A fresh read on mobile computing in the warehouse
With the market at a crossroads, our exclusive survey offers an inside look at the state of mobile computing today and the outlook for the future.
By Ben Ames
In the decades since they were introduced into warehouse operations, mobile computing devices have virtually transformed the business of data collection, making pencils and clipboards a thing of the past. But it's not just the warehouses that have experienced a transformation; the devices themselves have undergone a wholesale evolutionary change over that period, morphing from the clunky scanners of yesteryear to today's smart, sleek multifunctional devices.
And there's more change ahead. This time, the catalyst isn't so much technological advances as a business decision by the market's dominant player. In February 2017, Microsoft Corp. announced that it planned to "sunset" its support of its popular Windows CE and Embedded Handheld operating systems (OS), the versions of its Windows OS used in nearly all brands of handheld devices. The move is widely expected to trigger a rush among warehouse users to replace what will soon be obsolete devices.
So what does all this mean for the market? Will users make wholesale technology replacements? Or will they take a wait-and-see approach? And if they decide to swap out their equipment, what will they look for in their next-generation devices?
To get a better understanding of mobile computing in the warehouse—both where it stands today and users' plans for the future—DC Velocity teamed up with ARC Advisory Group, a Dedham, Mass., management consulting firm, to conduct a study. The research, which was conducted among 34 logistics professionals, looked at topics such as respondents' current use and future plans for use of various mobile operating systems (OS), the relative importance of mobile OS capabilities, the value of various scanning capabilities, and their use of consumer-grade versus ruggedized equipment. What follows is a look at some of the key findings.
MICROSOFT STILL IN THE PICTURE
To get a read on what operating systems warehouses are using right now, the survey asked respondents which OS they used for the majority (more than 60 percent) of their warehouse mobile devices. As expected, the study confirmed that for now, at least, Microsoft is king. A full 60 percent of respondents said the majority of their units ran on the Windows platform. (See Exhibit 1 for the full rundown.)
That could change in the very near future, however. Although Microsoft released a new mobile operating platform (Windows 10 IoT) earlier this year, indications are that the market is moving in an altogether different direction. Rather than defaulting to the latest Microsoft offering, users are widely expected to defect to a rival operating system: Google Inc.'s Android OS. Among other benefits, Android, the operating system used in an estimated 86 percent of the world's smartphones as well as other consumer electronics, has the advantage of familiarity to users and programmers alike. A number of major hardware vendors, including Honeywell Inc. and Zebra Technologies, have already introduced Android-based handhelds for DC applications.
Indeed, when asked how they expected their OS usage patterns to change over the next three years, 56 percent of respondents indicated they planned to increase their use of Android. While that aligns with the current industry thinking, Microsoft nonetheless had an unexpectedly strong showing in our poll. Nearly a third of respondents—29 percent—said they expected to increase their use of Windows in that period. (See Exhibit 2.)
This finding suggests that Microsoft may play a more enduring role in warehouse mobile computing than expected. The survey results didn't reveal the reasons for that, but Clint Reiser, ARC's director of supply chain research and the study's leader, offered a possible explanation. Reiser speculated that the finding reflects the warehouse community's tendency to move cautiously when it comes to adopting new technologies.
As an example of that, Reiser pointed to another of the study's findings: the revelation that more than a third (35 percent) of warehouses are still using devices with alphanumeric keypads, as opposed to the touchscreen interfaces found on today's consumer smartphones. "These results, like the still-widespread use of Windows OS, suggest that warehouses are adopting modern mobile technologies at a more measured pace than some customer-facing areas of businesses," Reiser said.
That's not to say all warehouses are watching from the sidelines. Of those respondents that plan to migrate from Windows to Android, a sizeable share—40 percent—have already begun the changeover. To learn what they expect to gain from the move, the survey asked those respondents that are migrating to Android what impact they expected the transition to have on their operations. The most frequent responses were improvements in user interface/usability, support for complementary devices, mobile application development, and handheld hardware performance. By comparison, fewer users foresaw improvements in areas such as wireless communications options, application software performance, wireless data security, and preventing misuse of devices.
HANDHELDS AND TABLETS
The question of operating systems aside, the survey looked at other factors that influence users' choice of mobile equipment. For instance, the questionnaire asked respondents what capabilities they consider most important in a handheld device. Far and away the top response was "data capture/scanning accuracy." The next most popular responses were data capture/scanning speed and visual information display. (See Exhibit 3.)
A question that often comes up with respect to handhelds in the warehouse concerns the grade of equipment used. Today's DCs have choices: They can buy purpose-built ruggedized industrial devices or opt for consumer-grade smartphones with built-in scanners—which are generally lower-cost, but lower-scan-performance, units. Our survey indicated that despite the price advantage, consumer devices were not a particularly popular choice. The results showed that only 3 percent of respondents make widespread use of consumer-grade handhelds, while 35 percent do it only selectively and 62 percent don't use them at all.
Digging into the subject a little further, the survey included a similar question about the devices provided to temp workers brought in during peak periods. Although logic might dictate that DCs would opt for lower-cost (and familiar-to-users) consumer-grade devices in this situation, that wasn't the case. Among the DCs that bought or leased mobile devices for temp workers' use, respondents showed a clear preference for ruggedized industrial devices. (See Exhibit 4.)
Of course, when it comes to mobile devices, handhelds aren't the only units found in today's DCs. Some facilities also make use of tablets. Our research indicated that these devices have yet to take hold throughout the DC, however. Respondents reported that the most widespread tablet use was found among workers driving vehicles like forklifts, who used vehicle-mounted devices (35 percent). Next on the list were warehouse supervisors (32 percent), employees at pack stations (21 percent), and order pickers (18 percent).
A MATTER OF TIME
With the mobile computing market at a crossroads, the results of our industry study make one thing quite clear: Logistics managers are fully aware of the potential held by the next generation of handheld computers. Although they may not be ready to give up their legacy devices just yet, it's likely only a matter of time. The allure of user-friendly interfaces, more accurate scanning, and faster processing will eventually win out, ushering in a new era of mobile computing in the workplace.
The "Mobile Computing in the Modern Warehouse" study was conducted by ARC Advisory Group in conjunction with DC Velocity. ARC analyst Clint Reiser oversaw the research and compiled the results.
The 24-question survey explored the current use of mobile devices in the warehouse as well as users' plans for the future. The findings reported here are based on 34 responses. Respondents included logistics professionals from a variety of industries, who completed an online questionnaire in July 2018. As for the demographic breakdown, the respondents included manufacturers (47 percent), wholesalers (21 percent), third-party logistics service providers (15 percent), retailers (6 percent), and "other" (12 percent).
A report containing a more detailed examination of the mobile device survey results is available from ARC. To find out how to obtain a copy, visit ARC's website.
About the Author
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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