Podcast | 3 Common Mobility Myths (and 3 Key Milestones) to Be Aware of When Modernizing Your Warehouse

Greater Order Volume and Fulfillment Velocity are Just Two of the Many Factors Driving a Fast Migration to New, More Holistic Mobility Solutions

A warehouse worker uses a Zebra MC9300 handheld mobile computer to scan a pallet.
by Darren Koffer
September 09, 2019

I wanted to share a podcast I recorded recently with a technology industry monitor who was curious about the many changes happening in warehouses right now. Michael Lippis, who leads the Outlook Series podcast, had heard about the fulfillment challenges, labor shortages and growth opportunities brought about by the e-Commerce boom and wanted to know the role that technology is playing, or could play, in addressing these pain points and enabling warehouses’ upward trajectory.

As you will hear when you listen to the podcast, I spoke a great deal about how rising order volumes and new velocity demands are forcing all supply chain organizations to rethink their fulfillment strategies and make broad-stroke changes to their operational model. This, of course, means they must make sometimes significant changes to their technology architectures and utilization levels. Then, there are things happening in the technology industry – not exclusive to warehousing – that are forcing fast changes in the warehouse. 

All of this combined can lead to confusion about how best to move forward from a technology perspective. 

It’s also leading many customers to question whether some of the recommendations that Zebra and others are making are really in the best interest of warehouse operators as they look to improve their operational efficiencies and gain competitive advantages in the new on-demand economy.

So, I thought I would call out some of the common myths that you may be seeing online or hearing from others and then quickly summarize the key three milestones that you should work toward during your technology modernization/migration efforts in case you’re not able to tune into the full podcast right now…

Myth #1: Windows®-based mobile technology is evolving to support modern warehouse workflows. 

To be fair, this is only half myth. The truth is that many rugged tablets used in the warehouse by supervisors or on cart-picking systems – those running on a professional-grade Windows operating systems (OS) – will remain viable mobile computers for a long time. Tablets are often viewed as desktop extensions and are actually managed by IT as “desktops,” even though they are often used on the front line, far away from a traditional desktop environment. And since the professional-grade Windows OS running on these tablets is akin to the Windows OS running on a laptop or desktop computer, these tablets are still well-supported by Microsoft from a security and updates perspective. But rugged tablets’ benefits extend far beyond their OS options and manageability. They also offer the rich graphics, touchscreens, built-in barcode and RFID readers and other mobile computing features that are needed in the warehouse – features not offered by traditional Windows laptops or desktops. 

However, the Windows-based handheld computers that have long been found in the hands of warehouse workers – those picking, packing, loading, etc. – are nearing end of life. Not specifically because the devices themselves may no longer be functional, but because Microsoft has de-vested in the Windows Mobile operating systems, which these devices are powered by.  As Microsoft ends the extended support for Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 OS by 2020 and the Windows Embedded Compact 7.0 OS by 2021, warehouse operations become exposed with an unsupported OS and no roadmap to provide feature enhancements that can evolve to support business needs. Given the strict supply chain security requirements that exist today, warehouse operators have no choice but to migrate to Android™ devices – at least when it comes to handheld devices.

In fact, the Android migration is one of four changes that warehouses can’t avoid right now. The other three being the e-Commerce boom, time crunch and labor shortage – all of which I mentioned above and my colleagues have talked extensively about here on Your Edge. But, the move from Windows to Android handhelds doesn’t have to be “disruptive.” In fact, it can be a very “enabling” investment. Equipping workers with Android devices that – other than the OS – are very similar to previously used Windows devices will make it easier for them to accept change. Plus, many workers use Android devices in their personal lives, so that level of familiarity makes it easier to on-board Android devices in the warehouse. In other words, it’s very possible to maintain a stable operation while you’re setting up your business with the mobility solutions needed to handle current and future challenges.

Myth #2: Any Android touch computing device will deliver the mobility benefits I need to keep pace with the demands of the now economy.

I think one of the biggest challenges that warehouse operators face in their migration to Android is figuring out which Android mobile devices are actually suitable for use in the warehouse. 

According to some sources, Android overtook Windows as the “world’s most popular operating system” over two years ago. The market is flooded with smartphones, tablets and other mobile computers being pitched as “business-grade.” 

But warehouse operators need industrial-grade devices with industrial-grade durability, security, manageability, scalability, longevity and more. They also need heightened levels of input/output (I/O) connectivity, wireless communication capabilities and software compatibility. And warehouse workers can only keep pace with rising volume and velocity levels if they have the right barcode and RFID scanning technologies. 

Though a consumer-grade or business-grade smartphone or tablet may be pitched to warehouse operators as a simple or inexpensive option, you would be hard-pressed to find warehouse operators who achieve their desired return on investment (ROI) from these types of off-the-shelf consumer brand Android devices long-term. 

