More Tech, More Problems? Warehouse Leaders Think So. Here's Why. | Zebra Blog

More Technology, More Problems? Some Warehouse Leaders Think So. Here’s Why.

Survey indicates that IT/technology utilization is expected to become more challenging over the next five years. This is how to ensure it doesn’t.

A warehouse workers uses the Zebra MC9300 hybrid handheld mobile computer to scan the label of an item on a high shelf.
by Darren Koffer
February 05, 2020

It’s official. Technology runs our lives, in some cases quite literally, telling where we need to be when as well as why we need to be there and how to get there. That’s not a bad thing, though, especially in a warehouse. It would be nearly impossible to successfully process the influx of orders received each day if you had to wander the “miles of aisles” to find products.

In fact, many warehouse workers are likely pining for technologies such as mobile devices, augmented reality (AR) apps, head-mounted displays and other wearables that can guide them directly to confirmed item locations. Those who spend their days working on foot would be happy to save the extra steps and seconds (or more like minutes) that it may take them to pick, pack or put away each product. You might also be surprised at how much forklift drivers appreciate knowing exactly where to place or retrieve pallets.

Mobile computing technologies, simply put, give workers at the edge of the enterprise the intelligence they need to speed through tasks without making mistakes – two things that we know are absolutely crucial in today’s warehousing environment thanks to the extreme fulfillment demands faced today. That is why warehouse operators were early adopters of mobile computers.

However, I’m seeing a concerning trend emerge and feel compelled to address it here on the blog (again): many warehouse operators are inadvertently injecting risk into their operations by inserting mobile devices that aren’t right for the application in which they’ll be used.

In fact, I strongly believe that part of the reason why 61 percent of respondents to Zebra’s latest Warehousing Vision Study claim that IT/technology utilization will be their top challenge over the next five years is they are looking for one right device for all warehouse applications instead of employing the right device for each application. There is a difference.

Searching for “Purpose”

I realize that there is a lot of pressure to modernize the warehouse right now and that the required migration to Android mobile computers may not seem convenient, especially if your Microsoft Windows® CE and Windows Mobile devices still have life left in them. (Zebra’s enterprise mobile computers are built so rugged that the average lifespan, even with extreme wear-and-tear, tends to be 5-7 years on average.) And I appreciate that you want to sweat your assets as long as possible.

I also know that some of you may be inclined to keep buying Windows mobile devices over the next 12-24 months, even if that means you lose Microsoft support shortly after.

(Editor’s Note: Microsoft is ending support of Windows Embedded Compact devices by 2021 and has already ended its support of Windows Embedded Handheld devices.)

Change is hard, especially when you’re talking about overhauling an entire technology architecture to run a new operating system (OS).

However, current market pressures are not going away; they’re escalating. And the truth is that yesterday’s devices were just not made for today’s pressures of our on-demand economy. Clinging to Windows to avoid disruption could end up further straining your business operations, impacting productivity, efficiency and competitiveness.

Yet, so too could choosing the wrong Android mobile computers for your warehousing operations, if I’m being frank.

Every mobile device, regardless of the underlying OS, was built for a certain purpose – including enterprise-grade devices.

That’s why there are so many different device models and configurations. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all mobility solution. Just as there is no single “right” mobile device for an entire industry. For example:

1. Some Warehouse Workers Actually Still Want Key-Based Interfaces (They Are Better Suited for the Applications They Use and the Environments in Which They Work)

Eighty-three (83) percent of respondents to Zebra’s Warehousing Vision Study are planning to use Android devices in the warehouse by 2024, with many aiming for full migration in the next two years. These devices offer a modern touch interface and intelligence features needed to improve worker efficiency, increase their ability to adapt to new workflow complexities and stabilize performance amidst workforce variability.

However, it’s not recommended that you give every warehouse worker a touch-only device when you migrate to Android – at least not right now.

Despite the drastic modernization occurring in warehouses and distribution centers, the truth is that many workflows are still reliant on key-based data entry. One example would be workers assigned to cold storage environments who wear heavy gloves all shift long and rely on workflow applications that remain heavily “F key” driven.

Therefore, many workers are going to benefit most from what we call combination or hybrid devices: handheld Android mobile computers that have both the traditional keys needed to support business as usual today and the large touch screens that will be needed to facilitate more graphical, all-touch terminal emulation applications when your business is ready. Such devices enable workers to move through simple data capture tasks much faster than they could using touch-only mobile computers and minimize operational disruption overall by providing continuous support for current and modern WMS systems.

Now, there are many instances where a purpose-built touch-only device that was designed for the warehouse is best. Just look at the benefits that Adore Beauty gained from Zebra’s TC8000 series touch mobile computers, which have been ergonomically designed and built lightweight for all-day single-hand use. The point is that it could be detrimental to your business efficiency and bottom line if you automatically assume that the latest and greatest touch computers – even those designed for warehouse use may not be optimal for every single one of your applications or deployment environments.

2. Some Not All Enterprise-Grade Devices are Built to Power Through Long Shifts – and Not All Can Accurately Scan from Long Distances

Whether your front-line workers need a combination key-based/touchscreen mobile computer to work fast or a touch-only computer proves to be best for the job at hand, one thing to remember is that the devices are typically used 24/7/365 by shift workers in fast-paced warehousing and manufacturing environments where “seconds matter.”

The mobile devices you give your workers must be equipped with bigger batteries than more traditional enterprise-grade mobile computers because they need to be able to run for much longer before a hot swap or recharge is required. Even seconds of downtime can severely affect the flow of Just in Time operating models. They must also be able to facilitate very fast data capture actions without compromising data accuracy, which is why mobile computers’ scanning capabilities warrant close evaluation.

