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Today, many distribution centers rely on outdated methods to capture data and monitor operations. In many cases, pencils, clipboards and punch cards are still the tools of the trade, as operators are required to record and input information manually. In today’s competitive environment, these antiquated methods are no longer sufficient to keep track of the supply chain and operate an efficient distribution center. With modern wireless technology, it’s possible for operators to maintain complete end-to-end awareness of the supply chain, and use automation to increase efficiency and reduce costs.

With the power of wireless technology, data analytics and cloud computing, warehouses and throughput centers now have the opportunity to access, analyze and relay business-critical data instantaneously. Employees can access information from the warehouse floor, on the bed of a truck, or even while operating a forklift. Scanners and “smart shelf” technology can instantly identify when a shelf is low on goods, or when a supplier has run out of stock, and technology allows companies to dynamically share information across a campus with little effort. Vehicle-based technology can monitor hours of service information, customer interactions (delivery, returns, on-site sales, etc.) and incident capture.

An integrated deployment of wireless technology solutions can keep a distribution center supplied with automated, reliable and instantaneous data capture at every link in the supply chain. Because the control room and warehouse employees have real-time access to business-critical data and end-to-end situational awareness of production, throughput and distribution, an integrated technology approach will result in significant increases in efficiency, productivity, security and cost-savings. Let’s take a look at some of the tech tools and processes available that can help revolutionize today’s distribution centers.

Tablet Technology

The centerpiece of a wireless supply chain is mobile tablet technology, as instant, ubiquitous access to business-critical information is the key to situational awareness in the distribution center. With specialized data capture technologies, information on shipping, warehousing, throughput, as well as customer and employee information can be made available to tablet users in real-time. Using cloud storage and analytics, frontline employees can use their handheld device to access company sales data, shipping information and more from anywhere in the facility.

Granted, almost all supply chains have computerized inventory management systems in place. However, many still rely on fixed computer terminals to enter and receive data. What makes tablets special is their portability, their ease-of-use, screen size and the ability to add new applications. Tablets’ smaller screens and increased portability allow employees to access and update information from anywhere – on a loading dock, on the warehouse floor, or in a freezer.

When a warehouse receives an incoming shipment, for example, the receiving dock can categorize and process the delivery immediately at the point of contact on a wireless-enabled tablet. Running separate applications, the same device can then also accompany a driver on his route, a warehouse manager inspecting the facility, or an executive managing purchase orders. Instead of remaining chained to a fixed location, tablet computers offer near-universal access to enterprise systems, and allow users to run a much wider variety of business applications on one device.

It’s also important to make sure the tablets are suited for the tasks at hand.  Many consumer-grade devices are ill-suited to the often harsh environments of distribution centers. To meet this need, a new breed of rugged tablets has been developed that offer shock, temperature and water resistance, long battery life and daylight-viewable screens.

Because they can accompany an employee anywhere and provide instant access to business data, wireless-enabled tablets represent an evolution in supply chain technology, and are one of the most valuable tools available to distribution centers. A new generation is entering the workforce, and is accustomed to carrying more computing power in their pocket than was available in most PCs five years ago. Tomorrow’s workers will be accustomed to using consumer-style tablets in their daily life. The ability to instantly access and capture data, and an inherently user-friendly design means tablets can be used by anyone, and allows warehouse workers to focus on processing customer orders more quickly.

Vehicle Technology

The lifeblood of the supply chain is transportation. Deliveries arrive and depart the warehouse hundreds of times a day. In order to track vehicle movements in real time, innovative logistics operations are now outfitting their trucks with wireless 4G-enabled telematics solutions that automatically communicate a vehicle’s location, service hours, travel time and incident reports back to the command center. This data can be fed into cloud-based or on-site analytics solutions that can determine optimal shipping routes, respond to incidents, and communicate arrival/departure times to warehouse staff.

In addition, many delivery fleets are being outfitted with dashboard consoles or tablets that allow drivers to record and transmit delivery information, capture signatures, customer interaction, cargo data and more. Dispatches can now monitor driver behaviors including hard braking, idling and speeding. In many cases, this technology can also monitor vehicle performance data to ensure optimal fleet maintenance.

With this steady stream of instant information available to drivers and to headquarters staff, distribution centers can ensure the right cargo gets to the right place on time, and respond to any incidents along the way.

Barcode and RFID

Manually receiving products and entering data into a fixed terminal is an inefficient and time-consuming process, and introduces the risk of costly data errors and delays. Instead, distribution centers should use mobile devices with bar code scanners or RFID readers at the receiving dock to instantly categorize materials when they arrive. With scanner-equipped mobile devices, the risk of human error is dramatically reduced, inventory accuracy is improved, and the receiving and identification process becomes much more efficient.

In some cases, “smart shelf” technology keeps track of inventory with RFID scanners and sends alerts when a warehouse is running low on materials. This information can instantly be uploaded to an internal or cloud-based analytics platform that allows businesses to manage incoming shipments, allocate resources and predict the number of goods they need to stock in the future. In many cases, this technology eliminates the need for manual processing.

The larger a warehouse facility, the more difficult it becomes to keep track of inventory. With rows upon rows of shelves, crates or specialty containers, it’s nearly impossible to maintain oversight of all inventory when relying on visual inspections alone.

That is why without an automated inventory system using barcode and RFID scanners, determining whether you are running low on stock and coordinating resource allocation can become a nightmare.

Distribution centers are aware of the value that technology-enabled situational awareness can provide in terms of greater efficiency, visibility and productivity. Wireless technology allows employees to capture and process data automatically at every stage in the supply chain. Information on purchasing, shipping, processing, warehousing, distribution, customer interaction and sales can all be captured and transmitted in real time.

IT managers should assess the options available to them and craft a strategy to introduce integrated wireless technology for situational awareness in their warehouses and distribution networks. Ultimately, complete end-to-end visibility and management capabilities will have a transformative effect on the distribution center in terms of efficiency, capabilities and cost savings.