September 2006 | Commentary | Supply Chain Technology

Say Goodbye to 'Dumb' Devices

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Of all the recent supply chain process evolutions - from push to pull, fat to lean, and manual to automated everything - one of the most compelling transformations is currently unfolding in an unexpected place: supply chain data capture devices.

Forklifts, truck trailers, shipping containers, and other everyday logistics items look at first glance to be "dumb," single-purpose objects. But thanks to 802.11 connectivity, RFID, mobile technology, middleware, and computing power, they are transforming into multifunctional "smart" tools that act as supply chain information portals.

The folks at Intermec, an Everett, Wash.-based data capture technology provider, understand this evolution. When Intermec's industry marketing director, Bob Eckles, stopped by the IL offices last month to give us a sneak peak at some new rugged mobile computers, the product demonstration morphed into a philosophical discussion about the changing role of such devices and how they impact supply chain workflow.

Data capture devices have long been the frontline for supply chain information, and their importance hasn't dwindled - after all, a supply chain is only as effective as the information it runs on. But as companies have become more global, complex, and connected, these devices have likewise evolved to better serve business needs.

New Capabilities

As a result, the new high-tech frontline devices offer all sorts of cool capabilities, but it is when they interact with middleware and provide interoperability with the whole alphabet soup of supply chain management solutions—including ERP, WMS, TMS, CRM, SCE—that things get interesting.

Intermec's new CN3 rugged mobile computer, for example, acts as a cell phone, GPS unit, pager, bar-code scanner, digital camera, and laptop in one. The small, surprisingly light unit is equipped with internal GPS, WAN, WiFi, and Bluetooth communications systems; 128 MB of RAM; Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.0 with messaging capability for direct push wireless e-mail; and enough battery power to last a full shift.

Intermec's other new rugged product, the CV30, is a fixed-mount computer geared for industrial warehousing, materials management, work-in-progress, and shipping/receiving applications. It offers, among other goodies, wireless bar-code scanning, and, when paired with a Bluetooth headset, speech recognition for voice-directed picking activities.

More compelling, however, is the extended functionality these types of devices enable - processing a damaged goods claim in the middle of the unloading process without leaving the dock, for instance.

A worker equipped with a CN3 could enter the damaged product's SKU number and shipment information; take a picture of the damage with the built-in camera; e-mail a claim and proof of damage to the necessary parties; then transfer the data back to the network.

Action Meets Execution

Normally, this process entails four or five different operations.

"A great deal of productivity is lost every time a mobile worker has to stop and fetch another device," Eckles explains. "For workers off-premise, that is not an option - the task just goes undone."

Now, whether they want to or not, employees can go directly into "damage mode" and process a claim immediately.

Overall, this new class of data capture devices (Intermec has not cornered the market; Symbol and LXE also offer similar products, some of which were available first) is pushing back-office operations and real-time business decisionmaking to the front of the enterprise for warehousing, logistics, and manufacturing operations.

This shift empowers both the individual worker and the enterprise. That is a lot of logistics punch packed into a $2,000 device.

This is an exciting change. Now, the site of the action - pickup and delivery, crossdocking, and putaway, for instance - is also where execution and processing occur, transforming warehouse tasks from rote data capture machinations to supply chain efficiency boosters, and warehouses themselves from static structures to interconnected activity hubs.

Warehouse machines, too, are empowered under this new paradigm. The "Forklift of the Future" initiative is a perfect example. A partnership among Intermec, Cisco, RedPrairie, and Cascade, the initiative aims "to turn the forklift into a powerful, real-time data hub capable of dramatically increasing warehouse efficiency and productivity," says Eckles.

The idea is to seamlessly integrate RFID and real-time location service directly into forklift equipment, as opposed to the current retrofit, bolt-on methods for adding RFID power. (A concept forklift incorporating these ideas debuted in March at RFID World in Dallas.)

But a forklift as a data capture, execution, and product-tracking tool? That's right. This forklift would allow drivers to read and encode RFID tags without leaving the vehicle by integrating Cisco's wireless location appliance and RedPrairie's open mobile resource management software with Intermec and Cascade's co-developed forklift RFID reading system.

In addition, warehouse managers can obtain real-time data on forklift location, movement, and dwell time to effectively keep tabs on labor and assets.

Ultimately, these changes in data capture processes bring enterprises a new level of intelligence that starts on the front lines. The medium - be it a rugged computer, a forklift, or a handheld device - is now the messenger, capturing information, then processing and executing it in one fell swoop.

Not bad for a dumb tool, huh?

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