Sure, you may have gotten a good price on that scan gun, with its blazing-fast read rates and rock-solid wireless connection. But how good is that mobile device at its most important job: keeping your DC workforce happy enough that they show up for their next shift? After all, a handheld computer is not much use unless there’s a hand to hold it.
Turnover remains high in logistics; the churn rate among employees in the transportation, warehousing, and utilities sectors in 2021 was 49.0%, compared to the national average of 47.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest "Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey" report. That trend has been exacerbated by a post-pandemic shift to gig work and short-term contract jobs. And recruiting replacement staff hasn’t been easy, with unemployment rates running below 4% in recent months.
When labor is tight, workforce retention is the key to success in managing a warehousing and fulfillment operation. And providing cool technology is a powerful strategy for keeping workers happy on the job, according to Zebra Technology Corp.’s “Warehousing Vision Study.”
The Zebra survey found that technology can help attract workers—83% of associates claim they are more likely to sign on with an employer that provides them with updated tech tools versus one that provides older devices or none at all. And it can also help with retention—92% of warehouse associates agree on some level that technology advancements will make a warehouse environment more attractive to workers.
Determining what type of technology to invest in is one of the biggest issues facing businesses and IT decision-makers today. So what should you look for in the mobile devices you give your workers to help ensure they’ll keep showing up day after day?
Experts say that where mobile technology is concerned, the logistics sector is currently in a time of transition from an older generation of devices—ones featuring physical buttons and text-based interfaces—to newer touchscreen, app-based models. In that regard, the warehousing industry lags behind the world of consumer electronics, which long ago discarded Palm Pilot- and Blackberry-style devices in favor of Apple- and Android-based smartphones.
As for why the sector has been slow to catch up, part of the reason is that the old-fashioned warehouse devices simply work well, says Mark Wheeler, director of supply chain solutions at Zebra. “We are midstream in the transition because if it works in the warehouse, you need a good reason to change it. When you change devices, you have to deal with change management, testing, and process definition. So we’re still in a time of transition to mobile devices with more advanced features, like wearables and voice interfaces.”
But even as the market evolves, there will probably always be demand for some of the features found on the older-generation handhelds, such as physical buttons, Wheeler says. “Do we still need hard keys? Yes, because you can touch them without looking at the screen. You can do ‘blind keying,’” he explains. “If a job is highly repetitive, like picking, replenishment, or scan verification, then [users] know what the device is going to show before it does it. So you still see [text-] and character-based user experiences; they’re prevalent and effective.”
Though the latest models may not look all that different from their predecessors, their capabilities are typically light-years ahead of those found on the earlier devices. One reason is the rise of fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks, which offer far more bandwidth and lower latency than legacy systems, supporting sensor-based data collection, Wheeler says. Instead of scanning one item at a time, sensor-based devices can gather information from many inputs automatically—including radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, machine vision images, and, of course, the classic bar code. For instance, some models can take a picture of a shelf full of boxes or totes and scan all of the bar codes visible in the image with a single click.
It’s not hard to see the appeal of a device that both expedites the scanning process and offers ergonomic benefits. Those attributes are crucial at a time when companies are concerned about worker fatigue, according to Ilhan Kolko, chief product officer and president of North America for ProGlove, a company that makes wearable scanners. “The labor shortage makes retention the number-one priority. That shortage and its stress on supply chains—Covid and its aftermath being a major stress—is putting a spotlight on human wellbeing, which is long overdue.”
Mobile technology can help in that regard by enabling workers to complete their tasks—whether it’s picking orders, sorting parcels, or some other job—with a single device, Kolko says. He adds that to address that need, ProGlove offers multiscanning devices that allow workers who are picking multiple orders to read six or eight bar codes at a time.
Mobile computer developer Scandit sells a similar device. The company says its MatrixScan model can read multiple bar codes at one time by taking a picture of a shelf or rack and scanning all of the codes captured in the shot.
While that capability represents a significant improvement over scanning individual items in sequence, it’s just the first step toward the ultimate goal of connecting warehouse workers to a much wider array of codes, tags, and other information sources, says Chris Annese, Scandit’s vice president sales for the Americas. He adds that as a move in that direction, the company has developed a sophisticated software platform that lets users capture data not just from bar codes, but also from text, ID tags, and other sources.
“This approach gives superpowers to transportation and logistics workers because it digitizes their workflow from end to end,” Annese says. “That increases efficiency and productivity by simplifying and automating tasks, whether it involves van loading, proof of delivery, pickup and dropoff, or whatever. Digitalization has become reality.”
Despite that promise, “smart data capture” has been slow to gain traction in the logistics sector. There are a couple of reasons for that, Annese says. One is that advances in battery technology have not kept up with other advancements in handheld computers, preventing many devices from functioning throughout a full eight-hour shift, he says. Another is the prevalence in the DC market of classic laser scanners, which Annese describes as purpose-built, dedicated devices that are designed to do one task only: scan bar codes. These obstacles notwithstanding, Annese believes the tide will turn as companies begin to realize that workers need devices like smartphones and tablets to transition to the era of smart data capture.
One factor that’s likely to accelerate the transition to multipurpose smart devices in the warehouse is the workers themselves—or to be precise, their expectations regarding the technology they use on the job. “Now our customers are asking for smart devices because those are also coming into their daily lives,” Kolko says. “We enjoy the apps in our daily lives, with all the user experience options. No one wants to step down from those when you use business devices.”
Market statistics back him up. The adoption of wearable technology such as fitness trackers and smart watches has risen quickly among American consumers in recent years, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s “Internet Use Survey.” That research showed that the percentage of people who use wearable technology had risen to 16.19% of the U.S. population in November 2021 from 8.17% in November 2017.As mobile devices become smarter, faster, and easier to use, the logistics workforce is reaping the benefits. Armed with better technology, warehouse staffers can become more productive on every shift, “build” a better synchronization between the physical and digital worlds, and—crucially—enjoy their jobs more. These new tools are not yet commonplace, but change is coming.