November 11, 2019
technology | Mobile Tech

Time for a trade-in on your mobile devices?

Time for a trade-in on your mobile devices?

Distribution centers across the country are on the verge of replacing their fleets of mobile computers, as Microsoft backs out of the market. But experts say there's more to a refresh cycle than just swapping one brand of handheld for another.

By Ben Ames

Managers today need wide-ranging technology expertise to keep up with the fast-changing demands of logistics and fulfillment operations. On any given day, their challenges could range from installing the robotic and automated systems required to keep up with Amazon.com Inc. to deploying the augmented reality (AR), gamification, and social media tools many DCs have introduced as a way to engage millennials.

There's another issue that demands a more timely response, however, and finding the right answer could be more complex than it seems.

That issue concerns the ubiquitous mobile devices—think bar-code scanners and tablets—that have become deeply entrenched in today's warehouse and fulfillment operations. Many—if not most—of those mobile devices run on the Windows 10 Mobile operating system (OS), which means they are about to become "unsupported" devices. In December, Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft Corp. will end its support for those units, meaning it will stop providing security patches and antivirus updates. After that point, the Windows-powered devices will still work, but they will be increasingly vulnerable to hacks and cyberattacks, putting both customer and corporate data at risk.

Interviews with vendors and customers indicate that many companies will migrate to Google Inc.'s Android operating system, while a smaller number may switch to Apple Inc.'s iOS platform. But whatever choice they make, experts warn that the replacement process is more complex than just making a straight trade.

HIGH-STAKES DECISION

As for what makes the process so complicated, a number of factors come into play. Part of the answer lies in the extent to which the devices have infiltrated today's warehouse operations, according to Marco Nielsen, vice president of managed mobility services at Stratix, a Peachtree Corners, Georgia-based managed mobile services provider. As companies scramble to keep up with demands for faster, more accurate shipments, they've become extremely reliant on automated devices, he noted in a paper titled Mobile Tech in the Supply Chain: How technology enables supply chain innovation. "It's not easy to find a warehouse today that doesn't depend heavily on the wearable computers, bar-code scanners, and forklift-mounted terminals used for most aspects of inventory control, shipping, and handling," he wrote.

Another part of the answer lies in the interconnectedness of today's DC operations. "The same device that enables a picker to select the right merchandise for a store or an individual customer can instantaneously contribute to another task such as inventory control," Nielsen noted in his paper. In this type of integrated environment, a change-out of something as simple as a handheld will also affect a broad range of connected technologies throughout the DC, according to a white paper from Barcoding Inc. and Samsung titled Manufacturing Modernization: How to Get There.

Still another complication for companies looking to upgrade their mobile devices concerns the wireless networks that keep them connected. A handheld computer is only as good as the data it can share, and networks are changing fast.

The second-generation (2G) and third-generation (3G) networks that have long supported our basic cellphones will soon be set aside in favor of far faster 4G and 5G networks, according to Robert Puric, senior director, field mobility - enterprise mobile computing, at data-capture specialist Zebra Technologies.

The major wireless carriers have already announced they will no longer support 3G devices on their networks by the end of 2020, so mobile computer vendors such as Lincolnshire, Illinois-based Zebra have started adding updated chipsets and radios to their latest product lines, Puric says.

The change will affect transportation and logistics companies as well as retail users, but it won't happen overnight. Some major cities now support 5G networks, but the system won't cover the entire U.S. for three or four more years, Puric says. In the meantime, 4G is expected to be the de facto wireless standard well into the late 2020s.

DON'T BE AN OSTRICH

With Microsoft's end-of-support date looming, many companies have yet to put a solid transition plan in place, according to Shane Snyder, president of Barcoding Inc., which is a Baltimore-based provider of data-capture and supply chain analytics solutions.

Some are behaving like an ostrich with its head in the sand, asking "If it still works, why do we need to replace it?" While continuing to use legacy devices might be the simplest solution, it's also a risky one given the threat of cyberattacks and security breaches, Snyder says.

Others plan to simply replace each of their Windows-based devices with an Android device, integrating them into their operations with no other changes. That might be quick and easy, but it's also a missed opportunity to make improvements to business and labor processes, Snyder says. By doing a simple one-to-one replacement, companies lose out on a chance to reassess how they're using those mobile devices, whether they're using too many, and if they could be using them in a more optimal way.

Instead, Barcoding recommends that companies conduct a complete inventory of their existing mobile devices and then check with their operations teams to make sure all of the units are actually being used. It's not unusual for businesses to discover that some of their devices are sitting idle and therefore won't have to be replaced, Snyder says.

Beyond that, Barcoding urges DC leaders to collaborate with the end-users in the selection and implementation process, including having them test the new devices before a full-blown rollout.

With processes, people, and the broader technology ecosystem to consider, swapping out the humble handheld isn't as simple as it might seem. But in today's interconnected environment, taking the time to do it right can bring payoffs in nearly every aspect of a DC's operations.

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
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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