Is the Fulfillment Velocity Demanded During the COVID-19 Crisis Sustainable Long-Term?

By Jeff Schmitz | 06/18/2020 | 5:22 PM

These four things can aid with operational continuity as warehouses and distribution centers work to balance worker safety and speed.

In 2018, Zebra surveyed more than 2,700 professionals in transportation and logistics, retail and manufacturing firms on their plans, implementation levels, experiences and attitudes toward omnichannel logistics as part of the Future of Fulfillment Vision Study.

At the time, nearly everyone (89%) agreed that a boom in e-commerce was driving the need for faster delivery, yet more than half (55%) of organizations were still using pen and paper to manage omnichannel logistics. Even more concerning was that inventory levels were only reported to be 66% accurate on average.

If they were struggling to keep up with demand then, one can only imagine the scale at which warehouses and distribution centers are challenged right now.

COVID-19 upended the brick-and-mortar retail model and forced supply chains to transition an almost-100% e-commerce fulfillment operation in a matter of days – something that would normally take months or years. At the same time, traditional online retailers saw a surge in orders for everything from essential household items such as cleaning supplies to food staples that would normally be purchased at local grocery stores. New customer acquisition rates soared.

To further compound the issue, online shoppers started buying items at a higher volume (i.e. one case of cereal versus one box) and at a higher frequency (i.e. two orders a week versus one order every two months). It didn’t help that essential retailers were already struggling to keep physical store shelves stocked amidst a surge in foot traffic and a surge in cart sizes.

In other words, the pandemic posed challenges that most retailers and their supply chain partners weren’t prepared for, and it’s going to be difficult to stabilize anytime soon.

The economy continues to adjust to a new reality nearly every day. Supply chain professionals must be able to adapt just as quickly. That is a complex challenge. Supply chain efficiency thrives on certainty and predictability. The more the better.

What changes can warehouse and distribution center operators make right now to recover from recent disruptions? What new processes or new technologies need to be implemented to retain fast fulfillment capabilities as orders increase and ensure the even distribution of available inventory as omnichannel obligations expand?

Continue Planning for the Unpredictable (Because the World Can Change Again at Any Moment)

With social distancing practices institutionalized and the expectation that they will remain in place for an extended period of time, we’re seeing the natural preference for online shopping and the home delivery of goods increase. This is true even for cold chain items, and as the reopening of non-essential retailers’ brick-and-mortar locations will likely do little to reverse this trend. As such, delivery from distribution centers (DCs), stores and micro-fulfillment facilities could be expected to grow much faster than previously expected. The surge demand experienced over the past few months may well turn into sustained demand.

Since it’s impossible to predict the future, warehouses and DCs must be agile enough to act on any opportunity and resolve any issue in real time. That takes preparation, even if its mere minutes before you execute versus the months-long planning cycles to which you’re accustomed.

When a disruptive event first occurs – whether due to a manufacturing interruption, natural disaster or viral outbreak – you need to immediately assess the current situation and consider the worst-case scenario based on currently available public data and proprietary operational intelligence:

  • Market impacts: Will the event cause a temporary, if not permanent, acceleration in retailers’ move to e-commerce fulfillment? If so, how will operating plans change? Will retailers be able to move forward with plans to grow their direct fulfillment channels? Or will fulfillment actions have to be re-directed to your warehouse/DC in an accelerated manner?
  • Inventory stability: What is the projected impact on your product mix? Will there be temporary shortages of some SKUs due to delays in manufacturing or transportation capabilities? Or will you need to prioritize the storage and distribution of some SKUs (i.e. personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies) and refuse the receipt of others (i.e. clothes or toys) to better meet customer demand or critical needs? What are your demand profiles?
  • Channel stability: What channels are growing or slowing down? Are these changes temporary or long lasting?    
  • Supply availability: How is the supplier community holding up? And will they be able to sustain operations in a prolonged disruptive state?
  • Lead time: Are suppliers completely shut down? If so, are there alternative sources for high-demand SKUs? If suppliers are open by operating in a reduced capacity, how is production and shipping being affected?

I recommend you repeat this exercise often – perhaps once a week or month. Demand and delivery preferences can literally change by the minute, and supply chain volatility will remain high as long as there is instability in the general market. It will be critical for distributors to assess inventory velocity and re-slot more frequently than usual for the unforeseeable future. Right now, every item is a new item.

Implement New Technology Solutions That Enable You to Sense, Analyze and Act on Even the Slightest Supply or Demand Changes Instantly

COVID-19 wasn’t the first event to trigger a sudden change in demand patterns or delivery channel preferences in the consumer or commercial sectors. But it was the first event in a long time to have a simultaneous impact on nearly every region of the world – and the first to warrant drastic operational safety changes. That means the goal right now must be to protect your supply chains and preserve fulfillment speed without compromising worker safety. That’s where technology investments can pay off significantly.

If your operational visibility is contained within your four walls, you could easily be blindsided by supplier work stoppages or transportation delays. You must be able to see what is happening in your supply chain from end to end, analyze its impact (using the steps I mentioned above) and then act quickly on “opportunities” – either to generate more revenue or mitigate losses. Most importantly, you must find new ways to preserve fulfillment speed as demand shifts drastically without compromising worker safety.

