How to Pick the Right Mobile Devices for Your Warehouse Operations – And Vastly Improve Productivity

Warehouse shelving stacked with boxes

When searching for technology to improve warehouse operations, it’s tempting to dive right in and see what the market has to offer. However, we’re convinced this is not the right way to approach this major business decision. We suggest that in the quest for the perfect technology for your warehouse, you put all thoughts of that technology aside for the time being and concentrate instead on your business needs. What are the challenges you need the technology to solve? And what specific working conditions need to be taken into account?

Adopting this approach is going to help keep the focus on solving your specific challenges when you do start looking at the market. It will also help keep you on budget by potentially avoiding attractive but costly features that will do little to improve your warehouse operations.

Here are the main things to consider before you begin your search.

What do you need the devices for?

Your answer will almost certainly include barcode data capture. However, there are ‘horses for courses’. If you’re reading a high volume of barcodes and RFID tags every day, speed and accuracy will be paramount – and enterprise models will be the way to go. According to Zebra Technologies, tests show that enterprise-level readers capture barcodes 20-50 times faster than consumer equivalents, which often use the device camera instead of a dedicated barcode scanner. But it’s not just about speed. Will you need to capture 1D and 2D barcodes? Is capturing data and measuring metrics in real time important to you?

Zebra Technologies TC72 and TC77 offer fast capture of printed and electronic 1D and 2D barcodes.

Of course, there will be more to your rugged tech requirements than barcodes. You may need the device to take signatures, photograph damage on received goods, print labels and perhaps act as a two-way radio to enhance team communications. Draw up that wish list as precisely as possible before your search begins.

And think long-term. Perhaps you will need certain functions in the future to improve warehouse operations? Planning ahead will future proof your investment.

How will your workers use devices?

Ask these questions about how your employees will access and use devices when working:

  • Will they wear gloves? Many devices have high-sensitivity touch screens or physical buttons to ensure this isn’t a problem.
  • Will they need both hands to work? If so, choose wearable technology and voice-activated applications.
  • Will they be moving in and out of vehicles, for instance forklifts? Ensure robust mounting options are available, so a device can be clipped in and pulled out swiftly.
  • Do they need to access barcodes in awkward spaces? Look out for models with long-range scanners or small-form factors, for quick and easy scanning.
  • Are many of your people seasonal workers? According to this report, using the familiar Android operating system will potentially save you days of time training employees.

What unique challenges does your workplace present?

Warehouses are not friendly environments for mobile devices. Your tech may need to deal with countless drops, spills, extreme temperatures and contact with hazardous substances. In the age of COVID-19, withstanding harsh cleaning regimes with chemical-based wipes will also be a factor.

But there’s good news. Unlike consumer devices, reputable enterprise-level devices go through incredibly robust stress tests. Look out for MIL-STD-810G-certified devices. This U.S. Military Standard certification method can be deployed to test devices across many criteria including drops, dust contamination, extreme cold and more. There are various types and levels of protection that qualify for the standard, so read carefully and assess your needs against a device’s MIL-STD-810G certification.

It is vital to consider the environment in which your mobile devices will be used.

Finally, what combination of WiFi, mobile data or Bluetooth will you need to ensure your device will be operational both inside and outside your building?

What are your power needs?

Devices that have run out of battery provide zero functionality, slow down operations and frustrate your workforce. Therefore, you need to think about hard what battery requirements you’ll need to keep your people working.

If workers are regularly on the move and won’t have access to charging bays, you’ll need the extended battery life enterprise devices offer (up to 14 hours of hard work for some models).

But it’s not just about high-capacity batteries. Some models feature a warm swop mode, which allows users to change a battery without having to power down the device or close apps. Others will offer the convenience of ‘pogo’ charging pins, so they can be swiftly dropped into a cradle to charge, removing the need to fiddle with wires. Meanwhile, battery metrics will give you advanced warning of underperforming or failing batteries. All of these power features can help to keep warehouse operations running smoothly.

Finally, don’t forget your chargers. Brands that also offer multislot charging accessories will keep more phones powering up and save your employees from hunting for a free connection.

What level of support and repair do you need?