Although most enterprise-grade mobile computers can be configured with built-in 1D/2D scanning engines, not all are created equal – and many can’t read barcodes from long distances. That can quickly become a problem considering that the dynamics of the warehouse often require workers to scan barcodes from up to 70 feet away. Forklift drivers are a prime example, as they may need to be able to scan an aisle or bin location without leaving their vehicles. Even workers on foot might need to be able to scan a pallet or box located on a high shelf one minute and then a bin or item barcode as close as 3 inches away the next.

In fact, one of the reasons why Zebra’s combo key-based and touchscreen Zebra MC9300 and MC3300 mobile computers are so popular with warehouse workers today is because they have extended range scanners that can read barcodes from up to 70 feet away. Better yet, they can accurately capture multiple barcodes with a single trigger pull. And they can be configured four ways – pistol grip, turret with rotating head, straight shooter zero-degree scan and 45-degree scan – to accommodate different product and pallet scanning scenarios.

3. There are Hazards Galore in the Warehouse (Your Workers Being Some of Them) and Not All Enterprise-Grade or “Rugged” Devices are Built to Tolerate Every Single One

My colleagues have spoken extensively here on Your Edge about the fact that some supposedly rugged scanners are actually “scammers” and how prevalent “knock off” rugged devices have become.  

I just want to remind you that not all rugged devices are built to withstand constant or prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures such as those experienced in cold chain environments. Nor are all rugged devices safe to use around potentially incendiary materials being handled in many warehouses – where explosive gasses or fibers are airborne. And don’t forget that workers tend to accidently become mobile device hazards, especially when it comes to drops and spills. The rigors of 24/7/365 use can take a real toll on any mobile device – enterprise or consumer grade – that isn’t built for all-day, everyday use in industrial environments.

This is where the “total benefits of ownership” discussion comes into play – or what we used to call the “total cost of ownership” (TCO).

You can choose to “normalize the risk” of device failures due to drops, spills, temperatures or the more rare incendiary-type incidents and “take a chance” with a consumer-grade device or more budget-friendly enterprise device. However, you are doing far more than increasing your TCO for each mobile device; you are losing out on the benefits you would otherwise get from choosing the right device in the first place. One of which is reliability, or rather, the reduced risk of operations downtime – which we know can get really expensive, really fast.

That’s why Zebra designs certain durability and performance-driven features into its warehouse mobility solutions; we understand how customers will want to use our products and the environments in which they want to deploy in the device.  For example, Zebra decided to engineer the MC9300 with new configuration options, such as a freezer-friendly model that includes a heated scanner exit window and a freezer-rated battery and a Class 1 Division 2 (C1D2) non-incendive model. We want to help ensure workflow continuity in extreme temperature environments and worker safety in hazardous locations.

But these aren’t the only two types of warehouse environments or applications (that demand this type of extreme protection and reliability. In many cases, we know that the only way to help keep workers productive is by giving them an Android ultra-rugged combination keypad/touch mobile computer that survives 8-foot (2.4m) drops to concrete and 4,000 tumbles from 3.3 feet (1m) without being phased due to the nature of the application for which these devices will most frequently be used.

I could go on and on about the reasons why warehouse operators should be selecting mobile computers first and foremost for their intended application. I think you get the point, though.

When you give workers the right mobile device for their workflow, then you will receive a greater return on investment.

The good news is that there is a way to successfully “standardize” your mobility solution and IT architecture even if you need multiple device form factors or models to suit different applications. I’ll explain in my next post.

But before I sign off for now, I want to share one final thought…

Intelligent Automation – and Even Partial Augmentation – Requires a Reliable Mobility Solution

More than three-quarters (77 percent) of respondents to Zebra’s latest Warehousing Vision Study agree that augmenting workers with technology is the best way to introduce automation in the warehouse, but only 35 percent have a clear understanding of where to start automating. If you ask me, it starts with deploying the right mobile computer for each worker/workflow. I know, that’s probably the third time I’ve said that in this blog, but the reality is that mobility is the foundation of the modern warehouse.

Think about it: not every mobile device is capable of running a more modern warehouse management system (WMS), augmented reality (AR) applications or even connecting to wearables, such as head-mounted displays. They just weren’t built for that purpose and, therefore, may be lacking the processing power, input/output (I/O), memory or communications tools needed to benefit from these augmentation tools. Nor is every device capable of delivering the actionable intelligence derived from the advanced analytics, computer vision and smart robotics solutions that are capturing, aggregating and democratizing data to further augment and empower the human worker experience.

It’s the mobile computer that captures and feeds the data to and from Internet of Things platforms for analyzing. It’s also the mobile computer that then transmit the IoT-generated actionable insights to head-mounted displays and/or co-bots to ensure workers know the “best next step” to take every second of the day in order to:

  • Accelerate the pace of order fulfillment
  • Minimize picking errors
  • Pick and pack more item-level goods
  • Increase inventory accuracy and tracking
  • Manage e-commerce returns
  • On board new workers faster and minimize retraining requirements

With the right mobile solutions at the edge of the enterprise – solutions that have been purpose built to facilitate warehousing workflows – it is easy to maintain a stable operation while setting up your business to handle current and future challenges.

You can also learn more about Zebra’s hardware and software solutions as well as our team’s warehouse-specific expertise on our website.

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Darren Koffer
Darren Koffer serves as the Director of Global Product Management within the Enterprise Mobile Computing group at Zebra Technologies. He is responsible for the launch and management of the handheld and wearable solutions that Zebra develops for use in warehousing and manufacturing environments.
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