Automated Data Collection has many benefits in the Post-Amazon Age. Today’s global, omnichannel e-commerce is forcing distribution centers to ramp up efficiency to stay in the competitive game. Operating at high levels of efficiency requires 99.9% data collection accuracy or better throughout the warehouse. To do this, companies are continuing to turn to technology like mobile barcoding to keep up with the blazing pace of digital demands.
According to Zebra’s 2024 Warehousing Vision Study, “61% of decision makers plan to enable partial automation or labor augmentation with technology in the warehouse.” The study also revealed that 77% of respondents believe the optimal means of introducing automation in the warehouse is by augmenting existing workforces.
Mobile barcoding is one such automation type capable of augmenting workers. More than 50% of Zebra’s survey takers plan to equip workers with mobile barcoding technology by 2022.
Mobile barcoding refers to using mobile software and hardware with barcodes to automate manual processes. This technology is a simple but powerful way to integrate digital process automation and automated data collection into any operation.
Formerly, workers would have to manually inspect inventory, recording quantities, item numbers and locations using pen and paper or human memory. From there, another employee would have to interpret the handwriting as they key the data into a computer at a fixed location, using either a spreadsheet or a database. Along the way, a “3” accidentally gets entered into the inventory database as an “8” while other numbers are transposed, left out, or not recorded at all.
Using mobile barcoding, workers scan barcodes printed on inventory, assets and other materials to automatically capture all the required inventory data for transactions such as receiving, moving, issuing and picking. Mobile software provides validation steps and then transmits the data to the inventory database in real time using the business rules built into the ERP.
By means of live, two-way communication with core business systems, mobile barcoding provides inventory control, WMS functionality and 24/7 visibility for management. For the line-level workforce, it’s easier, simpler, more intuitive and more mobile.
Through automation with mobile barcoding technology, warehouses stand to gain considerable increases in accuracy, efficiency, productivity, throughput and more. On the warehouse floor, reduction in select-to-ship times, elimination of floor slow zones and minimization of bad data become realities.
Mobile barcoding easily integrates with physical automation systems to collect data and transact inventory. Also called automated material handling systems, or AMH, these systems represent physical machinery, as opposed to digital automation like mobile barcoding. AMH includes conveyors, sorters and more. The material handling market is expected to exceed $190 billion by 2024, according to Logistics Management.
While material handling systems were originally brought on board to assist with moving and lifting large items, they are now utilized across the warehouse. Conveyors and sorters can read barcodes on small toted material on its way to be shipped or route material to multiple locations from a single diverting point. With the right data collection and barcode scanner software, these sorting scans can also provide live, detailed statistics on the flow of material through the warehouse.
AMH technology requires less physical labor – reducing injuries and costs – and can facilitate increased orders and volume. In addition to conveyors that are more intelligent and versatile, warehouses should also utilize barcode scanning software that can track material from the backend to the frontend of the warehouse, and throughout the internal distribution process. Automated data collection software should also sync with existing ERP systems using pre-validated integrations so managers receive real-time updates on warehouse flow stats.
Tightly integrating physical and digital automation systems, such as AMH and barcoding, is critical to maximizing the gains from both systems.
Software-hardware cooperation doesn’t end there. Mobile barcoding can easily extend automation to any number of IoT and IIoT devices, RFID, robots, vehicles and more. If you need advanced WMS functionality, such as intelligent directed-movement for workers and materials, barcoding and mobility provide the basis for WMS-lite solutions like Warehouse Director.
Modernizing warehouse and manufacturing operations to meet the present and future needs of the 21st century supply chain is critical. Warehouse automation is the path forward. Using mobile barcoding technology, warehouses can gain control over inventory, cut costs and stay competitive. For leadership and management, mobile barcoding can represent a cornerstone technology to catalyze digital transformation in the supply chain.
Let’s explore a few of the ways your operation stands to benefit from mobile barcoding:
Inventory control remains a pressing need in the supply chain as materials spend less time on the racks and stock is replaced more frequently. Inventory control software can also help warehouses keep pace with e-commerce and omnichannel demands by producing more accurate inventory metrics and up-to-date stock levels.
The ability to track inventory in real time means managers can better plan for future orders and reduce rack space devoted to overstock. Reducing on-hand stock levels can free up capital, which can then be re-invested into other valuable projects.
Evolutions in supply chain technology, such as big data, omnichannel fulfillment, and next-gen ERP systems create a demand for high quality data collected from multiple, sometimes remote locations. These facilities must take advantage of new data collection automation and barcode scanner software able to capture data and information about internal warehouse flow to keep things moving in the age of same-day, next-day and two-day delivery.
Many companies waste time and money by making order fulfillment errors, failing to streamline the shipping process and neglecting to reduce warehouse costs. RFgen warehousing experts estimate the cost of a single data error to range from $50-$100. Each data error in turn can create an incorrectly fulfilled order. In a warehouse processing hundreds of order lines per day at a low accuracy rate – 60% is the highest achievable using manual processes – a business still tracking inventory manually could be hemorrhaging money. Chargebacks, returns, non-compliance and additional overhead may result. Add to this the intangible damage to your company’s reputation with customers in today’s highly competitive markets, and it’s evident that help is needed.
A barcode data collection system can help businesses avoid processing errors and incorrect shipments by enabling perfect data capture. High quality data can then be used to reduce costs and make operations more efficient.
In the past, companies had no choice but to rely on manual and printed pick lists, explained Practical Ecommerce contributor Dale Traxler. The lengthy process included many steps:
This process includes a high probability for error, lost orders or slow processing at every step. Traxler explained that these problems are further compounded by a high turnover rate in warehouse staff, which compromises a company's ability to manage its inventory and provide efficient order fulfillment. No matter how many quality checks are made, errors are likely to occur.
