Each year, the processing power, size and capability of mobile devices improve. The same holds for consumer or industrial devices, although the appetite for cutting-edge technology is very different in those two sectors. Warehousing and distribution are proudly risk-averse, and even those who have sought to modernize are often limited by unwieldy legacy software and entrenched processes that have changed little over the decades.
Call it a perfect storm, tipping point or paradigm shift, but a confluence of factors is poised to rapidly and radically transform the use of mobile devices in warehouses and DCs.
The impending support sunset for Windows mobile operating systems (OS) is driving a mass migration to Android OS, a platform that promises lifelong support for enterprise devices, easy integration of smart devices like tablets and wearables, and improved security.
Cloud-based or managed services are growing in popularity, decreasing the IT burden while increasing long-term operational agility. Analytics, artificial intelligence, neural networks and machine learning are improving the ability of mobile devices and voice-directed solutions to capture and process data to optimize operations.
This is all happening against a backdrop of vastly greater savviness among users and solution providers.
There's a lot of awareness now in terms of the fit for use of a device, says Krishna Venkatasamy, chief technology officer for Lucas Systems. Ten years ago customers would buy a scan gun whether they needed it or not. But now if they're using voice for data entry, why carry the gun, too? Buyers are smarter and are deciding on devices based on their fitness for the application.
The industry is moving toward shrinking form factors for devices, Venkatasamy says, especially in voice-directed applications. In fact, he says some customers are now working to use Luca's technology on a smart watch. If users seldom need a screen, a smart watch's processing power, memory and Wi-Fi connectivity make it a fit for a stand-alone device.
As devices become smaller, more capable and more wearable, they are rewriting the concept of data entry, according to Bruce Stubbs, director of supply chain marketing at Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions. In the not-too-distant future, technology elements like voice, touchscreens and even augmented reality will combine to create a more natural human interface.
Having to hold, point and pull a trigger is mechanical, and takes time and thought,bStubbs says. Speaking, listening and seeing are second nature. At this point, the idea of utilizing synergies between man and machine is not a far reach but a small nudge.
Technology on the move
Bryce Keeney, chief technology officer of PC manufacturer Teguar, remembers becoming fascinated by the variety of ways customers wanted to use a mobile computer. The same device might be docked to a station or forklift, carried by hand or outfitted with any number of accessories to support tasks throughout a facility.
Although the form factor excited them, many customers underestimated the software implications of moving to a tablet from a fixed terminal with large screen, keyboard and mouse.
If customers haven't put any real money into the software side, they're taking a program designed to be displayed on a 15-inch monitor and want it to fit on a 10-inch tablet, Keeney says. Without rewriting software, that can be difficult.
Desktop screens tend to be oriented in landscape mode wider than tall but not tablets. When a touchscreen replaces a mouse, buttons should be bigger. Keeney says it might make sense to pre-program a tablet's physical buttons to perform the most common actions, or sequence of actions.
Just asking these questions is a great step that some people aren't thinking about, Keeney says. When I go and watch a warehouse operator who has been doing something for 10 years, they're crazy fast. If you plan new technology deployments so ....