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From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

- Feb. 20, 2013 -

Logistics News: What are the Latest Trends in Data Collection and Wireless in Distribution?

Hands-Free (Voice and Wearables) Continue to Gain Share, Motorola's Wheeler Says; Tablet Interest High for Some DC Applications


 SCDigest Editorial Staff

This week, SCDigest editor Dan Gilmore gave a presentation at the Motorola Solutions Channel Partner Expo, an event for resellers of Motorola equipment and systems.

At the event in Las Vegas, Gilmore had the chance to sit down with Mark Wheeler, a director of industry solutions for Motorola focused on the warehouse and distribution sector, to discuss his perspectives on user trends for wireless data collection devices.

SCDigest Says:

All you really have to do is follow say a worker doing replenishment and watch him or her do their job putting down and picking up a traditional handheld terminal or trying to hold both the terminal and the carton at once, and the opportunities for hands-free become very clear.
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Gilmore: I am very intrigued and positive on the "wearable" wireless devices, which I think can offer some excellent productivity gains. How is user adoption going?

Wheeler: All told very good, certainly growing at faster than the overall wireless market. We have a huge number of devices out there, so it sets a high bar for growth.

It's interesting, some companies have a sort of cultural thing going on where they for some reason don't think they want their associates to wear a device, even though they are very light weight and ergonomic when say worn on the forearm. That can sometimes be a barrier to adoption.

Gilmore: That doesn't make any sense to me today - I have been in 4 or 5 DCs using wearables, and the workers there seem to love them. Has anyone ever deployed wearables and later pulled them out because of operator ergonomic issues?

Wheeler: No, as you said, users love them once they have them. It makes their jobs easier, and they don't have to carry around say a traditional handheld. If it is an issue with the idea, it comes from management not associates.

Gilmore: What kinds of companies are adopting wearables?

Wheeler: A wide variety of companies. We see a lot of interest in parcel sortation, where wearables have a natural fit [SCDigest note: UPS was an early and continuing customer].

3PLs also love wearables due to the flexibility they can provide. And the third area is really in any company that wants to use voice, which our wearables can support, but need to also capture other data via a bar code scan, such as a serial number.

Gilmore: That last example is the sort of so-called "multi-modal" type of device that supports different data collection types. Is that need really starting to crystalize in the market?

Wheeler: Multi-modal thinking is gaining traction though still early in its development. But in addition to the existing needs and flexibility multi-modal devices provide companies, new requirements like the emerging food safety rules that should soon be released are likely to increase the attractiveness of multi-modal for a new group of companies.

Gilmore: Whether it is wearables or voice or a combination, the common denominator is "hands free." For many of DC tasks, picking and replenishment especially, the case for the advantages of hands-free seems simply overwhelming to me - often 20-30% in productivity gains. It should become a best practice, in my opinion.

Wheeler: All you really have to do is follow say a worker doing replenishment and watch him or her do their job putting down and picking up a traditional handheld terminal or trying to hold both the terminal and the carton at once, and the opportunities for hands-free become very clear.

[Wheeler also shared the name of a large autoparts retailer and a few ecommerce retailers that had recently adopted wearable devices, but the names cannot yet be released.]

(Distribution/Materials Handling Story Continues Below )


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Gilmore: Let's change gears a little bit. You have had a ruggedized tablet in the market for a short while. Any uptick for tablets yet n distribution?

Wheeler: A lot of interest, but not as you would expect a lot of adoption yet. But we're showing the devices to a number of companies. The interest is there.

I think you will see it adopted first for supervisors and managers who want to see performance data and related information in a graphic format, and/or want to be able to do that while also accessing some other functions such as email.

We are also seeing interest in using tablets in areas where you have manage a lot of different data at the same time, such as receiving - vendor information, an ASN, quality checks, etc. A tablet may make that process a lot more efficient than a traditional handheld where you can only see a limited amount of information.

Gilmore: That is actually an interesting point. Even though Windows CE-based wireless devices have been out there for a long while now, most companies continue to use just terminal emulation, character-based connections to the WMS, rather than a more visual display. Any change brewing there?

Wheeler: It's slow. The reality is that a Telnet terminal emulation approach is proven and provides very effective performance. The information packets going to the device are very small.

Going to more of a browser-based interface probably adds some complexity in terms of performance that will need to be worked out over time. But some of the WMS vendors are starting to do some very interesting things to take more advantage of what Windows CE can support, so I believe we will start to seem some migration over time.

Gilmore: You said during your presentation that you have seen a trend around companies looking for smaller truck-mounted terminals. Explain.

Wheeler: Yes - of late, a growing number of companies are interested in shrinking the size of those terminals for safety reasons by maximizing the visibility of the truck driver.

We have recently introduced our Motorola VC70 terminal, which has a screen size of just 10 inches, to respond to this need.

Gilmore: You also see some opportunity for a less rugged device for DC workers that don't need continuous wireless access that comes in at a much lower price point.

Wheeler: I think so.

Our SB1 device was really designed for retail applications, but we are seeing interest in distribution as well. It is a wireless device with basic bar code scanning capabilities, and would be ideal to enable wireless connectivity for workers that aren't given devices today.

For example, associates in a pick-to-light area might have occasional need to interface with the WMS, but companies don't necessarily want to spend the money on a regular handheld to provide them that capability.

But with the SB1 coming in at just $300 or so, it now becomes very affordable to do that.

Are you seeing wireless trends in the DC similar to Wheeler's views? What would you add? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below (email) or in the Feedback section. Anonymity will be provided upon request.

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