Common functions for supply chain management includes: Goods are counted and inspected. The bills of lading are checked and signed. Goods are labeled, stacked, and stored. Transaction data is recorded. In a growing number of warehouses around the world, workers are performing these functions without ever lifting a finger. Using eye tracking and control technology, they can enter data, process checklists, sign documents, and perform routine warehouse duties hands-free.
AI makes running a supply chain much more flexible. And because the interfaces aren’t dependent on any particular software system, businesses can use the technology at every point along the global chain. It’s an attractive proposition for manufacturers who want to explore digital transformation and achieve disruption in their industries: In the past, data entry for inventory, warehousing, and purchasing processes was largely performed manually. By adding hands-free functionality to manufacturing systems on the assembly line end users can enjoy a greatly enhanced user experience.
While computing in the supply chain is nothing new, many existing systems are running on bulky and dated equipment, limiting the flexibility and efficiency of employees. The issue isn’t confined to one segment of the supply chain. From suppliers to retailers, it’s not uncommon to be conducting day-to-day operations with outdated supply chain applications and hardware.
Thankfully, these inefficiencies can be addressed with new and emerging technology specifically, mobile apps, mixed reality (augmented reality, smart glasses, and virtual reality), machine learning, and voice recognition.
These technologies provide neat and straightforward fixes for various pain points along the supply chain not just for suppliers and manufacturers, but all the way down to distributors, retailers, and consumers. For example, advanced inventory management apps allow suppliers to track raw materials, manufacturers to decrease the time to manufacture and ship, and retailers to more effectively track their stock.
Flexibility = productivity
Of course, multi-channel fulfillment is changing data collection requirements, with more need to track reverse logistics, apply labels to small orders and generally account for more complex movement of goods.
For these situations, a rugged RF handheld with a camera-based imager that can capture an image, or scan 1D or 2D codes is a good solution, especially when paired with a small, wearable printer. On the fly you can create the right label to put on an item or package being returned so that the next person moving it can scan that label and take it where it needs to go next.
For lift truck operators especially, travel to a fixed printer can be a productivity drain, since they have to stop, park the truck in a safe place, and walk to a print station to get more labels. With mobile bar code printing, the right labels are being printed on demand, exactly when and where they are needed.
By integrating Real-time locating systems (RTLS) with WMS it becomes easy to track movement of goods that in the past would have been hard to accomplish without extensive manual inputs into a warehouse management system (WMS). If those trucks are being tracked by an RTLS that is integrated with WMS, all a lift truck operator has to do when leaving goods in an overflow area is to drop the goods and make a quick input that the goods were dropped off. The RTLS automatically conveys to the WMS the exact location of the goods.
Smart glasses are another new mobile device technology that can be used for order picking. For industrial users, Google Glass smart glasses are available, and so are smart glasses from providers such as Vuzix. For picking, smart glasses can be more productive than conventional RF handhelds because the operation is hands free. While smart glasses are new to warehouses, another hands-free picking technology: voice solutions have been widely deployed. There is still a strong trend to replace RF scanning with voice because of the hands-free benefits.
Ultimately, the market should keep an open mind about mobile devices and data collection for DCs, since no single technology is right for every application. But for sure, the market has changed from the days when mobility meant RF-enabled terminals with small monochrome screens, terminal emulation and laser scanning.