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Data Integration Vital in Increasingly Mobile-Focused Warehouses

Written by Tim Ingles
June 26, 2017

Mobile computing systems are driving innovation across the warehouse sector.

Mobile computing systems are driving innovation across the warehouse sector.

Mobile computing systems are becoming a central component of the warehouse industry, and organizations that want to take advantage of the full scope of these technologies must develop robust strategies to get data in the hands of end users. In the age of automation, it is important to recognize that an end user isn’t necessarily a person, as it may be a software system that is designed to make choices or send alerts without human input.

As warehouse operators establish mobile computing systems that empower users to collect data, they must also figure out how to ensure that data is put to use. Integrating enterprise resource planning and warehouse management systems is critical in this process, as different applications will push data to different systems. With computers becoming more central in the warehouse, optimizing data workflows becomes essential.

Mobile Computing Terminals Highlight Importance of Data Integration

Integrating computing systems with existing warehouse tools offers organizations an opportunity to add a key layer of intelligence to warehouse operations. A recent Modern Materials Handling report pointed to the growing use of mobile computing terminals in forklifts as a prime example of this trend. Essentially, companies are attaching computing systems to forklifts so operators can log data, view logistics data and get the job done more effectively. Industry expert Mike Maris told MMH that this move toward putting more computing systems in the warehouse is leading to a great deal of technology being placed throughout facilities, but those systems often don’t integrate with one another efficiently.

Maris explained that the widespread move to the Internet of Things is offering considerable potential in warehouse settings, but for it to be successful, data must reach end users. In the case of mobile computing terminals on forklifts, the key is bringing all of the IoT data together at that mobile workstation instead of treating the system as a portal for data entry. Using mobile computing systems as a central hub to inform warehouse employees about circumstances in the facility can prove vital to driving efficiency. Updates about project status, real-time traffic maps, telematics details and even maintenance information can be beneficial for users. However, achieving this goal hinges on getting data to the right people at the right time.

“The question is how to take all these analytics – the telematics on the lift truck, the warehouse management system, the yard management system – and boil it all down to really understand in a small packet what you need to know and what you don’t,” Maris told Modern Materials Handling. “Analytics engines will be a big part of what you see in a warehouse, across forklifts and even pallet jacks.”

Aligning operations around data-driven decision-making can be incredibly powerful for warehouse operators, and the rise of wearable devices is generating new opportunities for businesses to capitalize on this functionality.

Wearables Offer Promise for Warehouse Teams

Increased automation and data use in the warehouse creates opportunities for innovation, but that progress is heavily dependent on getting information to users in a timely and convenient fashion. Wearable devices make this possible, and an Engineering News report explained that wearables are rising quickly in the warehouse. The increased use of wearables is already apparent in sectors like manufacturing, where organizations are increasingly using augmented-reality glasses and similar solutions to gain visibility into production lines, view key details while working and interact with the supply chain in intuitive ways. These capabilities can extend into many warehouse operations and create considerable potential for innovation.

Giving users barcode scanners and similar mobile devices that provide apps for data access ensures users can view the information they need, update systems as they collect information and enact automated workflows without having to go back to centralized computing systems. Wearables can take this functionality to another level by freeing workers to use their hands to carry boxes and interact with machines instead of needing to hold mobile computing devices. Engineering News pointed out that the growing move toward augmented reality, virtual reality and the Internet of Things will come together to make wearables a powerful option in warehouse and manufacturing settings.

Organizations don’t necessarily need to wait for augmented-reality glasses and similar tools to become mainstream to take advantage of what wearables offer. Smartwatches, for example, can provide alerts and notifications for users, allowing your warehouse management system to notify personnel of relevant workflow issues. Voice picking solutions also offer a great deal of potential as a wearable device. These headsets feature a microphone that can capture voice commands, and they integrate with warehouse management systems to update the underlying systems. A user grabbing a box off of a shelf can use basic voice commands to log the assets being used and update the remain inventory level. This information gets captured by the warehouse management software, which in turn identifies if that new inventory level triggers any other process. If, for instance, the change leads to an asset reaching its reorder level, the WMS can trigger an alert in the ERP purchasing module to set up a new order. This type of integration is possible when mobile computing devices, whether they are wearables or not, are used as a process and data hub that drives warehouse efficiency.

Data Integration Beneath the Surface of Warehouse Integration

All of the computing device innovation happening in the warehouse sector must be met by data integration and collection capabilities. If users can’t quickly create data, such as logging new shipments, then the benefits of the computing systems diminish. If individuals can’t quickly access key information in their ERP systems, the digital device doesn’t particularly help. ERP integration, automated data collection tools and full enterprise mobile solutions lay the groundwork for computing advances in the warehouses. As the IoT rises and wearables become more common in the warehouse, organizations further advance their data-driven agenda by making it especially easy and convenient for users to access and interact with information technology systems.