Are you happy hanging on for a week or even several weeks for vital repairs, or waiting on a support line while interminable music plays? It’s a leading question, of course, and the answer will almost certainly be no. If your warehouse is relying on tech to function, then problems need to be solved quickly to ensure continued productivity.

Reputable providers will offer certified repairs with authorised parts, and security and software/firmware updates. Many will also offer various types of repair plans, with options to suit your budget. The gold standard – and most expensive – will be around-the-clock support, and next business day ‘like new’ device replacement loaded with all your apps and settings.

While a more modestly priced three-day repair turnaround may well be fine for you, think carefully; you’ll need to weigh up the loss of business any downtime will incur against the price of any plan.

How is this new tech meeting your sustainability targets?

When it comes to warehouse operations, it’s clear that enterprise-level technology far outperforms consumer equivalents. The good news for your corporate social responsibility commitments is that it will also be a far more sustainable option . Here’s why.

Consumer devices are designed for rapid turnover. After 12 months, a new model may supersede the previous one, with limited support thereafter for the legacy devices. By contrast, the best enterprise solutions will have a longer life cycle. For instance, one provider we work with typically makes their devices available to purchase for a minimum of three years, with operating system support available for a further three years after they are retired from sale. Some of their models are even available for sale for five years, with a further five years of operating system support. In this case, there’s a full decade of support, considerably extending the shelf life.

Rugged technology will outlast consumer options, making them a more environmentally friendly choice.

Finally, enterprise devices are likely to be backwards compatible with accessories such as cables, charging cradles and batteries. This will reduce your need for additional purchases if you upgrade.

What next?

Of course, once you begin actively researching technology for improving warehouse operations, you may find additional features and benefits you’ll want to add to your ‘wish list’. But start by answering the questions in this post and you’ll maintain a tight focus on what you’ll really need to improve productivity.

Nuffield Technologies can help introduce the right rugged technologies to your warehouse operations, to maximise profits and productivity. We offer preferential rates on hardware from leading enterprise brands and can design bespoke software and apps tailored to your unique needs.

3 Ways Rugged Wearables Are Transforming Logistics Businesses

Rugged wearables in action: a male warehouse employee uses a ring scanner and smart glasses to pick stock.
Wearable wearables: smart glasses and a ring scanner help a worker quickly pick stock.
Ring-mounted scanners and smart glasses free up employees to give and receive information without stopping their work, helping to increase productivity.

For many people, the phrase ‘wearable technology’ conjures up images of walkers and runners checking their wrists and logging steps. While it’s true that the fitness industry has seen a wearable devices revolution, it’s in the world of business – and particularly logistics – that the technology is at its most pioneering and transformative.

Rugged wearables such as scanners, headsets, arm-mounted computers and smart glasses are helping businesses speed up operations, use data more effectively, protect employees and even integrate human and robot labour.

Supply chain experts MHI predict that 70% of warehouse facilities will adopt some form of rugged wearables by 2023. Meanwhile, a report by ResearchAndMarkets.com suggests that the industrial wearables market is likely to grow from $1.64 billion in 2018 to a projected $2.78 billion by 2024. For many businesses who want to keep up, it isn’t a question of why invest in wearable devices but when.

Here’s three compelling ways wearable technology is benefitting logistics businesses.

A female worker scans a product using rugged wearables: a ring scanner and smart glasses.
Smart glasses: one logistics company reported they increased worker productivity by 15%.

1) Rugged wearables are increasing productivity

While much wearable tech appears pioneering or even futuristic, wearable barcode scanners have, in fact, been bringing efficiencies to warehouses for many years. They are available as wrist, ring, or glove-mounted models. Once paired with a wearable computer, they help logistics workers scan barcodes quickly. They also help workers pick or place items with an unprecedented level of accuracy, informing them if they have chosen the correct item or the right number of items, or placed an item correctly. Back in 2011, UPS used radio frequency-enabled ring scanners in its international supply chain operations and found packages travelled more efficiently and reliably through its network.

The key to improving efficiency in any organisation is to get the right information to the right workers at the right time, so they can take swift and accurate actions. Paired with arm-mounted computers, voice headsets provide real-time feedback to warehouse employees, giving them live instructions and helping them to log reports quickly (and without typing) as they complete actions.

