Inside Logistics

Is smart savvy?

The pros and cons of smartphones in the DC


June 19, 2019
by Jacob Stoller

Smaller warehouse operations are beginning to deploy smart phones in the place of RF guns and other traditional devices.

Whether or not one believes that smart phones can be addictive, it’s undeniable that a growing segment of the workforce has a close relationship with their personal devices that spills into their day-to-day work. As well, the smart phone is becoming, for many, the platform of choice for accessing ERP, workflow, sales force automation, and other enterprise apps, and the trend is likely moving into warehouses and distribution centres.

This is putting pressure on companies to keep pace with a new set of employee expectations. “In some way or other, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that a large and expanding part of the workforce wants to be able to work with a smart phone as a key business tool,” says Michael O’Neil, principal analyst at Toronto-based InsightaaS.

According to Ian MacKenzie, who has headed several national logistics operations and is currently national logistics manager for Vancouver-based cannabis provider Emerald Health Therapeutics, smaller warehouse operations are beginning to deploy smart phones in the place of RF guns and other traditional devices.

“With the kind of technology we have today, it would be very inexpensive to set up an operation using an iPhone or similar device, and that’s how I’d do all my picking, packing, and scanning,” he says. “The training curve is almost nonexistent – if I hand an iPhone to a 20-year-old, he’ll be training me after five minutes.”

The trend isn’t showing up yet in DCs, MacKenzie says, but he believes it eventually will. “The question is, how do we take advantage of this?”

For now, warehouse managers are resistant to the idea of even allowing employees to bring their smart phones into the facility, and it is causing some discord in organizations. “This is a growing issue,” says MacKenzie. “In just about any office you work in, they hand you a phone when they hire you, and you’re using it at work, at home, and around the clock. But in the distribution world, they say it isn’t safe, or it will distract people from their work.”

Many of these fears may be overblown. “There have to be guidelines, of course,” he says. “If you’re operating a piece of equipment, or going up and down wearing a tether, I totally understand the reasoning of figuring out how we do this safely. But for those who say that people are just going to sit at their phone all day and not work, I would answer that most of our work is measured today anyway. I know how much work somebody’s done whether they’re on their phone or not.”

Seize the opportunity

MacKenzie has been urging his peers to see smart phones not as a threat, but as an opportunity. “A lot of warehouse managers and supervisors are struggling with why they’re having turnover, and why people don’t want to go into this industry,” he says, “and we talk about engagement a lot. So I’ve been a big proponent of the idea that the smart phone is a great engagement tool that the workforce carries around – instead of asking people to put it down, let’s figure out a way to use it to engage people in the workplace.”

For example, a company could use smart phone apps to push out messages and company announcements, send pay notifications, provide career guidance, or exchange information in emergencies.

The “bring your own device” (BYOD) option

The growth of the smart phone as a computing platform has accelerated the adoption of company policies that allow or mandate BYOD practices. The BYOD market in the U.S., according to Global Market Insights, is on track to grow to US$367 billion by 2022, or roughly ten times what it was in 2014.

The strategy has clear advantages. According to a Cisco-sponsored study, companies with BYOD policies save US$350 annually, per employee, and according to a CITO Research report, 53 percent of employees surveyed feel they are more productive when using their own devices. As well, company-owned devices often get turned off when the employee leaves the office, while a personal device typically remains on, ensuring the person can be contacted if an important issue arises.

In logistics, however, the BYOD option raises some thorny issues, according to Neil McEvoy, an Oxford, UK-based management consultant who in previous roles provided senior management oversight of BYOD programs for first-line managers at two major UK-based delivery companies, DPD and Arrow XL.

“At Arrow XL, we used an incentivized system where the company paid the employee the purchase cost for the equivalent company-bought device,” he says. “To ensure these devices were safe on our network, we installed a fairly extensive security management system on each device that tracked what the device was doing, and could even shut it down if, say, the employee tried to visit a gaming site. Some people saw it as overly intrusive and an invasion of their privacy.”

In response to employee pushback, the company offered an inexpensive company-owned phone as an alternative, but interestingly, 98 percent of employees decided to stick with the BYOD option, security management system and all, rather than work with a low level smart phone. “People complained, but the system worked well,” says McEvoy.

Losing contact with employees is another concern. “A problem we had is that people would have their phone go down, and they couldn’t be contacted,” he said.

“In logistics and supply chain, sometimes to walk from one end of the site to the other might take you ten minutes, so it’s easy to get lost. So with BYOD, you have to be very stringent about what the rules and regulations are.”

This might mean having employees buy kits to “ruggedize” their phones against breakage or water damage, or carry mobile charging units to ensure that the battery life extends through their shift. Stipulations about phone models, carrier coverage, and of course, safe computing practices need to spelled out clearly and kept up to date.

“There are a lot of contractual complexities that arise with BYOD,” says McEvoy. “It’s quite hard to do with huge teams.”

Advancing technology

On the other side of the smart phone question, enterprise mobile devices designed specifically for logistics functions offer significant advantages over consumer-grade technology, and they keep getting better. For example, wearable devices such as ring scanners from vendors like Zebra Technologies are ergonomically designed, have long battery life, and provide reliable operation in freezers and other harsh environments.

“Consumer devices cost less initially, but our customers find that the total cost of ownership (TCO) for rugged enterprise devices is actually lower,” says Ralph Lieberthal, principal, transportation and logistics at Zebra Technologies based in Lincolnshire, IL.
Enterprise mobile devices also provide leading edge capabilities, such as location tracking of assets using low-cost passive RFID tags. “If I know where my people and my assets are, I can optimize their movement,” says Lieberthal. “It’s all about location and visibility.”

Innovation will continue to rapidly improve capabilities of both consumer and enterprise devices. Technology, however, is ultimately just a tool that helps people do their work. “If you’re not out on the floor every day, just walking and talking throughout your facility, it doesn’t matter how much technology you have there,” says MacKenzie. “The human connection point is the biggest single thing.”