A case study* revealed the dramatic impact of using rugged mobile printers in a distribution centre.
Instead of walking nine steps to a workstation to print labels, workers created labels instantly at the point of activity using belt-worn mobile printers. The result: pallet labelling took 28 seconds compared with 49. Based on the number of items labelled at the centre, managers quickly worked out that productivity gains would be significant. In fact, the company in question calculated it could achieve a full return on investment for hardware outlay in less than a year.
In this post, we’ll look more closely at several ways rugged mobile printers could be the catalyst to dramatic efficiencies in your supply chain operations.
What is a rugged mobile printer?
A rugged mobile printer is a small printer that can be carried in the hand or on a belt or shoulder strap. The ‘rugged’ part refers to its durability for enterprise settings. A good-quality model will have a high ingress protection (IP) rating to protect from dust and moisture, and a MIL-STD rating proving it can survive drops onto hard surfaces. For that crucial return on investment, you’ll always want a rugged model – it’s going to deliver for longer. (Find out much more about what makes a device rugged.)
How will it integrate with our logistics operations?
Your rugged mobile printer will deliver barcodes and radio frequency identification (RFID) labels faster and more accurately than stationary models, as we’ll reveal below. Typically, it will work alongside a rugged device (phone or tablet) and wirelessly connect with your business’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Workers will interact with the system to make requests for labels and receive the necessary data to create them on the spot.
What’s wrong with centralised mobile printing?
Our opening case study showed the benefits of cutting out a mere 18 steps. But workers’ journeys to pick up labels from a central location are often more ‘epic’ in proportions.
Typically, labels are printed in batches at a central office following an advance ship notice. The worker then makes a lengthy trip from the point of work to the office printer. This is time-consuming in itself. It can also lead to a ‘social round’ of chatting and distraction en route. None of this is good from a productivity point of view, and reducing or eliminating these trips can have a significant impact on efficiency.
This scenario can also lead to mistakes – time away from the job makes it easier for workers to pick up and apply incorrect labels to items. The standard error rate for warehouse operation shipping is 2.5%, with each error incurring a cost in the resolution process. Even if changing labelling methodologies reduced this error rate by just 1%, the annual savings could be huge.
Where can rugged mobile printers bring benefits?
Take a look at the points below and think about how they relate to your own supply chain. You’ll deliver the greatest benefit to tasks that involve long journeys to get labels, or that require high levels of accuracy.
A worker using a forklift-mounted rugged mobile printer can apply barcodes to incoming goods as soon as they arrive. With no unnecessary delays visiting or waiting for the office, all incoming goods can be correctly and immediately labelled. This saves unnecessary journeys, prevents congestion at the dock, and helps to ensure no unlabelled goods ‘fall through the gaps’ during checking and putaway.
Note also the rugged factor here. Forklifts and workers may move from indoor to outdoor environments. A good-quality rugged mobile printer will handle cold rooms, rain, heat and other potentially hostile conditions with no problem.
A Zebra Technologies study concluded that using rugged mobile printers for putaway operations improved processing time by 62%. Again, immediate access to labels was key.
However, wireless rugged mobile printers can also play a further role in bringing efficiencies to putaway. Wi-Fi data from these machines and any accompanying mobile device can help route drivers efficiently, relay real-time instructions and balance workloads.
Picking and labelling multiple and different orders from a small zone can be time-consuming. Many label types may be required, with much back and forth delivering or collecting these labels, or labelled pallets.
Using a rugged mobile printer, workers can pick an item and scan its existing barcode label. The ERP system can then automatically create a bespoke label for shipment and send the job to the mobile printer. Immediately generating labels at the point of delivery this way helps to reduce journeys collecting labels and eliminate confusion and mistakes.
One US distribution centre using a similar system enjoyed a 50% reduction in picking time and a 100 % increase in accuracy.
Is everything in the box? Typically, workers identify and label final assemblies. This can be time-consuming and inaccurate. Using a rugged mobile printer, they can generate a label for each unique item required for an order during assembly/packing. Before shipping, a worker then checks the contents by simply scanning the barcode labels for each item. System software sends an alert if anything is missing or duplicated.
Printing immediately at the point of activity can eliminate the risk of mislabelling items. But rugged mobile printers can also play a role in quality assurance, helping to ensure warehouse systems are working efficiently. Inspectors can instantly create labels to identify a sample and ensure it is routed through to testing. Quality assurance workers can then generate labels to identify samples with ‘pass’ or ‘reject’. Yes, this could be undertaken with a stationary printer, but the key here is the ability to label instantly, at the point where the work is being done, accurately and efficiently using a mobile printer.
Cross-docking – unloading from inbound delivery vehicles and loading directly onto outbound vehicles – requires speed and precision. Using rugged mobile printers, workers can quickly log an item in the ERP system using their mobile device, then generate a label instantly at the point of activity. Arguably, cross-docking benefits from mobile printing more than any other scenario covered in this post. It can be a flashpoint for problems, but a mobile print solution meets the need for speed and accuracy.
Just a small increase in time saved or accuracy in shipments can add up to huge cost and time savings across an operation. And rugged mobile printers can help achieve this across a wide variety of sectors. Here’s one final example, from the US military.
The Surface Deployment Distribution Command (SDDC) is responsible for port operations. It used labels to process trucks, tanks and other military cargo as it is loaded and unloaded from ships. Formerly, it printed all labels in a central office. Given the sheer size of military operations, this involved time-consuming runs to the office. It introduced rugged mobile printers. Tracking labels, including replacement labels for damaged or incorrect labels, were created instantly at the point of activity.
The time and cost-saving benefits, and increase in accuracy, were immediate – and considerable.
Find out more about Mobile Printers
More from our blog:
- An Introduction to Wireless Mobile Printing
- Form Factor and Ergonomics in Mobile Printing
- Handheld Printer Connectivity and Battery Life
- Thermal Transfer vs Direct Thermal Printing: Which is Best?
- Choosing the Right Labels for Your Mobile Label Printer
Nuffield Technologies provides rugged mobile printers and other rugged hardware to organisations of all sizes. We work closely with our clients to analyse their needs and existing processes to find a perfect fit for their operations. To speak to a qualified rugged technology advisor, contact us now.
*All case studies and statistics in this article come from the Zebra Technologies white paper How Mobile Printing Benefits Warehouse Operations.