When it comes to product innovation, Apple's track record is hard to beat. The Cupertino, Calif.-based electronics maker developed the first personal computer, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. It has proved equally adept at devising creative uses for its devices. For instance, within the past few years, Apple has adapted some of its products for use in data collection. And that could have implications for distribution operations.
Last year, Apple rolled out an add-on feature for its iPod Touch that allows the device to double as a high-tech data collection terminal. That system, known as EasyPay Touch, consists of a hard plastic case that fits over the iPod Touch and contains both a mag stripe reader (for swiping credit cards) and a bar-code scanner. The device, which is now in use in Apple stores across the country, is designed to expedite customer checkout. Customers no longer have to stand in checkout lines; store associates equipped with the devices can process sales transactions anywhere on the floor. They simply scan a product's bar code, collect the customer's credit/debit card information (which can be transmitted via the store's Wi-Fi network to a server), and send the customer on his or her way.
Right now, the EasyPay Touch is a proprietary system that's used exclusively in Apple stores. The company has yet to say whether it will make the add-on technology available to other retailers. And it has given no indication that it's developing versions for industrial applications. (Apple's media department did not return a call requesting comment.)
Apple may not be going after the industrial data collection market just yet, but at least two third-party developers of data capture technology have jumped in the game. One is Serialio.com of Santa Barbara, Calif. Serialio.com has developed a bar-code scanner called Scanfob 2002 that works with the iPhone, iPad, and third generation or higher versions of the iPod Touch. (It can also connect with the Android or BlackBerry.)
The Scanfob comes with a scan engine to read bar codes and a built-in wireless Bluetooth radio to transmit scanned data to a device like the iPod Touch. When equipped with the device, an iPhone or iPod Touch doubles as a mobile computer that collects information and transmits it via Wi-Fi to another computer. (I should note here that in order to do this, you first have to install Serialio.com's Grid-In-Hand Mobile Grid software application, which is available free at Apple's iTunes Store.) Although the system was not designed specifically for logistics-related tasks, Serialio.com's president, David Boydston, says some of the company's customers are using the Scanfob scanner and Apple equipment in their distribution operations.
Another company that offers add-on scanners suitable for use in distribution operations is Socket Mobile Inc. of Newark, Calif. Socket markets a line of wireless bar-code scanners that are designed to work with the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch, including the pocket-sized Socket Bluetooth Cordless Hand Scanner Series 7 device. (These scanners also require special software—a program called "iForm" from software developer Zerion that's available for free from the Apple App Store.) Leonard Weems, director of sales operations at Socket Mobile, says a major toy electronics maker recently purchased Socket's scanner to use in conjunction with an iPad to track inventory in its distribution centers.
The appeal of these scanning systems isn't hard to understand. With iPod Touches starting at $229, they give distribution operations a low-cost alternative to mobile handheld data terminals. The add-on systems are modestly priced as well—Serialio.com's Scanfob lists for $299, and Socket's Series 7 scanner starts at $395.
Although most distribution centers would probably be better off using more rugged mobile handheld computers in their receiving and shipping operations, the Apple-core devices with add-on scanners offer an affordable alternative. Indeed, there's really no excuse now for even the smallest warehouse not to scan its incoming or outgoing shipments.