This post was contributed by Sergey Bazhenov, CEO and Co-Founder of Cleverence, a Zebra Independent Software Vendor (ISV) Partner.
Enterprise Resource Planning systems (ERPs) have come a long way from being just a resource planning tool for manufacturing plant operations. They are now often being asked to serve as the single source of truth for all company data. Modern ERP systems are reaching across all processes, and you may be trying to use them to literally automate your entire business.
Yet, when it comes to automating data capture, you may be told, "You will need a separate system for that.”
“What, why? Can’t I just plug a barcode scanner or a mobile device like the Zebra MC3330xR handheld RFID reader into the ERP and call it a day?” you may wonder.
The short answer is “no.”
The slightly longer answer is that automated data capture has improved since the days when people installed a barcode scanner to help a data entry clerk enter data into a form more accurately. While that use case is still valuable – and is often the most common and most basic step when feeding a form-based application like an ERP system – RFID readers and mobile computers bring new ways to feed these systems, ways that can provide far better (and more real-time) results.
The trick? Not thinking of these new ways of automating data collection and feeding the ERP as “automated data entry of ERP forms or documents.”
Numerous times, I’ve seen companies’ IT leaders, line managers and procurement teams buy barcode scanners, RFID readers and mobile computing devices thinking they will just work with the ERP or warehouse management systems (WMS). But they won’t. They are not always plug and play, especially when integrating into a complex ERP system. While a barcode scanner can plug in between a keyboard and computer and allow someone to scan instead of type, you may not want all your workers focused on filling out ERP screens. You may want them driving forklifts to deliver loads, building cars, stocking shelves, or caring for patients. In these cases, it’s often better to avoid an often slow and cumbersome ERP user interface and give the user a very optimized way to simply collect data as part of their “regular” job. Ideally, you would set things up so that a device collects the data 100% automatically, without a user being involved at all.
Once you understand the differences between the way barcode scanners, RFID readers, and mobile computers work from a data collection perspective, it will make more sense why connecting them to your ERP isn’t exactly plug and play (and why you will probably need both middleware and the help of an automated data capture technology specialist to get things working the way you want.)
How Automated Data Capture Devices Work (and Where They Work Best)
Barcode scanners are most often used with the ERP system as a way to augment the keyboard used by a person doing data entry directly into ERP. That person is simply filling out one form, one screen, one document, or one transaction by scanning a barcode to automatically extract data and flow it into the right field. For example, if a warehouse associate needs to report to the ERP that an item was moved, shipped or received – and there is a barcode on the paper traveller form – then all they need to do is scan that barcode to send the associated data into the ERP. They don’t have to stop and manually transpose it. Therefore, relevant item information is flowing into the ERP faster and with fewer mistakes. What I want to call out, though, is that the barcode scanner is indeed a plug and play tool in this use case, as it’s just sending the scanned barcode through the keyboard interface to the ERP.
Now, when it comes to mobile computers that are used for much more than just data entry, you might feel the integration can get more complex – and you wouldn’t be wrong. But complex doesn’t mean “harder” in this case. It just means that it’s going to require a little more effort than plugging in a device and powering it on.
That’s because mobile computers are used for far more than just data capture. They offer workers a tool that can support all tasks and plug into all systems in a highly optimized way.
Imagine a forklift driver being dispatched to pick up a load and drop it somewhere else. That worker will not benefit at all from having to navigate through a series of detailed screens to do data entry in an ERP form. But they would benefit greatly from a user interface (UI) optimized for use on a forklift-mounted rugged tablet computer with an attached RFID scanner. They could see at a glance what to pick up, where to get it and where to drop it, then scan the whole pallet load at once when they drop it at the new location. Their screen could be un-cluttered, keeping them focused only on the work being done. However, integrating that worker application running on the mobile computer with the ERP could result in many ERP transactions being automatically generated and sent to the ERP system. And since the ERP doesn’t provide screens optimized for someone busy driving or working, this requires some extra “integration” work.
Similarly, integrating RFID readers with your ERP systems adds another level of complexity, whether the RFID reader is fixed or part of a mobile computer. Once again, that’s because of the quantity and speed of the data entries occurring via the device. While barcode scanning typically enters one data entry field or value per scan, RFID readers can read many items at the same time, sometimes up to hundreds of items.
When entering the transaction data for a single item, a barcode is a good choice. You can see the item and the barcode and fill in the form for that item. But when you can scan (or read) data from hundreds of items at a time, which form are you filling out? Are you even in front of a data entry screen? As you’d imagine, RFID readers might not feed a standard single ERP transaction without a little extra work. You’re going to have to queue the scanned items into multiple ERP transactions at the very least. If you’re going to that trouble though, you’ll quickly realize that entering hundreds of transactions at once requires a different interface to your ERP system than a data entry screen.
While this extra work, overall summed up as “integration”, adds complexity and isn’t plug and play, it can add tremendous value to your investment in ERP and your workforce. It lets your workers move goods, serve patients or build cars more efficiently while keeping the ERP fed and accurate. And with fixed RFID readers, your workers may never need to interact with the data collection at all – their actions are simply detected and recorded as they work, for truly automated data collection.
So, you can now understand why integrating these kinds of automated data collection into your ERP might not be plug and play. And why that extra effort is worth it as there’s more value to be had from automated data collection than simple avoidance of data entry errors.
Here are things you need (or want) to do and why:
You want to free up workers to work, not be stuck doing data entry. One great way to do that is to use fixed RFID readers to simply record the actions taken by workers. Since RFID readers can “see” goods, assets or workers based on their RFID labels or tags or badges, you can install a system that can automatically read those as they pass by an RFID reader. Since the movement of goods and workers is a reasonable proxy for business workflows, you can use the RFID reads to detect movement and subsequently figure out business events – and you can use that collected data to generate the necessary transactions to send to the ERP system.
In some use cases, you either can’t get enough information from the installed fixed readers alone or can’t install the readers everywhere you’d like operational visibility. In some cases, you will want the worker to be involved for additional detail or confirmation. In these cases, the worker will need a user interface they can operate while they’re doing their regular job. That means they’ll need a mobile data capture device running an application optimized for the worker – likely either a handheld computer or larger screen rugged tablet. Including RFID support here gives the worker additional data entry leverage by enabling more than one ERP event at a time.
The last “overall” thing you need to do is understand that a barcode scan of one field directly into an ERP screen is a different situation from a worker-optimized app or an RFID reader locating and decoding hundreds of items. In the mobile app case, you need to automate information gathering to feed the data you want in the ERP, without wasting the worker’s time. In the case of automated RFID reads, the read stream needs to be decoded and converted into data – specifically, transactions – the ERP system can receive and understand.
So, while barcode scanners, RFID readers and mobile computers with both barcode scan and RFID read capabilities aren’t simply plug and play in ERP systems, these devices can absolutely be integrated with those systems. I've been doing it for 20 years and will help you do it the right way.
In my next post, I’ll share more about what that “right” way is so that you can get exactly what you want from your data capture hardware and your ERP system. Stay tuned for that post, and feel free to contact me in the meantime with any questions.