These issues are much less common, however, if barcode software is used to reduce the number of fulfillment steps needed. By automating error-prone steps, mobile barcoding technology slashes bloated overhead while increasing process efficiency.
More accurate and consistent fulfillment can also be achieved using a more consistent order fulfillment structure. Companies should establish a protocol that each worker can follow, and review the process on an ongoing basis to try to identify other areas where efficiency gains could be made.
"Review your fulfillment process at least every six months. Evaluate performance. Ask your employees about areas they find challenging and ask them how to improve," advised Traxler. "Constantly monitor shipping charges.” Talking to your line-level employees about speedbumps in daily workflows may yield numerous opportunities for improvement.
During a Technology Roundtable hosted by Logistics Management, David Krebs, mobile and wireless vice president at VDC Research Group, shared his thoughts about the importance of order fulfillment.
"With the shift to multi-channel we're seeing a greater emphasis being placed on perfect order accuracy," Krebs told Logistics Management. "The penalty of errors and poor performance is heightened and can have a lasting impact on brand perception. In addition, multi-channel is driving the need for more efficient returns processing capabilities to support the increase in returns, the need to manage split case and full case picking in the same facility, and the overall shift from batch or wave processes to more dynamic on demand systems."
With mobile barcoding technology, perfect data capture with real-time visibility is attainable.
When your organization is ready to implement mobile barcoding in the warehouse, there are several best practices to ensure optimal performance, rapid ROI and a smooth rollout. These include:
Companies can become set in their ways. A warehouse may be aware of how new technology can aid operations, but workers are reliant on strategies that have proven effective or easy in the past.
RFgen published the case study of a wellness product manufacturer that saw the advantages of barcode scanning procedures after some initial hesitation. The company used manual and paper-based processes to input data into its JD Edwards EnterpriseOne ERP system. The process was slow and full of redundancies, but workers found it effective enough. A software partner worked with Melaleuca to demonstrate the performance benefits barcoding could provide.
A gradual implementation process of barcoding technology improved the efficiency and accuracy of the company’s supply chain. The technology was easily integrated into its existing business systems thanks to the guidance of RFgen’s software partner.
Companies curious about barcoding solutions should reach out to a provider that has experience in their industry. A good software partner speaks to specific advantages and can work with a company's implementation team. The tools shouldn't completely replace existing procedures, but they should improve them through gradual adjustments. In the case of RFgen Software, they offer a total solution with a fully-guided implementation process to ensure customers get the most out of their technology investment.
Barcoding implementation is more than just placing labels on inventory and handing scanners to employees. Warehouse procedures and layout may have to adjust to facilitate new equipment. Mobile software and enterprise mobility hardware must be integrated into relevant business systems to create a holistic framework of two-way communication.
Some of the changes can be quite simple. Shelving practices need to make sure barcode labels are facing out and easy to access. Labels no longer have to be physically read, so auditors won't require equipment that gets them eye-level with products. Long-range barcode scanners with scanning ranges of 30 feet or more are capable of reading barcodes on high shelves.
The workhours saved through productivity and efficiency gains enable managers to re-allocate resources to more meaningful tasks or projects and support over-extended warehouse teams.
Barcoding labels can be implemented on other assets beside inventory. Software ThinkTank advised warehouses to place barcode labels on bins where products are to be stored. By scanning both the product and the bin when picking or shelving, the employee can ensure inventory is in the proper location and is easily found.
An inventory manager should work with experts at your software provider to determine which materials will benefit from having a barcode label.
Barcode scanners improve data reporting to company ERP systems. The type of information collected by the technology is decided on by the business.
During implementation, a company has to determine what data is most important to supply chain operations. WiseGeek, a technology advice blog, suggested different companies may need to track receiving data, inventory location, product descriptions, destination or price with barcoding. More complicated operations can add whatever data fields they need to uphold labeling compliance as well.
Once the information is designated in the system, it can be displayed in the ERP system as soon as the label is scanned by a device. For mobile users, the handheld displays only the data the user needs to complete their work.
Companies shouldn't be afraid to change what data is captured. Shifting markets or company growth may necessitate more information or a different focus. During implementation, a warehouse may discover the previously selected data set doesn't create a complete picture or asks for redundant information. A technology adoption process has to be ready to change based on real-world application. Businesses that adopt barcode solutions should keep a working partnership with their provider.
An often overlooked area of barcoding is encryption. To ensure that the codes created by a barcode generator are not corrupted and can continuously yield accurate tracking information, it is important to ensure that these barcodes are encrypted. Failure to take the necessary security options could yield severely negative results.
Security in the digital supply chain remains an ever-present concern. While practical applications for transformative technologies like blockchain remain in the near future, for now, even moderate levels of encryption are a basic necessity to avoid hijacking or misuse.
For example, in the past, U.S.-based airlines have found gaps where passengers could bypass mandatory airport screenings through a loophole in their employees’ barcode readers. Because the codes were not properly encrypted, anyone could use a barcode scanner on a mobile device to determine if they had been pre-selected for additional screening. By using easily-obtainable software, just about anyone who owned an internet-enabled smartphone or tablet was able to access all of the information contained in that barcode.
"Thousands of people have reported being able to get the information using their phones," Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, said to BBC News of one such incident.
While it’s not exactly a use-case for supply chain management, it does provide an example of what can happen if a barcode generator is not incorporating best practices for encryption security. Automated data collection software needs to be able to accurately and securely collect information, and the use of unencrypted barcodes means that critical supply chain information is potentially open to anyone with a smartphone or tablet.
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