March 21, 2013
technology review | Mobile Tech

Are smartphones and tablets ready for prime time (in the DC)?

Are smartphones and tablets ready for prime time (in the DC)?

Their low price point has some companies considering adopting consumer mobile devices for use in the DC. But it's not clear these devices are quite up to the task yet.

By David Maloney

With the explosion in the use of smartphones and tablets, it was probably only a matter of time before these devices found their way into the distribution center. For workers who have eagerly embraced these technologies in their daily lives, bringing them into the workplace wouldn't seem like much of a stretch. "People are more connected today," says Jim Plas, vice president of Xplore Technologies, a manufacturer of rugged tablet computers. "We have a younger generation of workers who are used to being digitally connected."

But it's not just a matter of familiarity. Cost enters into it as well. While industrial-grade handhelds and tablets have been available for years, they're much more expensive than their mass-market counterparts. So it's not surprising that companies would be tempted to try using off-the-shelf technology—the kind of stuff that can be purchased at the local Best Buy or Walmart—in their distribution operations. But is that a smart strategy?

Well, it depends on how and where they're used.

For example, take a supervisor who works mainly in an office but occasionally carries a tablet out into the warehouse to deal with a problem on the spot. In that case, a consumer tablet would probably fill the bill nicely.

It's a different story for workers whose duties take them outdoors or who spend much of their day on the dock or in the aisles of a DC. If the devices they use will routinely be exposed to heat, cold, rain, vibration, dust, drops, or in the case of cold storage facilities, condensation, companies should steer clear of consumer-grade electronics. They simply won't stand up to the punishment, experts say.

Consider, for example, the tablet computers used by forklift operators. Although mass-market tablets might be able to provide the necessary computing power and functionality, it's doubtful they could survive the day-to-day rigors of the distribution environment. For one thing, the vibration caused by travel over uneven concrete surfaces—or the jarring that occurs when lift trucks are driven from docks into trailers—would likely damage their delicate electronics. For another, if the trucks encounter wide variations in temperature—say, when moving in and out of coolers or air-conditioned buildings on a hot summer day—the resulting condensation is liable to cause the unit to fog up or stop working entirely.

That's why in applications like these, an industrial unit would be a more suitable choice. There are forklift-mounted "ruggedized" tablet on the market that are designed specifically to work where they'll be exposed to potentially damaging conditions. Most can withstand not just vibration but also drops from at least six feet. They are also sealed against humidity and moisture, eliminating the risk of condensation.

These industrial units have other advantages as well. Many tablets are built to be hot-dockable, meaning that the worker can remove the device from the truck and carry it over to the product for scanning or data entry. The tablet can then be snapped back into place on the lift truck.

Most also feature large touchscreens, which give drivers an easier way to enter data than tapping on a small keyboard, says Xplore's Plas. They're designed to be more readable, too. "The screens are very bright and sunlight viewable, so they are easier on the eyes," he adds.

The screens themselves differ from those found on most consumer tablets. The industrial versions use a resistive screen, meaning they're designed to respond to the pressure of a finger. Consumer products typically use a "capacitive" touchscreen that responds to the heat of the user's finger. The problem with heat-based touch is that it's not very effective in cold work environments, such as a freezer, or in applications where workers wear gloves.

So what about smartphones? Like tablet devices, today's smartphones boast a large amount of computing capability. Most consumer smartphones compare in form factor with established handheld warehouse devices like bar-code readers, and they can even be outfitted with add-on scanners. But when it comes to their suitability for use in DCs, it's pretty much the same story as with tablets. That is to say, while these devices have their supporters—mostly for their convenience and low initial cost—many observers dismiss them as being too fragile to handle the vibration, falls, and other impacts that are part and parcel of warehouse operations.

Physical conditions aren't the only factor to come into play. There's also performance. Generally speaking, the scanners that are available as add-ons to smartphones are rudimentary in design and are better suited for the occasional swipe than for high-volume scanning operations. On top of that, most of these add-on scanners have a limited read range, so a user must be positioned right next to a bar code to read it. Consumer devices also have a limited life cycle of support and function, while most industrial devices offer a life of five to 10 years.

"Smaller companies may take the risk of using a consumer device, but the cost of a failure can be significant," warns Mark Wheeler, director of industry solutions at Motorola Solutions. "If you have to do scanning on a regular basis, for instance, then it's better to have a device designed for scanning. Performance is really the factor."

In the meantime, technologies continue to emerge that have the potential to completely alter the equation. Motorola, for instance, has introduced a new ruggedized handheld computer that offers the familiarity of a smartphone. The new device, the MC40 enterprise mobile computer, works on the Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system.

Other companies, such as Honeywell, are trying to bridge the gap between industrial and consumer products. The company is introducing a skid, or protective package, for the iPad that will make up for some of its shortcomings in industrial use. The protective skid will include a case with a built-in bar-code reader.

In addition, Honeywell this summer will introduce a ruggedized smartphone that is waterproof and comes with a built-in scanner. It will be priced lower than industrial tablet devices and is designed to work on a Wi-Fi network, eliminating the need for costly cell service.

And the trend shows no sign of slowing. Doug Brown, vertical marketing manager for warehouse, supply chain, and healthcare at Honeywell, believes that users' familiarity with consumer devices will only push the market to design more similar devices for the industrial workplace. "There is a hunger for these devices at a lower price point in this industry," he says. "We will see more adoption—maybe 20 to 25 percent will be using this class of device within the next five years."

About the Author

David Maloney
Chief Editor
David Maloney has been a journalist for more than 35 years and is currently the editorial director for DC Velocity and Supply Chain Quarterly magazines. In this role, he is responsible for the editorial content of both brands of Agile Business Media. Dave joined DC Velocity in April of 2004. Prior to that, he was a senior editor for Modern Materials Handling magazine. Dave also has extensive experience as a broadcast journalist. Before writing for supply chain publications, he was a journalist, television producer and director in Pittsburgh. Dave combines a background of reporting on logistics with his video production experience to bring new opportunities to DC Velocity readers, including web videos highlighting top distribution and logistics facilities, webcasts and other cross-media projects. He continues to live and work in the Pittsburgh area.

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