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Focus: RFID and Automated Identification and Data Collection (AIDC)

Feature Article from Our RFID and AIDC Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's OnTarget e-Magazine

Nov. 23 , 2011

RFID and Automatic Identification News: Nine Capability Must Haves for Mobility Solutions in the Supply Chain


Newer Capabilities Can Provide Substantial New Ways to Provide and Extend Mobility Applications and Value


SCDigest Editorial Staff


Mobile devices and applications are obviously spreading like wildfire across business generally and supply chain operations, and not only using smart phones.

Many mobile workers in a supply chain context, especially those in route delivery, field service, and other logistics applications, need a more rugged device than a traditional smart phone, as well as other capabilities to meet supply chain related application requirements.

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While these capabilities have proven very valuable in DCs for tasks like order picking by enabling an associate to use both hands all the time, versus picking up and putting down a terminal with a bar code scanner, Hilton believes this hands-free approach can also provide real benefits in many field applications.

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Jim Hilton, a director of industry solutions for the food and beverage sector at Motorola Solutions, noted in a recent Videocast on our Supply Chain Television Channel (sponsored by Supply Chain Services) that today's more rugged mobile devices often can support broadband calling and we apps from leading national services providers, and then can also provide a number of capabilities that smart phones normally don't have.

To that end, on the broadcast Hilton offered a list of nine "must have" that companies considering mobility solutions should consider in picking a system provider and specific devices for mobile employees.

To view the full broadcast, go here: Accelerating Response-Time and Visibility of Supply Chain Processes with Rugged Mobile Computing

1. Wide Area Network/Broadband Capabilities: "Right now, there is something happening out there in the field that if someone else in the organization knew about it right now, the operation would be improved," Hilton said on the broadcast. This can support development of real-time alert capabilities that can create more responsive supply chain organizations.

Hilton notes these alerts can be both "passive" - the system itself determines there is an alert that needs to be communicated -or "active," in which the user takes action to send the information based on their operations. Hilton said many companies and third party software developers are creating software that handles these passive alerts, and which makes it easier for users to send active alerts.

"We think that connecting all these mobile workers in a wide area network leads to competitive advantage," Hilton said.

SCDigest Dan Gilmore noted that many companies are very interested in getting insight from the field in terms of customer plans, market conditions, etc. to support demand planning and sales and operations planning processes, and that mobile applications should be developed that make this as easy as possible.

2. Personal Area Networks: This refers to having more complete capabilities on the user as he or she do their jobs, including not only mobile devices with data capture capabiliites, but also printing capabilities and potentially other features and devices. This can enable the user to get the job done more efficiently in many cases, Hilton said.

"The culture often is to just leave it [the printer] in the truck," Hilton said. "But if I am the manager, I would take action to have that full system stay with the person." He noted that today, the mobile devices and the printer can often be worn on the belt comfortably for delivery drivers and field service managers. "You gain productivity," he added, and sometimes better customer service.

3. Video Capabilities: Here, Hilton is talking about the ability to play videos on the device, noting they can be used for field training, to present a message or promotion to a customer, and dozens of other uses.

"It is very difficult to deliver a consistent message to customers through operators in the field," Hilton said. "Replace that with a short video that can be shown to customers, and you take care of that."

4-5. Hands-Free Data Capture and Voice Directed Applications: Hilton combined 4 and 5 together, because they are really two sides of the same coin: the ability to use voice-based applications on the field the way workers in the distribution center are increasingly doing to gain productivity and accuracy,

Voice systems involve the ability to capture data in a hands-free mode by speaking information, such as a SKU number or other data, into a wearable microphone connected to a mobile devices, so that both hands are still available for handling product or other tasks. Similarly, "commands" or other instructions can be sent to the mobile workers via voice as well.

There is also another approach to hands-free on the data capture, and that is to use a "ring" type of scanner connected to a terminal worn on the belt.

While these capabilities have proven very valuable in DCs for tasks like order picking by enabling an associate to use both hands all the time, versus picking up and putting down a terminal with a bar code scanner, Hilton believes this hands-free approach can also provide real benefits in many field applications as well.

"Your adding more ways to get the same data capture done, and with these two ways (voice and ring scanners), I keep on working," Hilton said. "I don't to stop and write or stop and pick up the terminal to scan." He added that he has seen some field mobility software providers starting to add voice capabilities to the applications. He sees lots of potential especially in direct store delivery.

6. Imagery: Hilton said it may be a cliché, but in reality a picture often is worth a thousand words.

"How much time is spent in the field doing check-out tasks or other activities that if they used an image, that work would go away?" Hilton asked, noting that every Motorola mobility device includes a very high quality camera - but that those capabilities often weren't leverage by users as much as they might be.

That's because the image capture part is easy, Hilton said, but automatically sending that image to where it needs to go takes more thinking and application development, noting this is another reason why having wide-area capabilities is so important.

(RFID and AIDC Story Continued Below)




In a local area context, Gilmore noted he has seen several retailers that are using imaging capabilities to capture "compliance" violations by vendors on inbound shipments, with that image then being automatically sent to the appropriate retailer compliance managers and then ultimately the vendor to document the issue, so there is proof of the reason for a chargeback.

Hilton said we are going to soon see new capabilities around image or video analytics. For example, a direct store delivery person could take a picture of a shelf-set, and software would automatically determine if it was in compliance with the manufacturer or retailer's planogram.

7. Practical Use of GPS: Hilton believes the logistics industry is just at the start of its potential uses of GPS technology. Even though GPS is becoming highly prevalent, Hilton believes a lot more can be done with it.

Navigation capabilities are the foundation, of course, and can be beneficial even for companies that have delivery trucks doing standard "milk runs" that visit the same stores or delivery points each trip. He said staff turnover and unexpected road or traffic conditions can drive the need for GPS-based navigation capabilities.

But maybe more novel is the concept of "geo-fencing," Hilton said. With those capabilities, the software can basically put a boundary fence around an area any field worker should operate in - either generally, or based on the specifics of that day's stops or deliveries. If the mobile worker strays beyond that virtual fence, alerts are generated. There are many other opportunities for productivity enhancing applications with GPS, Hilton says.

He added that there are also opportunities for asset management using GPS - for example, scanning an asset bar code tag that confirms the asset is where it is supposed to be in terms of precise latitude and longitude.

8. Data and Voice Convergence: Tied to the wide area capability, Hilton notes that today there really isn't the need for a mobile worker to carry both a cell phone and a data capture/application terminal - one device can do it all, and it isn't the cell phone that can do the data capture well in most cases. But, the data terminal can provide full cell phone capabilities.

"I can double use that handheld device as a very good cell phone," Hilton said. "When there is voice communication and data communication in one device, it is very efficient."

9. Mobile Payment Capabilities: It doesn't fit everywhere, Hilton said, but an increasing number of mobile apps are going to need to process payments some of the time. This is especially true for field service applications or home delivery where an end consumer is receiving the service or product.

That allows cross selling, up-selling, and obviously immediate settlement of the amount due, Hilton said, versus leaving a bill or accepting a check.

In the Q&A after the formal broadcast, Ken Boyd, director of marketing for Supply Chain Services, a data collection and mobility solutions provider and Motorola partner, said that he is seeing companies investing in technology in those areas that have a impact on the customer, whether that is directly via some of these mobility applications, or wireless systems in the DC that improve picking and shipment accuracy.

"A lot of what we're seeing our applications that are customer-centric and tie manufacturers and distributors closer to their customers," he said.

Do you like Hiltons's list of the nine "must haves?" What would you add? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback area below.

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