Steve Jobs catapulted the smart phone industry into a new era, and David James will always be grateful to him for that. As warehouse manager for The Office City (www.theofficecity.com), a Redwood, Calif.-based provider of office furniture and technology for Northern California, James is responsible for helping his company compete on the same playing field as Office Depot and Staples. That hasn’t been easy for this smaller, more regional company, but by adopting a new wireless communication platform based on the Microsoft Dynamics AX ERP platform, James is optimistic about business prospects in the coming year.
“We’re thankful for what Jobs did back in 2007 with the original iPhone,” he says. “Who knows where we’d be right now if he hadn’t. It’s changed this category for us by putting us on a level with all the larger players.”
The Office City is moving away from the two-way phones they were using to smart phones supplied by Jump Technologies (www.jumptech.com). These use technology based on the HTC 4G smart phone. The initial goal was to give its truck drivers more features so they could improve communications with customer service, sales reps and Office City distribution people. But the real value is how it opened a door to customers. The new ability to capture proof-of-delivery made them more competitive, according to Jerry Carroll, operations manager for The Office City.
“In our industry we’re competing with some big players who have that capacity so this technology made us look larger than we were,” he says. “Second, it automated a process that would take an exorbitant amount of time to collect data and provide it to customers. It also provided direct web access for the customers to collect their own delivery information.”
Next on Carroll’s to-do list is implementing inventory management, purchasing, HR and financials on his wireless network.
“Being able to do stock checks and to receive via tablet or phone is where we’re heading,” he says. “We used to need a computer out there with a long cable when taking inventories. Now we can do scanning off of tablets and phones. We’re just six months into this conversion.”
The wireless network will also allow The Office City to adopt a full warehouse management system (WMS) with radio frequency (RF). The company will integrate with outside suppliers.
“The biggest demand for us is on the front end,” Carroll adds. “Our industry is becoming web based with online ordering, so the quality of content, the speed of search results and the robustness of the system to do routing of approvals are a high-end front-end experience, and that has been the biggest struggle for us. This platform allows us to connect a lot of wireless devices to it, like JumpTech’s, and integrate them into our platform. We can go after larger businesses and bigger opportunities with the system and capabilities we now have.”
Transportation efficiency is another goal. Both Carroll and James are hoping to improve truck routing and driver utilization. That means handling more revenue per truck and reducing miles per stop.
A Smaller World
Grant Opperman shares David James’ belief that Apple changed the world for supply chain partners. Opperman is president and chief strategy officer for D.W. Morgan (www.dwmorgan.com), a supply chain consulting firm and transportation provider. He says the new communications infrastructure is changing the way supply chain partners communicate because it is enabling everyone to tap into capabilities that were previously the domain of the Fortune 500.
“The big moment when everything changed was when Apple released the SDK software development kit for the iPhone,” he says. “All of a sudden here was a mobile player saying we have the network and devices, you develop what you want and put it on our system—which has pre-negotiated carrier agreements in 80 countries.”
Morgan uses Apple’s iPhone to communicate real-time shipment tracking reports and recipient signatures to its global customer base. The iPhone application communicates directly with Morgan’s ChainLinq transportation management system and inventory management applications. The service also integrates the iPhone’s GPS features, providing the exact location of a delivery, which can then be displayed visually on a Google Earth map via the D.W. Morgan Web site.
Are Phones Tough Enough?
But as these supply chain applications broaden they’re also entering territory traditionally dominated by industrialized communications devices used both on the road and in punishing plant and distribution center environments. This has led to a debate about whether consumer-grade iPhones are ready to play in such tough environments. Opperman admits people were skeptical when he told them about the communications infrastructure upon which he was building his company.
“They said, ‘Are you sure you want to do business apps on this? Wouldn’t you rather use Windows Mobile or a Symbol device? This is a toy.’ We said no, it’s a powerful tool and we’ll use it aggressively. We give our mobile workers a super-hardened case for their iPhones and iPads, which helps them survive the rough handling drivers put on them. The old [proprietary industrial] devices are a couple thousand bucks a piece and now you can get a phone for a few hundred dollars.”
