With the start of each new year, the pace of change accelerates. And since the start of this year, the pace of change has been off the charts, which means demand on your warehouse operations must be too. But it’s easy to get caught up in the rush of excitement – and it’s risky to rush innovation efforts, especially if you’re a small or medium-sized business (SMB). I’m not saying you should sit back and wait to see what happens before spending money on new technology, but I do recommend you take time to consider why you are really investing in certain technologies and how much you stand to gain by making those investments right now.
All too often, we hear from customers who are interested in automating their operations but don’t have the right mobile technologies in place to do so. Without a solid foundation, it will be difficult to stand up the other systems you need to introduce greater workflow efficiency and minimize human error as customer demand grows.
In fact, Zebra recently surveyed several SMB warehouse operators to see what their biggest challenge is a year into the pandemic. It’s not accelerating modernization or automation efforts. Nor are they worried about innovating fast enough to keep pace with growing order volumes. The thing they’re struggling with most right now is ensuring workers have the right tech tools to be efficient and accurate. That says a lot about where spend needs to be prioritized right now.
Resetting Innovation Priorities
Most warehouse operators have seen a huge jump in sales over the last 12 months and want to take advantage of the growth opportunity but just can’t keep up given the inefficiency and fragmentation of legacy or manual systems. Workflow automation will be critical to gaining an operational edge in the next 12 months. But right now, the focus must be on keeping up with demand so that you don’t lose the customers that will contribute to your long-term growth.
Take the time to assess the performance of all technology solution components:
- Do your workers have enterprise-grade rugged devices that can be scaled when you’re ready to automate more processes? Or did you opt for consumer devices because you were more familiar with them and just needed to get some sort of tech solution online? If it’s the latter, now would be a good time to compare those devices against the devices that have been purpose built for warehouse workers and workflows, especially if you need a solution that offers better device management, security and compatibility with wearables, printers, back office systems and (eventually) automation solutions.
- Have you already upgraded to Android handheld mobile computers? Or do you still rely on Windows mobile devices? If it’s the latter, now might be the time to start your Android migration so that you have more flexibility in workflow application development.
- Are you utilizing all available mobility tools, such as wearables? Believe it or not, head-up displays that offer an augmented reality experience aren’t out of reach for SMBs. Neither are other wearables, such as ring scanners, wrist-based mobile computers or printers that sit on the hip and keep workers’ hands free in a true “mobile office” set up.
- Is your software providing the insights and guidance workers need to keep up with demand? Remember, a mobile device is only as valuable as the experience it provides, and the software impacts the user experience just as much – if not more – than the hardware. A forklift-mounted computer might be able to display a map of the warehouse to help the operator navigate to the right section for item pickup. However, a prescriptive analytics alert or task management app can tell them when they need to head to a certain location, exactly how to get there with turn-by-turn guidance, exactly which pallet to pick up and then the fastest, safest way to get to the prep station or loading dock. If there are additional pallets that can be picked up along the way to save time, the software should also be able to tell the operator in real time so that tickets can be consolidated and orders fulfilled faster.
- Do your front-line workers have the right scanners for their particular roles? Seconds count in today’s world. Pickers, packers, shippers and receivers must all be able to scan and capture barcode data on the first trigger pull, no matter how dirty, damaged, crinkled or faded the packaging or label may be. If they have to stop to manually input barcode data to report an item’s status, everyone else gets slowed down too and the risk of errors rises significantly. The same is true if these teams have to put down an item or box to pick up a handheld scanner to capture the barcode data. Consider equipping workers with handsfree ring or wrist scanners if you want to see dramatic efficiency gains. It is also a good idea to inquire about multi-scan capabilities. Inventory managers will appreciate the ability to simultaneously scan 10 items on a shelf at once when conducting routine audits or annual counts. One thing we’ve learned in the past year is that real-time visibility into stock shortages and overages is key to improving sourcing and maintaining the right inventory balance as demand fluctuates.
- How well are your printers working? And how far are workers having to walk to get to one? Though two separate questions, they boil down to one basic principle: printers are the lifeblood of fulfillment activities. If you can’t get accurate labels on a package quickly, you risk missing a shipping deadline. Any delay is going to have an impact on customer satisfaction and could cost you more than just the few dollars you ultimately credit each customer to compensate for late delivery. SMBs need enterprise-grade desktop, industrial and mobile printers just as much as large enterprises do, mainly because they were purpose built for the very labeling applications that all businesses rely on to fulfill business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) orders. In fact, more and more SMBs are seeing the value of mobile printers that fulfillment team members can wear on their hip as they move around the production or warehouse facility. There’s no need to run back and forth from a stationary printer on the other side of the building. We’re also seeing interest – and value – grow in mobile carts that are equipped with full-size thermal printers that can be wheeled around easily to follow the user.
The majority of SMBs we surveyed told us that the most important thing to them right now is keeping up with demand – but they won’t compromise accuracy for speed. With the right software and hardware combination, workers will be able to work faster and reduce errors because they’ll know exactly what to do and have the right tools to do it efficiently.
The Best Next Step for SMB Warehouse Operators? Getting Back to the Basics
Whether you’re trying to keep up with demand or planning to expand over the next few months, the biggest misstep you could make right now as you try to move forward is skipping steps. You can’t put new technology systems in place without also reviewing and refining processes. And you can’t start to think about workflow automation – or robotics automation, for that matter – until you have the fundamental mobility architecture in place. I know you’ll feel the pressure to fast track automation, but if you move too quickly, you might just end up with another fragmented system.
Find a solution provider you trust to help you define your long-term goals and then map out an implementation strategy that will deliver immediate benefits at each step. You’ll be surprised at how much more productive your front-line workers will be once they have the right devices for their roles. Then, when you’re ready, you can layer in the analytics software and the automation solutions to accelerate those gains. Though you might not fast forward, you’ll likely find that your innovation and investment strategy provide an equal return in the context of long-term growth and operational sustainability.