Moving Bits

June 1, 2004
Wireless technology does more than automate data collection.

If you're using technology only to automate tasks and eliminate labor, you're missing opportunities. That's been a familiar refrain about technology for years, and sometimes it's true. Wireless technology may well be one of those times. It does more than automate data collection. It enables you, through all that better data gathered by all kinds of wireless tools, to redesign your processes, which can unleash greater productivity. The questions are, are you ready to move more data than product, can you manage change, and are you willing to train your employees to take the most advantage of the wireless tools?

Warehouses and DCs are about to experience what is meant by the cliché, "Knowledge is power," because it won't just be product, boxes and pallets that you'll move. Data will become one of the biggest items material handlers will transport from point A to point B in the next few years. You'll be responsible for sending data simultaneously to multiple receiving customers and systems.

But that challenge should not be too much of a problem. Whether it's an item or a bit, moving is moving, and material handlers are experts at it. The fundamentals of moving will remain. Storing all that data may be an issue; however, technologists are fast at work on creating greater storage media for the ever-increasing amounts of data being created, gathered, logged and transmitted.

One of your greater challenges will be managing the change that wireless technology will bring to warehousing. You can execute processes and procedures the same way you've always done, just faster and more conveniently with the new technology. The greater benefit will be to use the information you collect to alter how processes and procedures are done, to find ways to take out unproductive time and effort. In effect, you'll need to promote change.

"You can gain insights into the movement of orders and the numbers of orders," says Gil Bautista, principal for warehouse mobility solutions, Symbol's Cross Industry Solutions Group. "Then you can take that information and pre-plan orders for the next day, or wave pick or take advantage of other plan-ahead opportunities that real data in real time will give you."

You will also be able to see how right-now data will integrate warehousing processes in ways never imagined before, including bringing data in from the yard. The dream has been to have various software tools work together instead of sending data to one program, then on to another and so on. Simultaneous wireless transmission of data may be the key to optimizing the functions of all the programs you've installed over the last few years.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing material handlers, though, will be in finding the right employees who understand warehousing processes and yet are comfortable with the new technology tools, and comfortable enough to innovate. When computers came to the office, it created a lot of changes for employees. A similar revolution is expected in warehousing thanks to the new tools. But managers face several challenges with the labor pool. Language barriers, educational levels and differing skill levels can be resolved through training, but will companies invest in more than rudimentary training? Then, how will managers handle the challenges of retaining employees they've spent time and money training? Warehousing is known for high employee turnover.

Wireless tools will "up the ante," turning warehouse employees into "knowledge-workers." Finally, they will have tools that will enable them to fine-tune warehouse and DC practices and procedures that will enable productivity improvements reminiscent of those obtained by office workers after the office computer.

When considering wireless for your processes, don't focus on the hardware. Focus instead on the data. Wireless offers interesting opportunities. Material handlers are already expert at moving objects. Data will not be very different. The hard part for material handlers will be to manage change.

Leslie Langnau, contributing editor

Latest from Technology & Automation