Visibility tools already in your pocket

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There was a time that supply chains were swamped with data. But with the systems now in place to handle live information, data capture is back in the spotlight, says Johanna Parsons.

Historically, the problem with data was not getting it, but putting it to good use. Social media, instant reporting and the latest programmes and processing speeds now enable some extremely clever uses for data, so the pressure is back on to get the most out of data collection itself.

The focus on doing the job faster, and more efficiently means that no business can afford to overlook the potential of new technologies, and the variety of devices on the market has never been wider.

Often, the workplace for logistics operations are warehouses – static, but full of sharp edges and concrete floors. In these cases, efficiency often demands robust devices, with ever faster computing power. To that end, devices are getting tougher, and using technologies from the consumer market to be cleverer too.

Smartphones have proven their worth in more diverse work environments, such as for distribution operations like proof of delivery. But it’s not just in the hands of the logistics worker, that smart devices can work.

Customer facing roles in services, leisure and retail in particular, can use personal devices to feed live data back to the supply chain, without requiring the robust functions of more heavily used equipment. “The ability to scan and capture data via a smartphone or tablet gives them an advantage in terms of offering real-time information about stock availability,” says Samuel Mueller, chief executive officer of Scandit. “With a dedicated smartphone connected to the back-office system, data capture can be leveraged instantly and dynamically.”

Paul Ridden, managing director of Skillweb agrees, “It is now possible for full supply chain visibility to be achieved cost effectively using day-to-day technology we all use, combined with innovative software apps and cloud based systems.”

And even the consumer now plays a part. In this new world of e-retail, shoppers are increasingly using their smart devices’ scanning capabilities, and this gives retailers and their supply chains a huge opportunity.

“Customers can use data capture apps to scan barcodes, retrieve information about a product, check on its price and availability (not just from that retailer, but from competitive outlets too) and then make an informed decision,” says Mueller.

And after purchase, shoppers want even more data. “More consumers are expecting 100 per cent electronic data visibility in near real time with paper alternatives no longer providing a viable stop gap,” says Ridden.

But this can also work for the retailer. If a customer uses their device to scan and capture data about a product in-store, the retailer can use this by responding with information such as offers, discounts and “low stock” warnings to help to close the sale.

And this level of interaction also gives retailers an added stream of data to utilise. Alex Mills of Chess Logistics Technology points out: “Technically there is no reason why data captured at this point should not remain in the supply chain systems that are used to ensure the ultimate fulfilment. In other words, the consumer instigates the entire supply chain process through their initial action.”

This is a prime example of how data is now being used to power  smart and lean practice. “Many organisations are moving to systems where stock is available for sale as soon as it enters the warehouse and is registered on their WMS and sales systems (which is usually very quickly thanks to electronic pre-delivery advice, in-bound scanning and integration of various relevant applications)… before there is any need for conventional put-away storage,” explains Mills.

New shapes

This type of innovation is giving new shape to our data capture systems. Processing speeds are getting ever faster and with so many ways to be smart or tough, devices can be reformulated for any application.

“We are really beginning to see a convergence in smartphone technology and conventional rugged PDA,” says Ridden, giving the example of Motorola’s TC55 that features smartphone ergonomics, rugged durability and the functional features for field mobility and delivery markets.

And Honeywell is targeting retail workers from both angles, with its Captuvo scanning accessories for iPads and its upgraded handheld scanners.

The new Dolphin 6110 is ultra-lightweight and has a 800 MHz processor, increased memory and a broader WLAN range to enable what it reckons is the industry’s fastest scanning and decoding speeds. It  provides instinctive data entry with Adaptus 6.0 to read linear and 2D bar codes and capture digital images.

Last year Vocollect launched what it reckons is the first integrated voice and scanning system in one wearable device, the Talkman A700.

