Mobile Communications: Managing Supply Chains on the Go

Mobile Communications: Managing Supply Chains on the Go

Mobile devices and applications have become the go-to tools for logistics and transportation professionals looking to stay connected and manage their supply chains from anywhere.

In a field that is all about getting goods where they need to be quickly and cost-effectively, it’s no surprise that mobile applications and devices are fast becoming must-have tools for logistics, supply chain, and transportation professionals.

A range of new supply chain mobility devices and applications helps companies do everything from track assets and shipments, to execute transactions and processes, and collaborate with internal and external partners. Tapping into these tools helps logistics executives improve supply chain functionality, productivity, and efficiency—no matter where they are.

Origins in the Warehouse

The mobility trend began with the use of handheld mobile computers in warehouse and distribution environments, and has since achieved widespread adoption.

“Multi-purpose, ruggedized mobile devices work well in distribution environments because they allow warehouse workers to be agile and productive, accomplishing various tasks and processes without being tied to a specific station or area,” explains Bruce Stubbs, director of industry marketing for Intermec, an Everett, Wash.-based manufacturer of mobile devices such as handheld computers, bar-code printers, scanners, RFID tags, and voice solutions. Mobile devices can boost picking and packing productivity and accuracy, and help provide a safe, ergonomic, hands-free environment for workers—ultimately resulting in improved customer service for end users.

The newest ruggedized, handheld mobile computers boast an array of functionalities for improved warehouse productivity and flexibility: 1D and 2D bar-code scanning at both close and long ranges; built-in cameras; RFID capabilities; and voice-enabled functionality. And the current generation of mobile “smart” printers contains built-in intelligence that enables them to produce labels without being hard-wired to a computer system.

But the newest trend in the distribution sector is what Stubbs calls “total mobile solutions.” Instead of opting for just one mobile device, companies are embracing a suite of mobile tools that work together to boost warehouse performance.

“Many companies are combining mobile computers and scanners with mobile printers; or pairing voice solutions with mobile printing; or using mobile computers with voice capabilities instead of a dedicated voice device,” Stubbs explains. This approach cuts down on workers having to travel back and forth between fixed stations and instead allows them “to take the process to the product,” he notes.

The Rise of the Smartphone

Supply chain professionals’ increasing use of commercial-grade smartphones such as BlackBerrys, iPhones, and Androids—as well as tablet computers including the iPad—may be encroaching on the turf of these ruggedized devices. Smartphones are the most widely used mobile device in supply chain and logistics operations, according to a recent survey by market research firm ARC Advisory Group. Handheld computers rank second (see chart).

Durable, consumer-grade devices such as smartphones and tablet computers also carry great potential for warehouse applications, says Tim Zimmerman, research director at technology research firm Gartner Research. With their increasing capabilities, lower price points, and greater user acceptance, these devices may become as ideal for distribution environments as ruggedized handhelds have traditionally been.

Mobile Technology at Work:

Smartphones lead mobile technology usage in supply chain and logistics operations, according to an ARC Advisory Group survey. Source: ARC Advisory Group

“Consumer-grade devices are taking over tasks that have historically been limited to ruggedized devices,” Zimmerman explains. “They are not only durable, but now commonly offer functionality previously reserved for ruggedized devices: long-lasting battery life; backup for batch functionality; full keyboard capability for input; bar-code scanning and sophisticated digital cameras; as well as speech recognition functionality for hands-free operations.”

In addition, the lower price point for the devices and service, as well as the widespread user acceptance, make smartphones and tablets especially attractive, he notes.

But Intermec’s Stubbs disagrees. Smartphones do provide good functionality for distribution, he admits, but most are not rugged enough to stand up to the rigors of a typical distribution environment.

This is where special ruggedized smartphones stand out. Like regular smartphones, they allow DC managers and supervisors to access information in their supply chain systems or host business systems, and can perform scanning and signature capture. Ruggedized phones are built to withstand tougher physical conditions, however, such as elevated drops to concrete and extreme temperatures. These capabilities make them more versatile than traditional smartphones.

While smartphones and tablets are less expensive to purchase than specialized handheld computers, the total cost of ownership may be higher. “Ruggedized devices last for five to seven years in harsh environments,” Stubbs explains. “If you consider the number of times you’d have to replace a commercial-grade device in that time frame, the cost difference is not so great.”

An Indispensable Tool

Outside the distribution environment, there is less debate—smartphones are taking over in terms of mobile supply chain access.

“Smartphones are fast becoming a ubiquitous computing platform,” explains Adrian Gonzalez, who conducted the ARC survey and is now director of the Logistics Viewpoints blog. “Supply chain and logistics professionals rely on smartphones to tap into enterprise applications such as enterprise resource planning or transportation management systems; track shipments and assets; and access reports and business intelligence.”

As such, supply chain software vendors are increasingly developing mobile and tablet versions of their enterprise solutions so users can access reports and dashboards on mobile devices.

Third-party logistics (3PL) providers are also developing smartphone applications to help increase mobile data access for their shipper clients. Chicago-based 3PL Echo Global Logistics, for instance, recently launched EchoTrak Mobile, a mobile app for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices that lets users track and trace shipments, get rate quotes, and receive shipment notifications. Shippers using the app now have access to the same real-time shipping data that was previously available only through the EchoTrak online portal.

