February 14, 2011
Column | techwatch

In supply chain world, smart phones are taking care of business

New survey shows smart phones edging out handhelds and bar-code scanners as the mobile technology of choice.

By James A. Cooke

Smart phones are all the rage with consumers, but is there a place for the technology in supply chain operations? Yes, according to a recent study by the ARC Advisory Group. Nearly 70 percent of the 60 high-level supply chain executives surveyed said they're using smart phones like BlackBerrys and iPhones in their daily operations.

That surprised even the analysts who conducted the study. "Overall, the adoption among managers is much, much faster than I would have expected," says ARC analyst Steve Banker, who co-wrote the study, Mobile Technologies Used in SCM Today, with colleague Adrian Gonzalez.

In fact, the survey indicated that in the upper echelons of supply chain management at least, smart phones are fast becoming the technology of choice, edging out older, better established technologies. When survey takers were asked to identify the mobile technologies they were using in their logistics and supply chain operations, smart phones were mentioned by 69 percent of the respondents—supply chain vice presidents and directors working for companies with annual revenues of over $1 billion. Handhelds and cellular data/voice networks came in a distant second (both cited by 54 percent of the respondents), followed by mobile bar-code scanners (47 percent).

As for what supply chain folks are doing with these smart phones, bar-code scanning (22 percent) and taking and transmitting photos of delivered goods (also 22 percent) garnered the most mentions. The popularity of scanning was a striking finding, considering that software developers only recently began introducing apps that allow smart phones to double as bar-code scanners (see "Apple innovation could make scanning more affordable").

Banker cautions against reading too much into that finding, however. There was nothing in the results to indicate that managers are using their phones for high-volume scanning applications on the DC floor, he says. He adds that it's more likely that managers are "experimenting" with the technology.

The third most common response to the question on how smart phones were being used may come as something of a surprise: 21 percent of the respondents said they used their phones "to access social media sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook." That's not to say they're playing FarmVille during business hours. As Banker points out, a likelier explanation is that they're using social media for networking and keeping up with market developments. "LinkedIn can be a valuable resource for connecting to other logistics professionals and for keeping your eye on what your competitors are doing—like new hires and departures," he says.

Survey respondents are also using smart phones for a number of more traditional logistics-related tasks. These include transmitting proofs of delivery (13 percent), signature capture (11 percent), accessing performance dashboards and reports (10 percent), tracking/tracing orders and shipments (8 percent), accessing and executing transactions in TMS/WMS (6 percent), tendering shipments to carriers (4 percent), and rate shopping for transportation services (2 percent).

When asked what benefits they obtained from using mobile technologies in their supply chain operations, survey participants homed right in on service and productivity. Fifty-nine percent cited "improved customer service" (for example, enhanced visibility into the status of orders or shipments). An equal share of respondents—59 percent—mentioned "increased productivity of mobile work force" (like drivers and technicians). And 53 percent cited "increased productivity of warehouse workers."

So what does Banker make of the survey results? Although he admits to being caught off guard by the rapid rate of smart phone adoption, he says he considers the findings to be otherwise in line with expectations. "Managers have become more mobile," he says.

About the Author

James A. Cooke
Editor at Large
James Cooke has more than two decades' experience as a journalist covering logistics and transportation as well as supply chain strategy and technology. A former editor at Logistics Management magazine, he has earned numerous awards for his well-written, in-depth articles spotlighting developments in distribution. During his tenure at that publication, he served in such roles as news editor, international editor, feature writer, technology editor, and, finally, executive editor. He conceived and led the launch of the publication, Supply Chain Management Review. He is the author of the book Protean Supply Chains published by Wiley. He has presented at such conferences as CSCMP, MHIA, and WERC.

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