Inside Logistics

Going wireless? Why not go all the way?

The benefits of mobile powered workstations


December 21, 2011
by Christine Wheeler

MM&D MAGAZINE, NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2011 PRINT EDITION:

Thanks to wireless technology, mobile powered workstations (MPWs) are opening up new frontiers of efficiency and productivity. These workstations, with integrated power supplies, can maneuver computers, printers, scales and barcode scanners to wherever they’re needed. For some facilities, multiple MPWs can bring a “system solution”—a new way of doing business. Capitalizing on the benefits of auto-ID technologies, they integrate the facility’s software with devices on the workstations to establish mobile on-demand label printing stations, mobile shipping/receiving stations and so on. Here are three basic ways these workstations or “mobile desks” can help you take full advantage of wireless technology to improve your business.

Time and labour savings
By significantly reducing foot travel and paperwork, an MPW can have a favorable impact on your bottom line. In many enterprises, countless hours are wasted as employees walk back and forth, chatting with co-workers en route, between sites where work is taking place (such as loading docks, storage racks, assembly lines and inspection/testing areas) and a deskbound computer and printer where they log information into a database, print labels/orders, etc.

Often, these employees are merely keying in data they have previously written on paper at the work site. Or, they rely on memory, which leads to mistakes. In contrast, an employee operating an MPW has continual, paperless and real-time access to information via warehouse management systems (WMS), enterprise resource planning (ERP), or automated data collection (ADC) software from anywhere in the facility, since the workstation’s computer is always at hand.

Because an MPW can carry a computer and relatively heavy peripherals such as a high-volume label printer—and can supply them all with adequate on-board power—it’s more useful than a tiny portable/handheld thermal printer or scanner. This “on-demand” high-volume label printing/PC station (when compared to a portable printer) would enable the use of thermal transfer labels, large labels, a full computer screen to toggle between different software programs and more. You therefore have a fully functioning packaging/labeling/processing/inspection station that can be moved to wherever it’s needed.

Although large facilities might need more than one, a single MPW can often do the job of two or three stationary desks, which means fewer computers and peripherals will be needed. For example, a workstation can be used all morning at a receiving dock and then wheeled to the shipping department for the afternoon.

The opportunities to save time and labour through “on-the-spot” data entry, “on-the-fly” scanning, “on-demand” label printing and other tasks are numerous. An MPW can be an asset in several applications, including:

• Warehousing and distribution
An MPW can increase the number of packages processed per day by facilitating order picking, put-away, packaging, labeling, shipping, receiving, cross-docking and other functions. In a receiving department, for example, the MPW operator can scan barcodes or read radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to indentify incoming shipments and inspect, re-label and re-route it—all at the same workstation. Shipping accuracy improves when the operator can scan outgoing shipments to verify the order is correct and scheduled for the proper shipping method. For break bulk and mixed-unit orders, MPWs allow quick and easy picking with on-site high-volume printing of labels, packing slips, delivery receipts, refund receipts and so on. The operator can track previously shipped parcels and keep track of multiple stock-keeping units (SKUs). He or she can even take and file digital photos to provide proof of the condition of a returned shipment and then credit the customer immediately. No power outlets at the far corners of your facility? Problem solved.

• Retail
Here, an MPW is ideal for inventory management, shelf and product labeling and “line-busting”. The device can be used as a mobile checkout or pointof-sale (POS) station where the operator can check prices, process credit cards and print receipts and coupons.

• Manufacturing
MPWs can be used for labeling received components before stocking or labeling samples picked from assembly lines for quality control.

• Improved Employee Morale
Employees know when their time is being wasted. They feel better about their jobs (and their lives) when they instead know they are doing work that needs to be done, and doing it efficiently. The gains provided by an MPW are not only for management ledger sheets but also for employees’ day-to-day experience—greater productivity benefits everyone.

Good MPWs also provide ergonomic advantages. The MPW you choose should have adjustable shelves and large, stable work surfaces. Some MPWs allow the shelves to be raised and lowered, while some do not. A tall employee should be able to quickly raise a shelf to the most convenient height, and a shorter worker on the next shift should be able to lower it just as quickly.

Your workstation should have a compact footprint and be easy to push, with large, easy-to-grip handles and top-quality swivel casters. Casters should provide years of smooth, quiet rolling and positioning, yet be lockable for stability and safety. The size, weight and capacity of the onboard power package (battery/inverter/charger) are also ergonomic considerations; some packages are bulkier and heavier than others. Because the workstation is wireless, there are no cords long enough to trip over. For cables connecting the devices on the workstation to each other, the best-designed MPWs have cable-management components that keep cabling tangle-free.

• Improved Versatility
The more your workstation can do, the more your business can accomplish—in ways you might not yet envision. That’s why you’ll want your new MPW to be versatile. Check the weight capacity of individual shelves and of the unit overall. The MPW you buy should be powerful enough to run various devices simultaneously—look for one that can hold and power four devices for at least eight hours and can be recharged in five to eight hours. It’s important that the MPW manufacturer offers multiple options for the workstation’s power package, and choosing the best one for your business can be difficult on your own. Some MPW manufacturers have technicians who will make sure your package is fully integrated with the devices you intend to run, and some even have software tools on their websites that help the customer choose the most appropriate power package by calculating the total wattage of the equipment to be supported.

Last but not least, your MPW should be modular—designed to accept many different accessories for your specific application. Accessories include additional shelves and drawers, keyboard trays, laptop holders, flat-screen holders and scanner holders. Like your business, your MPW will be what you make of it.

Shop Around
Obviously, different needs require different MPW configurations, so shop around until you find the model that fits your facility. Some basic attributes, such as sturdiness and durability, trump all other characteristics. Because further technological advances will give us new gizmos that will once again require us to reorder our thinking as well as our equipment, versatility and ergonomics should also be at the forefront. Some careful research will lead you to a well-built yet reasonably priced model. You should expect to pay $1,500 to $3,000 for a good MPW, but when you consider the potential for productivity improvement, it should pay for itself many times over. MM&D

Christine Wheeler is marketing director at Newcastle Systems.