Online retailers go mobile to manage warehouse productivity

January 5, 2016 02:05 PM

Peter Schnorbach, senior director of product for fulfillment management systems vendor Manhattan Associates, says he’s noticed a growing trend among his company’s clients—more are turning to mobile devices to help better manage their warehouses. With mobile devices, warehouse supervisors spend more time on the floor instead of behind their desks.

“Until very recently, few if any of our customers leveraged mobile applications,” he says. “The employees within a warehouse have used scanners, but they really haven’t had access to warehouse and labor applications available on a mobile device with a consumer-oriented experience.”

What’s the appeal of mobile devices from a labor-management perspective?

“Mobile devices enable us to manage warehouse processes from virtually anywhere in the facility,” says Kunal Thakkar, vice president of operations with electronics e-retailer Newegg Inc., No. 17 in the Internet Retailer 2015 Top 500 Guide. “This enables our employees to address any potential issues quickly and to troubleshoot any problems on the spot.”

Some Newegg fulfillment workers hear instructions about which products to pick via headset through Honeywell’s voice-to-pick VoCollect order fulfillment system. Thakkar says the software has improved warehouse production by up to 23% in fulfillment centers where it has been implemented while reducing the amount of time it takes to train employees by 75%.

There’s also general convenience and the fact that mobile devices are, well, mobile.

“Use of iPads specifically has been an easy way to get technology out to the floor and begin to collect information versus having to assemble a PC,” says Anthony Vicars, vice president of operations at online custom framing service Framebridge, which developed a proprietary labor-management software. “It also has eliminated a learning curve. We really haven’t had to teach anyone how to use a system because everyone is very familiar with an iPad.”

Because Framebridge’s fulfillment center is more of an assembly operation that builds frames as orders come in rather than a traditional pick-and-pack fulfillment center like ones utilized by other online retailers, Vicars says his team evaluates employees on several metrics.

“We’re looking at how many frames we produce, how many pieces of acrylic we produce,” he says. “It’s an on-demand time model. We’re also collecting quality information along the way. We are kicking out material at any point during the process due to a manufacturing defect or a process defect.”

At online-only perfume and beauty products retailer, employees can access the company’s internally developed worker-management software on their iPhones. FragranceNet president Jason Apfel says when developing the software, the company emphasized giving managers as much information as possible.

“Any of the supervisors, no matter where we are, have real-time access to the dashboard, the pace at which we’re moving, are we behind, are we ahead of the game, number of employees that punched in, number of employees that punched out,” he says. “The system is growing as we grow. It allows us to be completely flexible.”

As mobile devices gain ground, what’s next to improve workplace productivity?

Schnorbach says retailers may draw on the same technology people use to measure their daily exercise levels.

“We haven’t done anything with this at all yet, but this concept of wearable devices, everything from Fitbit-ish devices to Google Glasses,” he says. “The concept of combining the execution type of information which you would normally interface with these mobile applications, that’s all going to come together in time in a single cohesive device where people can manage everything they’re doing in the warehouse.”

Read more about what retailers are doing to improve fulfillment warehouse productivity in the January edition of Internet Retailer magazine




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