Mobile Moves the Needle in Warehousing and Fulfillment Operations

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Mobile Moves the Needle in Warehousing and Fulfillment Operations

By Marco Nielsen, Managed Mobility Services - 06/12/2018

Nearly every retail business has felt the disruptive impact of mobile technology and e-commerce. What has been called the “Amazon effect” has prompted deep changes that run throughout the supply chain, touching every aspect from order and pick and pack to delivery logistics.

For many companies, warehousing and fulfillment have felt the full brunt of change due to efforts to gain efficiency and reduce costs while serving customers who demand faster shipments and 100 percent accuracy. In this ever-changing environment, the drive for effective supply chain management has swept away most pen-and-paper logistics management practices to force heavier reliance on new and increasingly affordable mobile technology.

This trend was inevitable as mobile devices and a growing body of applications became more ubiquitous and demonstrated value with their speed, accuracy and flexibility. It’s not easy to find a warehouse today that doesn't depend heavily on wearable computers, barcode scanners and forklift mounted terminals used for most aspects of inventory control, shipping and handling.

While mobility has undoubtedly contributed to efficiency and profitability, it is shortsighted to think that just deploying these devices will guarantee a sustainable competitive advantage. A company’s investment in mobility solutions must take into consideration several key challenges.

First, mobile productivity depends on a disciplined, secure environment. Many companies have been found to lack processes and resources related to their mobile platforms and applications.  One survey of IT decisionmakers found that more than half regard their warehouse mobility deployments as “immature.”

It also is vital that you select and deploy devices and apps in close cooperation with users, whether those users serve clients directly or work on a warehouse floor. With user input, the mobile experience is more likely to meet employee needs and expectations. 

Finally, mobile technology should be deployed as part of a broad IT or business strategy. Successful companies must move methodically from an environment where device and app selections are based on specific business needs. Mobility can help be leveraged to meet strategic and operational goals while uncovering business opportunities.

Despite persistent margin pressures, most companies have made significant improvements throughout their supply chains, including the adoption of mobile devices and other technology to improve warehouse management and fulfillment for customers. It is now a given that delivery logistics can add significantly to the quality of a customer's experience as well as to overall corporate profitability.

The shift to the modern warehouse isn't cheap, and cost pressures often lead companies to limit mobility or to leave mobile technology in place beyond its sell-by date.  However, it's a dicey balancing act when weighing cost against performance. At some point, a rugged hand-held device and its aging apps can fail or suffer increasing performance issues. (This is a widespread problem that has been worsened by certain external factors, such as Microsoft's decision to drop support for its Windows mobile OS from June 2018. The move will affect the majority of older rugged type devices deployed in the late 2000s.)

The fact is that most companies simply can't afford to lose the technology edge. However, new technology doesn't necessarily come at a prohibitive price, and many companies are getting creative. For example, new mobile technology, including smartphones and consumer-grade tablets, are increasingly replacing rugged devices by adding rugged peripherals such as snap on barcode scanners and rugged cases.

The bigger challenge is to procure and deploy devices and apps that can be easily upgraded and that work within a broader technology ecosystem. The same device that enables a picker to select the right merchandise for a store or an individual customer can instantaneously contribute to another task such as inventory control. Mobile device usage will also expand with the growth of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, app proliferation and wider use of voice-activated technology.

It pays to have mobility experts who are adept at applying the right hardware and apps for a particular problem while considering the broader supply chain management needs. This is where other parts of the business will play a valuable role in the selection and application of mobile devices and apps.

Still, the selection and deployment of the right devices at the right point in the supply chain will be an ongoing challenge. Ultimately, companies will have two choices: either invest heavily in building up considerable internal IT talent or lean on third-party mobility experts for support. In fact, many enterprises are turning to such outsourced options as Mobility as a Service (MaaS), a holistic mobility program that can include mobility planning, deployment, troubleshooting, repair and replacement services.

Regardless of the mobility challenge, related decisions should always take place within a broader strategic framework. The selection of hardware and software should not be made on the basis of where your business is today, but where you expect it to be five years from now as your industry and supporting technologies continue to evolve.

To some degree, this kind of thinking is behind a growing number of mobility-enabled enterprise initiatives aimed at creating a more efficient, flexible supply chain rather than focusing on incremental cost reductions that rarely add sustainable value. This kind of future-looking strategy will rest heavily on how you identify, deploy and manage the right mobility and digital technologies.

The retail industry, in particular, must continuously fine-tune warehousing and fulfillment strategies that will best support innovation and new business models that will be built around demanding, tech-savvy consumers.  Leveraging mobility is not just an efficiency and cost-savings play for delivery logistics – it will be, increasingly, at the heart of your efforts to protect and grow your business.

Marco Nielsen is vice president of managed mobility services, Stratix Corp.