One of the beauties of these technologies is the way they can free up employees to have both hands available to lift boxes, pack items etc, while receiving and providing information. When you compare this approach to traditional methods of repeatedly looking down at printed orders or picking up and putting down a handheld device, the benefits are obvious.

However, when using the above technologies, a worker still might need to look down at their wrist when they need to retrieve information about their next pick. In other words, they have to stop what they are doing. Wearable glasses solve this problem by providing information in front of a worker’s eyes; they never have to break off their job to check information – they can keep their eyes up and ahead at all times.

In 2017, DHL adopted pioneering augmented reality (AR) tech to smart glasses to introduce efficiencies to its supply chain. The glasses interact with barcodes to provide vital information for increasing accuracy and the timeliness of orders. The company reported worker productivity increased by 15% as a result.

The Zebra HD4000 Enterprise Head-Mounted Display
The Zebra HD4000 Enterprise Head-Mounted Display overlays important information in workers’ real-time field of view.

2) Wearable devices are keeping employees safer

As well as providing employees with data, wearables play a useful role in tracking their movements and behaviours. Managers can see where staff are in a warehouse and use the information to direct the flow of labour and resources to where it is needed most.

This trackability also shows huge potential with regard to worker health and wellbeing. In 2013, BP America introduced a pioneering programme providing employees with FitBit bracelets that collected data relating to fitness, fatigue levels, sleep quality and location.

While not mainstream yet by any means, wellbeing tracking is being investigated by other organisations, particularly data around body temperature, heart rate and blood oxygen levels, which can help to monitor health and promote early intervention in cases of fatigue or anxiety.

Ergonomics, which aims to design workplace functions around a worker’s capabilities, can also be monitored more closely using wearable tech. For example, products are available that can track any irregular movements on the part of employees, to alert them to unsafe practices that could cause injury.

No discussion of wearable devices would be complete without looking at the COVID-19 pandemic. And there is good news here, in terms of innovations to keep employees safer. Many companies are already using proximity trackers, simple badge-sized devices that alert colleagues if they break any social distancing rules. Some can even log and report on ‘proximity events’, revealing where close contact is occurring most frequently, so changes can be made to keep people safer. Meanwhile, in late 2020 the BBC reported that an entrepreneur had developed a thin, disposable patch with an integrated biosensor to monitor a range of vital signs including respiration rate, skin temperature, blood pressure, posture and heart function. While the original intention was to help doctors measure patient health remotely, companies are showing a great deal of interest because the patch can monitor signs of a fever – one of the major indicators of COVID-19.

A Zebra WT6000 wearable device: a small, rugged computer.
Wearable devices such as this Zebra WT6000 Wearable Computer are designed for ‘rugged’ environments and will withstand dust, spray and sub-zero temperatures.

3) Rugged wearables are integrating human and robot labour

As consumers, many of us use voice recognition to ask Alexa or similar devices to play our favourite tunes or radio stations. The logistics world, meanwhile, is taking the potential of voice recognition and human/machine interaction to another level. Employees now use wearable headsets to issue verbal commands to autonomous mobile robot (AMR) assistants. For instance, a worker can leave a packed cart at the end of an aisle and use voice commands to tell a robot to shift it to another area or to deliver a fresh empty cart ready for packing.

These interactions are not confined to headsets and voice recognition. Wearable barcode scanners, those enduring wearable staples, are now also playing a part in significantly speeding up AMR workflows. Workers scan a barcode programmed with a pre-assigned workflow and the AMR gets to work. Multiple barcodes appear at the end of aisles and workers can manage and control several AMRs at once to carry out tasks.

So what next? Many believe AI will be the catalyst to future developments in wearable tech. Ed Thomas, principal analyst for technology thematic research at data analytics and consulting company GlobalData says, ‘Over the next few years, wearable devices will become smarter, as they incorporate technologies like artificial intelligence […] and so their relevance, particularly to enterprise users across industries, will only increase.’

Nuffield Technologies helps logistic clients source the right wearable devices, so they can optimise their operations and bring efficiencies and savings to their businesses. Get in touch to discuss your requirements and we will help to create a wearables strategy for you.