For warehouse managers saddled with legacy systems while facing fulfillment pressures, Internet of Things devices could be the answer.

Warehouses are a key link in the supply chain, and every company is looking for ways to keep up with customer demands for fast shipping while lowering costs and addressing special requirements such as food and pharmaceutical safety regulations.

Increasing consumer expectations for fast, accurate shipping and an increase in the number of products shipped are two of the key drivers in warehouse investment, according to a recent Zebra Technologies survey. More than 40 percent of the IT and operations managers cited shorter delivery times as a goal, and 76 percent said they expect an increase in the number of warehouse locations and volume of items shipped.

As companies rush to respond to the demands of e-commerce, some have simply bolted on new capabilities to their existing technologies rather than upgrading from a strategic plan. That can leave fleet managers without a holistic perspective into their operations.

Three-fourths of the IT and operations managers in the Zebra Technologies survey said they plan to move to a more modern warehouse management system by 2020 to manage the increased locations and higher number of items shipped. Top investment priorities by 2020 include equipping staff with technology (73 percent), bar code scanning (68 percent), tablets (66 percent) and Internet of Things (62 percent).

Keeping the Warehouse on the Cutting Edge

By using the most up-to-date mobile and IoT solutions, a warehouse manager can elevate their enterprise to create a truly connected warehouse experience. A smart warehouse can increase productivity and reduce labor and other costs while connecting with other everyone from suppliers to retailers. Mobile technology solutions such as smartphones, tablets and wearables deliver warehouse and distribution center productivity through integrated communication and management tools.

Sensors of various types enable automatic identification and data capture (AIDC) in warehouses, employing technologies such as bar codes, radio frequency identification (RIFD), biometrics and optical character recognition (OCR) to support the growth of management solutions down to pallet/item level tagging.

A warehouse may still use printed pick lists, or may have adopted pick by voice or other technological aids. But a warehouse using Internet of Things devices can direct a picker to the right spot in the warehouse faster and with more information. An IoT-equipped warehouse may upgrade to automated guided vehicles to retrieve items. Sensors in the warehouse can detect locations of people, vehicles and merchandise and can transmit locations and events to warehouse managers and management systems. Additionally, employees using smartphones or tablets can load boxes or pallets on a truck in the correct order for shipping.

Mobile devices can also help warehouse managers re-engineer processes. For instance, in a legacy routine, inbound material put-away and inventory consolidation may be two separate processes. But with a mobile device, directed put-away can incorporate consolidation automatically, reducing the steps and time required to accomplish both tasks separately.

Integrating Mobile Devices

A warehouse manager seeking to upgrade legacy technology to Internet of Things devices can expect benefits in three key aspects of operations:

  1. Optimized Processes: Wearable technology, especially devices that enable hands-free work, reduces the number of steps required to complete tasks such as picking, sorting and staging. Eliminating the need to handle clipboards or larger hand-held computers saves significant time in a high-volume warehouse. Employees can perform any value-added services after prompting on mobile devices.
  2. Reduced Cost: Labor can be reduced or redeployed to higher-value tasks due to improved efficiency. Using a ruggedized device such as the Samsung Galaxy S8 Active can reduce the risk of costly breakage in tough working environments. The Galaxy S8 Active is tested against MIL-STD-810G specifications, with a rugged design and shatter-resistant screen that can stand up to drops of five feet onto flat surfaces. It also has IP68 certification for dust and water resistance.
  3. Reduced Errors: Mobile devices in a properly equipped warehouse can eliminate paper-based processes and the errors that come with manual data entry. Eliminating errors boosts warehouse efficiency and potentially increases the capacity of the warehouse without expansion.

With IoT devices, warehouse managers have access to real-time data to manage product and employee workflows and interface with other aspects of the supply chain such as shipping and transportation.

To incorporate Internet of Things devices in a warehouse, experts recommend a system that will support both new smart devices and legacy devices that may still be in use. The warehouse should support wired and wireless connectivity, and the support infrastructure should include mobile device management systems for device setup and maintenance.

A warehouse connected with Internet of Things devices will help warehouse managers improve efficiency, flexibility and nimbleness in order to meet increasing consumer expectations.

Trends that are contributing to the rise of the digital workforce include augmented reality and the Internet of Things.