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Tue 8 Sep 2009 04:00 AM

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Mounting pressure

Despite the growing popularity of handheld computers in the warehouse, are operators missing a trick with the lack of vehicle-mounted devices?

Mounting pressure
Companies are benefiting from the growing selection of vehicle-mounted computers available in the Middle East.
Mounting pressure
Companies in the Middle East have placed a strong emphasis on after-sales support and vendors have responded to demand with a diverse range of maintenance agreements.

Despite the growing popularity of handheld computers in the warehouse, are operators missing a trick with the lack of vehicle-mounted devices?

Although a growing number of companies have invested in handheld computers for their Middle East warehouse operations, there’s a general understanding that such devices are not suitable for every facet of the business.

However, with a host of complementary products being launched in the past year, there are plenty of alternatives to consider for your handheld collection. In particular, suppliers have reported a loyal following for vehicle-mounted computers (VMCs) in the region, with demand on the increase in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE.

“Demand for handheld computers is consistently strong in the Middle East,” states Tony Nasr, business development manager at Intermec. “At the same time, companies are starting to realise that vehicle-mounted computers could be more suitable in certain circumstances.”

The implementation of vehicle-mounted computers is linked to the wider adoption of modern technology solutions in the logistics industry. Regional companies are abandoning paper-based processes and moving online in order to gain greater visibility across the supply chain.

“Moving away from manual processes is becoming more essential, especially for third party logistics companies,” says Nasr. “It’s almost a requirement to show clients that you are using wireless terminals rather than paper systems, otherwise the competition can leave you behind.”

VMCs function in a similar way to handhelds, offering warehouse operators the same applications in a ruggedised, wireless format. However, unlike handhelds, vehicle-mounts are fixed onto forklifts and pallets stackers, which reduces the risk of dropping and breaking the system. They are also easy to use, as there is no need to juggle a computer system with one hand while operating a forklift truck with the other.

“If the customer looks from the safety aspect, there is nothing worse than an operator trying to drive a forklift or pallet stacker with one hand and operate a mobile device with the other,” says Mark Jones, regional manager of LXE in the Middle East and Africa. “By having a fixed terminal, it allows the operator to work with his hands free.”

However, despite this advantage, interest in VMCs was initially slow, especially in the Middle East. A lack of awareness was a challenge and the devices were also less technologically advanced than their handheld rivals.

“Vehicle-mount technology has always been less developed compared to handheld technology,” says Jones. “This has resulted in some customers making a decision to ignore VMCs and exclusively use the handheld option for their warehouse.”

Such decisions could be costly. VMCs can play an important role alongside handheld devices within a warehouse, and they are not much more expensive.

As such, for certain tasks they can produce greater efficiencies than handhelds and thereby generate a better return. “The suitability of vehicle-mounted computers depends on the warehouse operations,” explains Jones. “If the operator is walking short distances to pick light items, then handhelds are still recommended. However, if the warehouse is sending operators in a forklift to cover longer distances and collect heavier items, the vehicle-mounted option is certainly worth considering,” he continues.

There are a number of different vendors operating in the Middle East, offering a variety of vehicle-mount computers. The solutions vary considerably, which means research is needed to ensure that the most suitable product is selected. “Customers should discuss their needs with different manufacturers,” says Tarek Hassaniyeh, regional sales manager of Motorola Enterprise Mobility. “During the consultation process, customers are presented with a variety of different options.

For example, should the VMC feature a full size or half sized screen?

What size keypad area is required? Should the systems be battery powered? What should the system weigh in total?”More generally, the computer also needs to withstand the conditions found inside the warehouse. Temperatures and vibrations, for instance, can easily damage standard desktops and notepads, which makes picking a ruggedised solution essential.

“Some manufacturers are placing computers on forklifts and claiming the system is rugged, but the customer needs to carefully understand the company’s definition of the word,” explains Hassaniyeh.

“A number of computers are rugged from the outside but not the inside, which means they are not really suitable. The most effective solutions are rugged internally and externally,” he continues.

