Technology in the warehouse

Like most in the supply chain industry these days fork lift users are at home with technology. Radio frequency identification (RFID), speed zoning, on-board cameras, laser positioning of tines, and even  wireless remote control of low—level order pickers are  all fork lift technology improvements once considered  revolutionary. But what can we expect from the future?  Experts agree, driven by the rise in mobile devices such as ruggedised computers and smartphones, the desire to utilise technology on and off a vehicle in the warehouse, is currently the major area of advancement.     

“Whether it’s a tablet or a flat screen type solution, the ability to do what an operator needs to do remotely from the floor, then come back and connect a device back up to the fork lift as a fixed mount is where I think the market is going,” Peacock Bros National Sales Manager, George Pecchiar, says. 

Certainly this is where software development has been focused. The latest solution for a fork lift in the warehouse is an industrial web-based browser running on its terminal. The browser controls the fork lift’s computer, interfacing with the scanner and various other functions. It talks back to the server where the company runs its enterprise resource (ERP) and warehouse management solutions (WMS). 

“The benefit of this kind of software is that it’s easier to deploy multiple computers in an enterprise environment." Pecchiar says.  “The browser type solution can work on a smartphone as an option, on a fork lift mount terminal or on a warehouse hand-held terminal."  

Despite this, depending on what a company's ERP and WMS are capable of, Pecchiar says physical applications running on fork lift terminals and even the legacy terminal emulation solutions defined from the IBM 5250 protocols over the last 20 years, are still quite common. “The benefit of having an application on the terminal is that it’s very specific to business requirements or processes, fitting into every single operation in the warehouse,” he says.

Sometimes, when you deploy to a browser type technology with the larger ERP solutions you don’t necessarily get all the business processes built into the application because of the associated expense if it’s just for the warehouse division. If you run an application on the physical fork lift computer, you can build all the business processes and workflow into that application. It suits the warehouse down to every single operation.” 

However, Intermec Vice President and General Manager for Asia, Mike Muller says although interest has exploded in the possibility for consumer grade devices such as iPads or Androids in the warehouse, none of the overseas trials he’s been involved with have succeeded.    

“The fork lift and distribution centre environment is quite a tough one," Muller says. “Fork lifts are not great platforms in terms of providing a smooth ride. Typically the sealing inside a consumer device can't handle the dirt, dust or moisture within the industrial environment.”  

In addition the fork lift is a DC-powered vehicle while the consumer grade products are designed to run on AC.  “So what that means is that you need to get a power  converter and you need to work out how you’re going to  attach that to the fork lift, and how you’re safely going to  run the cable. It all adds cost to the consumer product.

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