Portable terminals and scanners have been used in the warehouse in some form since the 1970s. Each year we see improvements in the technology in the areas of size, performance, and battery life. Radio-frequency (RF) technology has finally matured to the point where it is both economical and highly reliable. And now, in addition to terminals and scanners, voice technology has come into the mainstream. Let’s look at some of the newer developments occurring in the area of portable terminals and scanners for distribution.
Windows- and Web-based terminals
With the introduction of Windows CE and Windows Mobile operating systems, more and more vendors are changing over to and standardizing on these operating systems. The benefit of having a standard operating system is that, for the first time, you get to choose the vendor that you prefer, based on price, features, service, and reliability. If for some reason you want to change vendors, the conversion is a much less risky and time-consuming task.
Aside from the Windows family of products, some vendors are now developing software applications that can operate on any Web-enabled device. This means that you are no longer restricted even to the Microsoft-based products. The freedom of choice caused by the introduction of open platforms is driving fierce competition, lowering prices, and increasing features and performance for everyone.
The scanner that no longer needs to be gripped in a person’s hand isn’t new per se. These scanners are integrated into a glove or a similar device. By moving the scanner to the back of the hand, the operator has increased dexterity and is able to grab items using both hands. Eliminating the grabbing of the scanner in the material transaction also saves a bit of time.
What is new is that Bluetooth technology has eliminated the need to connect the scanner to a larger transmitter, often worn on the hip. In some cases the transmitter is built right into the wrist unit. The removal of the wire means fewer equipment failures and better mobility.
Light-driven portable displays
Another innovation that has been around for some time, portable light-driven displays can direct work such as order selection or replenishment. Usually the displays are sold by pick-to-light vendors, mounted on carts, and controlled by RF communication. The displays direct picks out of storage as well as the puts to specific order locations on a cart. In some cases, a portable terminal is used to display the next item of work and the lights are used to show the placement of the item to an order.
Voice headsets replacing screens and keyboards
Voice headsets go the back-of-hand scanners one better: They eliminate the need to point and shoot by replacing the scan with a “check digit” read by the operator. At the same time the earpiece of the headset directs the operator to the next item of work rather than requiring the operator focus on and read a display. The combination of “hearing” the next transaction and the voicing of the confirmation “check digit” can shave seconds off many warehouse tasks. What’s more, the hands-free/eyes-free environment can improve safety, accuracy, and performance.
Sam Flanders is president of Durham, NH-based Warehouse Management Consultants (www.2wmc.com).
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