This includes the A730 device which has an integrated belt mounted short-range scanner. Workers give a voice command to activate the scanner when moving labels past the scan target, allowing hands-free scanning for process steps such as inducting totes at the beginning of assignments, batch-picking, and product traceability, while retaining the ergonomic and performance benefits of a compact, purpose-built mobile device.

“In the past we have deployed Bluetooth ring scanners to support scanning in voice workflows. All indications are that eliminating the extra piece of equipment, the additional battery required to power the scanner, and the management of pairing the Bluetooth scanners to the Vocollect Talkman A700 solution will be beneficial in both productivity and reduction of maintenance,” says Bill Morris, senior director, hardware systems, Manhattan Associates.

Intermec, now owned by Honeywell, has been developing wearable and glass enabled scanners for some years now, and the much feted “Google Glass” launch last year put such high concept tech squarely on the agenda.

Scandit’s Mueller says: “We are embracing this by providing highly optimised support for Google Glass in the new version of our Barcode Scanner SDK, and this will leverage our blurry scanning and dynamic range capabilities.

“We predict that in the enterprise, Glass and similar wearable devices will enable ‘hands free’ inventory management, procurement and asset tracking allowing an employee to look at a barcode on a carton, or a pallet, say ‘scan’ and retrieve associated data, or capture data for recording inventory. ”

Just as the internet has changed the way we share information, smartphones and the BYOD phenomenon have changed the way we collect it. The challenge of balancing requirements to find the best system for each business remains paramount – but there’s an awful lot more options, and exciting tech, to chose from.

Case study: QVC buys up Datalogic devices

Home shopping channel QVC selected mobile solutions company Peak-Ryzex to overhaul the auto ID kit at its Knowsley distribution centre on Merseyside, which picks and despatches over 15 million units a year.

The contract covers the supply of 170 new radio frequency bar code scanning terminals together with Peak-Ryzex’s managed services and support for an initial five-year term.

Datalogic’s rugged Falcon X3 wireless handhelds were chosen to replace legacy bar code scanning equipment. The new ergonomic terminals will be used in the warehouse for scanning goods in/goods out and paperless picking and stock control.
The devices are connected via roaming or wired standards including USB, RS-232, modem and Ethernet.

They capture data with a high performance laser scanner with Green Spot, an auto ranging laser (XLR) scanner, or a 2D imager with Green Spot combined with a 3 Mega pixel colour camera.

Peak-Ryzex staging means that all devices arrive on site fully configured, loaded, and licensed with software.

“Peak-Ryzex is providing a comprehensive service and support package that covers all our handheld requirements,” said Andy Shuker, warehouse systems manager, QVC UK.

We do not need to worry about setting up the equipment or what happens if we have a failure, Peak-Ryzex manages all that for us; we simply get on with our job knowing that we have fully functioning handheld scanners and back up.”

Case study: Supermarkets get NFT data direct

Chilled distribution specialist NFT wanted to improve the processes used to handle and manage proof of delivery notes and speed up the identification and resolution of discrepancies.

The firm, whose customers include retailers such as Sainsbury, Morrisons, Tesco and ASDA, asked e-docs UK to design a solution that would streamline the handling of more than 100,000 PODs every week, incorporating a web-based, query management system.

In the new system all supplier PODs and retailer goods receipt notes are scanned and then sent to ABBYY FlexiCapture where the documents are read and meta data is automatically extracted for indexing using criteria including supplier name, PO number, delivery date and delivery point.

Customers now have direct access to all delivery documentation, improving  search and retrieval processes.

“We would not have been able to deliver this solution within budget with any other capture product on the market than ABBYY FlexiCapture,” says Colin Baterip, managing director of e-docs UK. “On an annual basis we have saved over £100,000 in production costs thanks to a variety of features in FlexiCapture.”

“Implementing this system with e-docs UK highlighted a number of areas in our business where improvements could be made,” says Stephen Szikora NFT’s head of IT.

“It has helped us to us get a grip on our data and systems and the integration with both the Sainsbury and Tesco electronic GRN systems has been a real bonus.”

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