“Today’s fast-paced logistics environment demands tools that let companies work efficiently,” says Echo Global CEO Doug Waggoner. “Our app is designed to provide shipping data to any user who is not sitting in front of a computer terminal all day.”

Within one week of EchoTrak Mobile’s release, nearly 2,000 of EchoTrak’s 24,000 users downloaded the app, Waggoner notes. The company is already working on the app’s second phase, which will offer carrier-facing functionality.

Mobility in the Supply Chain

Supply chain professionals are flocking to smartphones, handheld computers, and other mobile devices to reap the benefits of improved mobility and flexibility. “These mobile technologies facilitate tracking, communication, and process execution,” says Gonzalez.

“Enhanced productivity is the primary benefit of mobile technologies,” he adds. “Most workers today are untethered. They want access to information and the ability to execute transactions wherever they are.”

In addition, mobile devices can provide truck drivers and field or sales personnel with the same outside-the-office access. “Being able to gain order and shipment status visibility ultimately improves customer service,” Gonzalez says.

Transportation is another area where mobile device popularity is surging. On-board or in-cab computers are rapidly becoming a common sight inside trucks, helping perform processes as varied as signature captures for proof of delivery and calculating driver hours of service—and even keeping track of trucks themselves.

“The cost for on-board computing has dropped, and the functions drivers can perform in the cab have expanded,” says Dwight Klappich, research director at Gartner. “The technology now allows for real-time automated vehicle locating, for example, which provides dispatchers with more accurate and timely information about where their assets are at any given time.”

The systems can also capture real-time traffic information and suggest alternate routes to avoid delays, or provide geo-fencing to automatically confirm an appointment once a truck moves within a certain mileage of a DC. “This type of functionality enhances customer service because carriers can better project actual arrival times,” Klappich explains.

Providing more accurate estimated arrival times (ETAs) was one goal of Texas-based distributor Labatt Food Service when it implemented a mobile computing solution for its nearly 400 truck drivers. Looking for a solution that boasted the trifecta of navigation and messaging capabilities; the ability to capture engine data and telemetry, customer interaction, and hours-of-service information; and the durability required to operate reliably in the high-vibration environment and extreme heat and cold often found in truck cabs, Labatt chose the Panasonic Toughbook U1 mobile PC.

Labatt wrote proprietary software to bridge the data flowing from the mobile computers to its enterprise systems, and selected AT&T as the mobile broadband network provider.

“The U1 combines the portability of a handheld computer with the benefits of a full Windows operating system; has a daylight-viewable touchscreen and embedded mobile broadband and GPS; and is easy to use,” says Blair Labatt III, project lead, Labatt Food Service.

With the new solution, Labatt has reaped significant benefits, including having near-real-time access to information from the field, which allows more timely data analysis and more accurate ETAs for its customers. The new solution automatically logs route data and customer interactions, eliminating the time drivers spend entering data manually at each stop and reentering paperwork at the distribution center.

The embedded GPS has also allowed Labatt to optimize its delivery network, significantly reducing the amount of fuel it consumes, which saves money and reduces its carbon footprint. And the company has seen improved driver safety, thanks to the ability to analyze data on driving patterns and hours-of-service reports.

“Overall, the Toughbook U1’s reliability has allowed Labatt to focus on strategic growth issues that can further improve the service we offer to customers,” says Labatt III. “And, we have already seen marked improvement in driver-to-dispatch and transportation-to-sales communication.”

Where Are My Assets?

Another supply chain functionality being enhanced by mobile devices is asset tracking and management. Mobile RFID devices and bar-code scanners are gaining traction in this arena as a way for companies to keep tabs on transportation assets and high-value equipment.

One such company is NES Rentals Holdings Inc., a Chicago-based firm that rents aerial equipment such as cranes, booms, scissor lifts, and rough-terrain forklifts to industrial and construction customers. The company recently adopted a GPS TimeTrack mobile enterprise app and secure, cloud-hosted management application from Xora, a mobile application developer located in Mountain View, Calif. The solution has become a key component of an asset-tracking system that NES Rentals uses to electronically track its inventory of nearly 20,000 pieces of equipment.

Because of the large equipment volume the company rents at locations nationwide, it needed a mobile asset-tracking system to monitor inventory.

“Our drivers and mechanics scan equipment whenever it transitions from one place and one status to another—for example, from maintenance to ready-to-rent, or from a customer site back to a branch location,” explains Phyllis Nykamp, director of IT at NES Rentals.

Once the equipment is scanned, the Xora mobile app automatically transmits the data to the Xora cloud-hosted management application, which is accessible via a PC or any mobile device with a browser. “Now, when customers call from a job site and need a piece of equipment right away, a branch manager can quickly tell them whether we have it and how long it will take us to deliver it,” says Nykamp.

The system has helped NES Rentals increase efficiency, and has also given it a competitive advantage, says Ananda Rakhit, vice president and CIO for NES Rentals. Integrating Xora data with its back-office systems gives NES Rentals the ability to generate a comprehensive view of the business’ operational performance.

And, because it helps the company provide instant communication to notify customers when a piece of equipment has been delivered, the Xora integration has given NES Rentals a leg up on its competition. “None of our competitors are able to do that,” Rakhit says. “It is a clear differentiator.”

That sentiment may be echoed through the logistics realm. The myriad mobile devices that are currently gaining favor in the supply chain are all about helping companies in their never-ending quest to get the right product to the right place at the right time.

Now, that task can be attempted and perfected from nearly anywhere.

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