Think about it this way, if any Android device (or any Windows tablet) would work, warehouse operators would have been using them for years now. There’s a reason why they chose to invest in the more industrial-grade Windows devices over the last decade. It’s the same reason they need an industrial-grade Android device powered by an enterprise-grade Android OS today.

Myth #3: Your device decision is the most important decision.

Zebra’s Director of Supply Chain Solutions Mark Wheeler recently talked about the need to pair humans with the right tech tools, including robots, to achieve certain productivity goals in the modern warehouse. But technology does not translate exclusively into "hardware." In fact, your software decisions make a greater impact on your hardware ROI than you may realize. 

That leads me to the first milestone that you need to target when modernizing your warehouse:

Milestone #1: Identify the workflows that utilize mobile technologies today – and those that don’t, but would benefit from mobility solutions – and map out the ideal flow. This will help you build a future-ready technology architecture.

Identifying what’s working and what’s not in your current processes will help you determine whether or not you can get away with a (somewhat) simple one-to-one swap from a Windows to Android platform or whether the workflow software needs to be significantly redesigned as well. 

If the same Windows mobile devices have been in use for the last three, five or seven years, it’s likely you have been using the same workflow software the whole time too. Those “well-optimized” processes that you may not want to mess with may not be working as well as you think; it may just be that workarounds have been serving as a band-aid for so long that they’ve been accepted as normal.

This is your chance to identify those places in your workflow where workers are getting stuck most often and refine your technology strategy to introduce new efficiencies. I recommend making a list of all of your pain points, and don’t be afraid to get down to the nitty-gritty details of how many extra steps or seconds it takes to pick, pack, or put away items, for example. Then sit down with a technology solution partner who can recommend ways that hardware and software solutions can be applied or refined to address every single one of those issues. These changes/improvements don’t have to happen all at once. But you do need to map out every challenge and goal from the start so that you don’t make a technology decision today that could prevent you from solving these problems or securing these gains a year or five years from now. 

Milestone #2: Deploy and refine your next-generation mobility solutions, then make sure you have the right services and support to manage them for the next 5+ years.

Mobile device stability is one of the key enablers of operational stability as fulfillment demands increase. 

That’s why getting the right devices in the hands of your workers is just the first step to improving productivity and efficiency and eliminating costly fulfillment errors and delays. Making sure those devices are operating at peak performance levels is the next. And it’s an important step that will require a longer-term investment. 

Because of the high number of device handoffs that occur between workers in any given day, it is critical that you have an easy way to track a device’s battery life, analyze device performance and optimize device availability. You also need a way to push security and software updates without pulling a device off the floor, balance the load on your mobile devices and get ahead of break/fix scenarios. That is why an investment in “visibility and control” tools can pay dividends. They typically go above and beyond your traditional enterprise mobility management (EMM) or mobile device management (MDM) platforms to analyze hundreds of key performance indicators and notify you when something is below your defined performance threshold. For example, if workers are forgetting to re-charge devices between shifts, or if they’re overcharging devices and draining batteries, then you will be alerted so that corrective action can be taken and device downtime averted. 

Now, we understand that some customer might think twice about adding on such services when budgets are tight and expenses have to be prioritized. But investing in these types of services and support will help to keep your total cost of ownership (TCO) down, which is really how you should be thinking about bottom line impact.

Milestone #3: Identify – and invest in – the other technologies that will enhance your mobility solution and help maximize your mobility ROI.

I know that Zebra talks a lot about mobile technologies in the warehouse, and mobility should be your top priority. It delivers significant benefits from the moment a new device is onboarded. But we also advocate for widespread mobile technology investments because handheld touch computers and tablets are the foundational tools needed to benefit from the more advanced technologies that are starting to make their way into the warehouse. Augmented reality (AR), Internet of Things (IoT), wearables, blockchain and even automation require some level of mobile device involvement. In some cases, the mobile device is one of the tools by which data is captured and distributed to and from other systems (i.e. blockchain). And many of today’s AR applications in the warehouse are actually delivered via the mobile device, as demonstrated here. Even warehouses that employ robots still rely on human workers, and those workers need mobile devices that can tell them when and where to meet the robots to pick and pack items.

As I mentioned, I talk more about why these milestones are so important in the podcast and offer tips on how best to achieve each, no matter the size of your warehouse or supply chain. If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, I highly recommend you take a few minutes today to do so. 

PLAY THE PODCAST NOW

I also have one favor…

Can you share with me some of the biggest pain points you’re facing in your warehouse today? (Just leave a Comment below.)

I’d also be curious to know if there are other myths that you’ve heard – or other questions you have – about:

  1. What mobile technologies can or can’t do to improve picking, packing, put away, shipping/receiving, etc. or provide the efficiency and productivity gains you are looking for within your operations
  2. Which mobile technologies will/will not work in the warehouse (from both the OS and form factor perspectives)
  3. What other technologies might work better than traditional mobile devices to improve workflows

Just leave me a note below. I think this could be an interesting discussion.

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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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