August 20, 2012
material handling update | Printing and Labeling

Printers on the go

In an era of sleek consumer devices, a mobile printer that's heavy, clunky, or slow will be a hard sell. Here's what manufacturers are doing to keep up with customer expectations.

By Susan K. Lacefield

It's a sure bet that almost all of your warehouse associates use some sort of mobile device in their daily lives—whether it's a smart phone, a tablet computer, or an MP3 player. So it's no surprise that mobile devices like portable printers are becoming common in the workplace as well, particularly for warehouse or distribution center (DC) applications. As Marty Johnson, product marketing manager for printer manufacturer Zebra Technologies, puts it: "The commercialization of mobility is all around us."

Indeed, many companies have either already implemented Wi-Fi in their distribution facilities or are strongly considering it, says Ravi Panjwani, regional vice president of marketing and product management for printer manufacturer Brother Mobile Solutions Inc. And with wireless connectivity in place, DCs can reap great productivity benefits by using mobile printers. Mobile units allow associates to print items—like bar codes and labels for pallets and cartons, packing lists, inventory pick and return tickets, and lot identifiers—at the point of use rather than having to travel to a central location. (For when to use a mobile versus a stationary printer, see sidebar.)

Yet workers' increasing familiarity with mobile devices poses a bit of a challenge for industrial printer manufacturers. "With the proliferation of sleek consumer devices like the iPad and Android tablets, end-user customers' expectations of mobile printers have certainly increased," says Panjwani.

As for what this means for mobile printer manufacturers, it's essentially changed the rules of the game. It used to be that they could pretty much focus on making a device that was rugged enough to withstand hard use inside the warehouse. Now, they also have to think about how to make that printer lightweight, ergonomic, and user-friendly. "I can't say we look at an iPhone and decide to use something just because it's in use in the mass market, but in general, we are aware of and in tune with what is commonly used in day-to-day devices, and we take that into account," Johnson says.

LIGHT AND EASY
One area that's been heavily influenced by developments in consumer electronics is the mobile printers' form factor—that is, the look and feel of the devices. Just as smart phones have gotten progressively smaller and lighter, so too have mobile printers. It's not that these manufacturers want to emulate Apple; there's a practical reason for it: Shaving just a few ounces off a printer can make a real difference to someone who has to carry the device around for an eight-hour shift.

In addition, the user interface has changed greatly in the past five years to reflect how users interact with their smart phones, says Johnson. For example, more mobile printers feature display screens and icons like the ones found on phones—think of the symbols used to indicate battery charge status and Wi-Fi strength.

Why should it matter whether the icons are easy to interpret? Shouldn't cost and print quality be all that counts? Well, yes and no. As Tom Roth, senior director of printer product management at Intermec, points out, labor is a huge cost for warehouses and distribution centers. "It's important to keep workers happy and productive on the shop floor," he says. "Technology that is intuitive reduces training time, reduces the number of turnovers, and helps workers make fewer mistakes."

The display screens and icons also make workers' jobs easier by providing better diagnostics, says Roth. If there's a problem with the printer—for example, it's out of labels, there's a jam, or the Wi-Fi signal is weak—the icons clearly indicate the source of the problem. "Workers no longer have to guess," says Roth. "This makes them more productive."

TAKING CHARGE OF BATTERIES
In another parallel to what's happening in consumer electronics, manufacturers are making battery-related improvements to their printers. For instance, some are working to increase the life of the battery while also making it lighter, says Johnson. Others have incorporated "smart battery technology" into their units. This technology can monitor not only how much charge is left in the battery but also the number of charge cycles and "impedance" of the battery, which can be used to predict how much life the battery has left, says Dan Brodnar, director of product management for Intermec.

"The overall advantage for customers is that, in many cases, end users sign up for a battery replacement program where after 18 months someone comes in and replaces all of the batteries regardless of whether they need replacing or not," says Brodnar. "With this new technology, the battery will report to the device what its capacity is so you can choose which batteries to replace versus just throwing them all away."

Yet not all changes being made to printers are driven by innovations in consumer electronics. Some are made in response to challenges that are unique to the warehouse environment. For example, Zebra has designed some of its mobile printers not only to be more tolerant of the chilly temperatures found in freezer units but also to allow workers to operate them without removing their gloves.

Other design changes include how the labels themselves are inserted into the printer. Labels no longer need to be threaded into the machine, says Johnson of Zebra. Instead, they can simply be dropped in. In addition, many of the labels no longer have a liner on the back. That means employees don't have to worry about disposing of the liners or making sure they don't end up on the floor where they could pose a slip hazard, says Brodnar.

ONE DEVICE TO DO IT ALL?
As for what the future holds for mobile printers, an obvious question is whether manufacturers will go down the path of developing multifunctional devices. That's been one of the biggest trends in consumer electronics over the past few years. For evidence, you need look no farther than the smart phone, which not only allows users to make calls, but also to surf the Web, take photos, and even pay for a cup of coffee.

This kind of device convergence is already beginning to show up in mobile printers, according to Intermec. In the past, printers were connected to a "dumb" computer terminal that was solely dedicated to running printer software. But that's starting to change, says Brodnar. "In many instances, we are taking some of those basic applications that reside on a dumb terminal and moving those inside the printer in the form of smart printing applications," he reports. "Now, the printer becomes its own computer. It provides the printing function, and in many cases, it provides an input function as well."

That means that in a pallet-building application, for example, the printer could be connected to a bar-code scanner and/or scale. As the items are scanned and weighed and the pallet reaches maximum weight capacity, the printer would print a label to be applied to the pallet.

But that's not to say that the market is progressing toward a device that serves as both bar-code scanner and printer. Johnson says that such a device would be too heavy to comfortably carry.

This leads to an important point. Unlike the consumer market, where design changes are made just to make the device look slicker or cooler, all changes to an industrial printer must help workers do their job better. "At the end of the day, it boils down to workflow productivity," says Brodnar. "That's why customers buy our products. And to the extent that an icon or a display screen helps with that workflow, it will be adopted."

About the Author

Susan K. Lacefield
Senior Editor
Susan Lacefield has been working for supply chain publications since 1999. Before joining DC VELOCITY, she was an associate editor for Supply Chain Management Review and wrote for Logistics Management magazine. She holds a master's degree in English.

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