Industrial customers are realising that high repair and replacement costs for non-industrial strength computers, in addition to the decrease in productivity caused by downtime, can negatively affect profitability. “A lot of rugged computers can look good on the outside, but we encourage customers to look inside the computers too,” agrees Deep Agarwal, country manager at Psion Teklogix. “In fact the ruggedness begins inside the computer — adding the right screws, potting the components to make sure they do not move during vibrations, making sure the sealing is efficient. It is important to have a good look at the specifications before committing.”

Once the customer purchases its VMCs, the implementation process begins.

How long this will take will depend on the infrastructure in the warehouse. Indeed, if the company already use handhelds and a wireless network, it can be just a matter of days before VMCs are up and running. “The consultation process is deeper than the implementation process, which means it takes longer,” explains Agarwal. “Depending on whether the company already has a computer network in place, the implementation should take no longer than a week. The technology used by vehicle-mount computers is almost self-configuring, which makes it very quick.”

During implementation, the systems are integrated with the user’s back end computer system, allowing warehouse operators to access anything from basic text-based programmes to advanced warehouse management systems from their forklift. From a software point of view, this is fairly straightforward process. The bigger challenge is implementing the wireless network needed to collect and transmit data from the VMCs and handhelds within the facility. “The customer will need to decide what area of the warehouse needs wireless coverage for the system,” explains LXE’s Jones. “Companies normally require blanket coverage, allowing the VMCs to work in every single area of the warehouse.”

Depending on the area of coverage required, a number of access points are assigned to the company and placed in different locations within the warehouse.

In addition, a redundant system is sometimes chosen as part of a recovery plan, in case one access point stops working. This ensures the warehouse always maintains 100% coverage. “The locations of the access points need careful consideration,” sates Intermec’s Nasr. “It is also better to make decisions about where to place the access points after the warehouse has shelving and racks set up,” he continues. “Testing an empty warehouse for wireless connectivity is not appropriate because once the metal racks are placed, they may block the signal. Therefore planning the locations afterwards is ideal, although not always practical.”

After the implementation, some warehouse managers will heave a sigh of relief at the finished job. However such as reaction is premature as the process is far from complete. “The relationship between customer and vendor is long term and does not stop after implementation,” says Nasr. “The Middle East market places particular emphasis on after-sales support because technology is changing so fast. The vendor will offer different levels of maintenance agreements, making sure the system is always working, keeping the customer informed about technology updates, such as RFID, and ensuring staff are completely trained.”

Picking the most suitable maintenance agreement is also important. The company will need to weigh up the relative merits of different fixed payment programmes and decide which areas need to be covered. “There are a lot of options available in terms of maintenance,” says Nasr. “The company can opt to pay for each maintenance job individually, or select an agreement covering a specific time period, whether it is one year, or three years or five years. The agreement can include spare parts and labour, it can include onsite or offsite support — there is something to cover all needs.”

“A lot of our customers choose a maintenance agreement that involves us visiting the warehouse once a quarter and making sure everything is working properly,” adds Agarwal. “During the visit, we may conduct additional training for new employees, and ensure the clients are getting the returns they want. Alternatively, we can offer 24/7 support if needed, which some customers find useful.”

With this kind of support on offer, there are fewer headaches involved in using a wireless system. The cost of implementing such a solution is also falling, which should encourage even the most reluctant of companies to look at the technology available in the market. “Although many companies in the Middle East are realising the benefits of having such infrastructure in place, there is still a number of warehouses working manually, which is staggering,” states Jones. “I think the initial investment holds companies back. It is possible these businesses do not realise the return on investment available to them. ROI can be anywhere between 12 and 18 months, depending on the rollout.”

The ROI could also become even quicker, as the price of vehicle-mount computers has been consistently falling over the years. As such, even smaller firms can now justify the investment necessary to implement them in their facilities.

“It is more affordable these days,” concludes Jones. “With prices coming down on a regular basis, the return on investment is even better and lots of different size warehouses can start using vehicle-mounted computers.”

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