Innovate with off-the-shelf technology

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Lloyd Mather HS.JPGInnovation doesn’t have to come with a high price tag any more. With a little bit of technical savvy and some consumer-level wireless technology it is possible to create a paperless environment and speed up the distribution of work assignments to warehouse workers and other operations staff, Lloyd Mather, a Toronto-based logistics consultant specialising in facilities planning, materials handling and storage systems design and implementation, tells SmartProcurement.

More than ten years ago a client of mine created his own mobile wireless work stations by installing radio frequency (RF) cards into laptop computers. He piggy-backed the mobile terminals onto an existing pick-to-light carousel system, creating additional workstations that mimicked carousel workstations. The system was implemented quickly and worked very reliably. It may still be in use.

Now that wireless technology is readily and affordably available, small- to medium-sized companies that could only dream of advanced systems a few years ago are able to implement highly functional systems and procedures with modest investments of time and capital. Tablet computers and “iPads” ™ can be used as communications devices for most warehousing functions. Some of these devices can be equipped with barcode scanners and other automatic identification devices to function as full mobile data terminals. It’s a good bet that before long the portable device suppliers will offer their own integrated scanners as an option.

off-the-shelf innovation.jpgI know of one company that has utilised the option of a built-in GPS to dispatch warehouse shipping orders to the device that is nearest the item to be picked, saving travel time in the warehouse. The industry is reaching the stage at which inventive users may develop new applications and solutions faster than the hardware suppliers and system integrators can do it. The only caveat is that it is critical to follow rigorous testing and documentation procedures when developing in-house systems. You are your own “Help Desk” when something goes wrong so it is critical that the information necessary to troubleshoot and restore the system is clear, complete, up-to-date, and readily available. Otherwise, the “system guru” will have many sleepless nights, never go on vacation and never get promoted.

When implementing self-developed technology solutions it is recommended to start with a single or very few applications, preferably in a way that the system can be by-passed or worked around if things don’t go according to plan. Nothing ever works perfectly the first time you use it so plan on some failures.

When designing applications be sure to allow for overrides and corrections of quantities, codes, and whatever other variables may require adjustment at the time of performing the operations. It is also recommended to time and date stamp every transaction and capture the identification of the operator and store this information in a database that can be used for tracking and reporting individual worker accuracy and productivity.

While it is true that new product development is rampant and newer and better technologies are just around the corner, this should not be considered as justification to delay commencement of innovative new processes and projects. By waiting we just get further behind. Until recently, many software processes were dependant upon proprietary hardware. The volume of any particular item of hardware would be limited and, therefore, the development costs had to be written off against a comparatively small unit volume of sales. In moving to open system architecture, the same devices can be utilised for a multiplicity of applications and the hardware becomes much less costly. This also means that new generations of hardware provide the opportunity to improve the applications and upgrade to newer equipment, when appropriate, at an affordable cost, probably less than the original cost of the equipment being replaced.

Many leading businesses are taking advantage of “Blackberries”™, “iPhones” ™, etc. to capture point of sale and order entry information and transmit the information in virtual real time in order to improve service levels and right size inventories.

As the ads say, “There’s an app for that!” And while that may be a slight exaggeration, it is not far from the truth and, if a few folks need it, you can bet somebody will develop it before you know it. Don’t go crazy in the rush to keep up, but don’t wait for everybody else to swim the lake before you get your feet wet. It wins nothing to be safe in last place.

Contact Lloyd on lmather@sympatico.ca for more information.

Lloyd Mather writes a monthly article for Ontario Industrial Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

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