing in mobile computing systems at record levels to cut costs and improve efficiency in distribution, direct-to-store deliveries, and route accounting operations. Getting the most bang from these investment bucks does not necessarily depend on implementing the hottest new smart phones, software applications, or 3G wireless network services.

Often, a small incremental investment can unlock improved cash flow and operational efficiency. Modern mobile printers are one cost-effective tool that leverages route automation investments and boosts the benefits.

Route printing is not new, but deserves a new look. Users have options beyond inflexible, defect-prone dot-matrix printers.

Modern mobile printers feature thermal print technology, which has been proven reliable in warehouses and other industrial environments. Lightweight, power-efficient mobile thermal printers help companies deliver route automation benefits.

Let's look at how mobile printing advancements have enhanced the value of route automation systems, and why thermal printers maximize the benefit.

Receipts, invoices, and other mobile printer outputs help route professionals and their customers get transactions right the first time, which raises quality, efficiency, and profitability throughout the enterprise.

The alternative to on-site invoicing is for drivers to turn in sheaves of paperwork to billing clerks at the end of each shift. This creates an opportunity for errors to enter the system as clerks re-record billing information. It also adds costly delays to the billing cycle.

The Monday Blues

Consider a driver who finishes a Monday shift and submits the daily invoices to the billing department. In the best case, billing clerks will enter the information into the billing system and mail invoices the next day.

The customer will receive the invoices in the mail two or three days later—three to four days after the visit. Companies that follow this standard business practice are at a three- or four-day cash-cycle disadvantage compared with their competitors that bill on-site. They must pay the data entry clerk's hourly wage, as well as 37 cents for each order simply for postage to mail invoices.

Printing receipts and signed orders can be an effective tool for improving operational quality and efficiency. Route sales representatives can print delivery receipts and review them with customers to ensure orders are accurate and customers are satisfied with the delivery.

Reviewing receipts during the delivery process provides an opportunity to resolve discrepancies immediately, leading to a timely and cost-effective resolution rather than an expensive payment reconciliation process.

Assume a company fulfills 1,000 orders per month with a 7-percent shipment error rate—an accepted average across all industries. The volume of errors should generate 70 calls to customer service representatives (CSRs). If calls take an average of 12 minutes each, the company spends 14 hours per month resolving errors. If CSRs earn $10 per hour, the direct labor cost for error resolution is $140 per month per 1,000 orders.

More effective error resolution also leads to additional savings by preventing rush shipments and additional deliveries to fulfill orders, lost-revenue prevention from unreported over-shipments, and returns processing costs.

Thermal printers cost less to operate than dot-matrix models while providing the features and flexibility modern applications require. They do not need toner or ribbons—or the driver time to replace them—and use media that is easy to load and handle. The result is a lower total cost of ownership (TCO).

The average cost per invoice is usually one to three cents less for thermal printers compared to dot matrix, depending on the size of the invoice. Multiply the savings by the number of invoices route drivers produce each month, and the TCO advantage becomes clear. Additionally, dot matrix printers are prone to breakage from impact, and readability can become an issue over time, as costly maintenance is put off.

Companies can avoid cable damage and replacement expenses with thermal printers that offer Bluetooth wireless connectivity to mobile computers and other peripherals. Mobile thermal printers also offer 802.11b connectivity for use in wireless LANs.

Many companies take advantage of mobile printer flexibility by having drivers receive route instructions at the start of the day and download settlement information at the end. Driver processing time is slashed because they don't have to wait for docking stations. And with no end-of-day rush to avoid, drivers may be able to make an extra stop and perhaps extra sales.

While mobile printers don't actually print money, they can help earn more of it from route operations.

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