He also notes that with some of those old devices information was batched. Mobile users would collect signatures from customers and when they got back to their dispatch center they’d plug in their device to download all the signatures.
“Ours is live,” he says, “and five minutes after a delivery in Penang, Malaysia, our customer in San Jose can see that signature.”
Opperman is equally confident that iPhones will find a good home in plants and DCs, noting that features like the voice assistant will help it become the primary interface for warehouse workers rather than using their thumbs or a gun. But is it realistic to expect iPhones to become the tool of choice for stock pickers?
“I read that more and more large enterprises are asking employees to bring their own mobile phones to work,” he says. “Instead of providing a phone for their workers they just provide an allowance. So now workers are bringing in something they bought at Best Buy rather than having an IT department dictate it downwards. It’s part of this blurring of work life and personal life and consumer technologies and enterprise technologies, all of it getting mixed in a blender.”
Other Stumbling Blocks
Tom O’Connor, senior national business development manager for Panasonic (www.panasonic.com), agrees that there is a trend toward a merging of the consumer and industrial worlds of telecommunications, but there are stumbling blocks to watch for.
“Where you might run into problems is industries that require durability and security, governmental requirements as well as HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), so using the iPhone in healthcare applications is problematic because you can’t get it HIPPA compliant without adding other layers on top of it. The moment you start getting into security and compliance issues, even in retail, you have to add infrastructure on top of that.”
Panasonic introduced its Toughpad Android tablet recognizing the need for businesses to standardize on enterprise grade software that they can download onto iPhone and iPad form factors while accommodating back-end systems for enterprise-level customer relationship management (CRM). For example, he says future releases of 12-inch, 10-inch and 7-inch tablets will integrate bar code readers, RFID readers and cameras.
Bring Your Own Device
Whether this merging of the consumer and industrial worlds of telecommunications causes more problems than solutions remains to be seen. Sheldon Safir, director of marketing for Motorola Solutions (www.motorolasolutions.com), remembers hearing a new acronym tied to this phenomenon at a recent Gartner IT expo: BYOD, for “Bring Your Own Device.”
“From an enterprise point of view, to offput the cost of the device back onto the associate looks early on like it might have some financial benefit,” Safir says. “But we believe over the long term the kind of returns may be offset by issues such as not being able to secure those devices unless you get buy-in from the associate, and how do you separate their personal information from the work information? One of the reasons we looked at the introduction of our ET1 tablet was to add data encryption and security to the Android operating system so the data on it could be secured. The problem with BYOD devices is most are not secured.”
According to Forrester Research, 82 million Americans will be using tablets by 2015. However, in a recent whitepaper, DAP Technologies (www.daptech.com) points out that the kinds of features found in today’s tablets were enjoyed in industrial environments more than a decade before Steve Jobs brought them to consumers.
“The growing excitement in the consumer tablet market is likely to spike interest among business users seeking to leverage the clear benefits of the tablet form factor,” the whitepaper reads. “For many industries, however, consumer tablets lack the durability to operate in environments where dust, moisture, chemicals, bright sunlight, extreme temperatures and rough handling are everyday hazards.”
How BYOD Can Work
BYOD can work at the supervisory and management levels. Jeff Slevin, COO of Lucas Systems (www.lucasware.com), says mobile management applications can give supervisors real-time operating information while they are on the warehouse floor. Using a mobile computer, these apps can deliver a subset of WMS, logistics management and other management information that was previously only available from a desktop computer.
“In DCs using our Jennifer VoicePlus system, floor supervisors have real-time access to picking productivity rates, wave completion information, exception details, and other operational information on an enterprise PDA or other mobile device via a Web-based Mobile Engage app,” he says. “Engage and scores of other new mobile apps can be accessed via the Web, which means that no special software has to be installed on the mobile computer. With today’s browser-based applications, anyone with a smartphone (and access to the secure corporate network) can use the application.”
So while more and more employees will be using their personal devices at work, if that work happens to be in a plant, distribution center or a truck, that device has a better chance at returning its investment if it is industrially hardened. Of course the same can be said of the people in those environments as well.