There’s a common misperception that small- to mid-sized businesses (SMB) operate mostly in “startup” mode. Maybe some do. But it’s imperative that SMBs move from startup to “grow up” mode technologically speaking for many reasons, three of which have become exceptionally prominent during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Business agility is dictated in equal parts by technology and culture.
- Growth is dependent on one’s ability to increase operational capacity, especially when faced with labor and supply chain constraints.
- Workers need reliable, actionable intelligence to be most effective in today’s high-paced environment.
Every time there is a spike in demand or supply chain disruption, warehouse and distribution center operators must be ready to adapt. Though front-line workers responsible for order fulfillment are extremely resilient, their responsiveness is highly dependent on the technology in the palm of their hands.
Authorizing a “bring your own device” (BYOD) policy might suffice in a banking or “carpeted corporate” environment. However, warehousing and distribution workflows are maturing at an unprecedented rate, with partial automation via mobility solutions becoming table stakes for even the smallest operations – especially as labor capacity continues to lag behind growing demand levels. Fulfillment processes are also becoming increasingly reliant on multiple specialized software platforms and business systems with which consumer-grade mobile devices may not be optimized to support.
If your workers can’t easily access the data collected by barcode scanners, sensors, and radio frequency identification (RFID) readers employed across your operation, it’s going to be difficult for them to know where to shelve or retrieve inventory or confirm the quality of goods before shipping. If they don’t know the best next steps to take to get orders picked, packed and out the door on time, efficiency and productivity will go out the door instead. And if workers must stop and chase someone down for help every time an issue arises – if they don’t have a simple way to connect with a supervisor or IT expert while on the move – entire workflows might come to a halt.
SMBs operating warehouses and distribution centers should be thoughtfully investing in company-owned devices with enterprise-grade connectivity, collaboration and security tools.
Those Who Aren’t Thinking about the Future are Already Behind
An investment in technology is an investment in your business, especially right now when there is a prime growth opportunity for those who can fill gaps in demand. Consumer-grade mobile devices might buy you some time to map out a better long-term technology strategy or help you somewhat mature beyond manual processes. But why waste time and money on devices that will limit your ability to expand both your technology architecture and your operational capacity? That would be like building a house without first pouring a solid foundation.
If you want to set your business up for success, especially after the year we just had, you must lay the proper groundwork. You must also arm your team with the right tools for each job. Warehouse and DC operators that had enterprise-grade mobility solutions in place to mobilize access to their WMS, ERP, WES and/or other critical operational systems before (and during) the pandemic were better able to:
- maintain visibility into operational performance and make more informed decisions as inventory and fulfillment challenges emerged.
- coordinate with supply chain partners and customers as supply and demand fluctuated.
- guide front-line teams to – and through – priority actions.
- minimize chaos and maintain high quality standards as order volumes and fulfillment speeds increased (even though labor availability did not).
Hardware and software platforms built specifically for warehousing and distribution environments have the features, functionality and flexibility to sync with – and amplify the value of – all business systems. Enterprise-grade mobility solutions are also able to automate data capture and expedite the distribution of actionable intelligence between those on the front lines and back office. In fact, they are designed to be more “power on and play” than many off-the-shelf smartphones and tablets. Unlike consumer-grade devices, enterprise-grade solutions typically come standard with the additional software capabilities that make it easy for IT teams to properly configure, secure and manage the devices.
It’s also worth noting that mobility plays a central role in robotics automation, industrial automation, blockchain, digital ledger technology (DLT) and other platforms that you may eventually want – or need – to use to meet demand or comply with customer requirements. Blockchain and DLT records are only as accurate as the order-related data reported by fulfillment and logistics teams. And mobile computers and ruggedized tablets often serve as “command centers” for the collaborative robots (cobots) employed to manage mundane tasks so human workers can focus on the more strategic ideation and execution of customer-centric actions.
In other words, if you want to seize the day (and the market), make sure you have technology tools that will empower you to sense, analyze and act on every opportunity without error or delay.
To learn more about the role that mobility solutions play in warehouse and DC maturation, check out these insights from my colleague Mark Wheeler.