Fortunately, the members of the 3PL industry are accustomed to making technology choices biased toward flexibility due to the dynamics of their business models, and those inclined to inject more tractability into their own operations should follow their lead:

  • Make the investment in wearable technology and highly flexible automation solutions that can adapt to multiple business models.
  • Choose mobile computing, scanning and printing technologies that can be scaled quickly to enable the fast introduction of new workflows and onboarding of new workers.
  • Deploy real-time location solutions (RTLS) that enable you to track and trace both pallets and individual items from the moment they approach the loading dock to the moment they’re loaded onto a truck. This will prove highly valuable in increasing your overall inventory accuracy. Plus, RTLS can help you track the movement of people, which is currently proving invaluable considering the emphasis on social distancing policy compliance. You can identify high trafficked areas, help re-route individuals to avoid close interactions and simplify contact tracing.
  • Employ co-bots that can help minimize worker movements in picking and packing processes. Beyond reducing the number of steps taken by workers and aiding with social distancing, co-bots help you reassign more of your workforce to higher value tasks that can only be completed by humans – tasks that will enable you to process a sudden influx of change orders without issue. 
  • Utilize the advanced analytics tools available to you, including those that enable you to monitor the health of your technology devices.

I recommend you ensure all technology devices within your four walls are thoroughly sanitized throughout the day – not just the shared label printers, wearables or handheld computing devices. Rugged devices are designed to be cleaned on a regular basis and the manufacturer’s user guide describes precisely how to clean them without causing damage. Keeping your workers safe, healthy and armed with the right devices will help you continue driving your operational productivity during this unpredictable time.

Warehouse Operators Turning to Purpose-Built Mobile Computers to Help Maintain Fulfillment Continuity

By Jeff Schmitz | 04/07/2020 | 5:35 PM

Warehouse and distribution center (DC) operators are being put to the test right now in unprecedented ways, as are the numerous technologies that are utilized within the four walls and on loading docks every day. The good news is that both are passing the test exceptionally well, despite what headlines and retailers’ out-of-stocks for certain items might indicate.

These teams are turning around record volumes of commercial and consumer orders with very few delays despite the unique buying patterns caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. Retailers are receiving the inventory they need to restock shelves every day – sometimes multiple times a day – to help offset the consistent run on hot-ticket items, including toilet paper. That speaks volumes to the agility and operational efficiency of warehouse and DC operators and how utilizing mobile technology helps them to absorb the unpredictable flood of orders and fulfill customer requests at a record pace.  

Front-line workers who are armed with handheld mobile computers, mobile printers, barcode scanners,  augmented reality (AR) apps, head-mounted displays and other wearables can speed through picking, packing, receiving and put-away tasks without making mistakes because they know exactly where to go to retrieve or restock an item. There is no guessing or delay. An order comes in, and they’re off to the races. Those with collaborative push-to-talk features or the ability to “call” co-bots to retrieve picked items to pass along for packing are finding it easier to turnaround orders quickly as pressure builds.

However, some warehouse and DC operators are taking extreme steps to “scale up” their workforce connectivity. Temporary hiring surges mean more workers need mobile devices in hand in the short term if they’re going to be truly efficient and effective. At the same time, suddenly strained operations mean that certain IT projects are being deprioritized and workarounds implemented.

Mobility Can Increase Agility

In order to help maintain the highest levels of productivity, efficiency and competitiveness, warehouse and DC operators have to work harder and faster to implement and scale the enterprise-grade Android mobility solutions that will help safely and securely facilitate a sustainable workflow during peak demand periods such as the one we’re in right now.

What does that mean?

  1. Workers must be given the mobile technologies that have been purpose built for their specific jobs. This may mean deploying a couple of different Android mobile computer models within the four walls. Some workers may benefit from a touch-only device while others who rely on heavily “F key” driven workflows may need a hybrid touch and key-based mobile computer. Those who work in cold storage environments and wear heavy gloves are a good example of the latter. Then there could be workers who need AR-enabled mobile computers or an accessory-type, head-mounted display to navigate the aisles and bins faster when fulfillment turnaround times are tight. Extended range scanners are also becoming extremely valuable for workers who need to locate inventory on high shelves as demand increases, and mobile printers can facilitate social distancing by allowing packers to print labels without having to go to a shared printer in some cases.
  2. IT must properly configure and secure all mobile devices to enterprise standards. This is critical. There are bad actors who are, unfortunately, trying to take advantage of the chaos created by the COVID-19 outbreak to act on vulnerabilities created by connected devices that have been hurried online to support increased production and fulfillment demand in manufacturing, warehousing and retail environments. Keep in mind those using personal devices in response to new telemedicine and universal telework mandates aren’t the only ones being targeted. This is not the time to become lax on mobile device or network security. 
  3. Any mobile device – handheld computer, scanner, tablet, printer, wearable or otherwise – must be capable of handling frequent cleaning. This is true of any shared device found in the warehouse or DC, including industrial printers. Devices shouldn’t contribute to the spread of contagions that can cause an already strained workforce to shrink significantly due to illness or quarantines. Learn more about the right way to clean enterprise-grade mobile computers, scanners, tablets and printers here. 
  4. Mobile devices must have the battery capacity to last through long shifts and the capability to recharge or be swapped out quickly to support around-the-clock operations. Also consider other feature sets needed to expedite actions. For example, do workers need a device with a built-in scanner that can capture multiple barcodes at once or scan from long distances?

Now more than ever, it is critical not to inject risk into warehouse and DC operations by “making exceptions” to the typical mobile device policies just to get more workers online. If you need additional devices to support an expanding workforce and are still using legacy Windows-based mobile computers, you could integrate certified refurbished devices from the manufacturer into the mix to maintain a common architecture and reduce the burden on IT. If you’re migrating to – or fully running – an enterprise Android architecture, you have the flexibility to add as many different mobile computer models as needed to facilitate the different workflows.

Now’s the time to focus on providing front-line workers with purpose-built mobile computers, printers, scanners, tablets and wearables to increase their agility and maintain the fulfillment continuity that is vitally needed at this critical time.

Are You Overlooking This Key Source of Safety and Security in Your Warehouse?

By Jeff Schmitz | 02/16/2020 | 12:45 PM

You may use a number of different technologies to help improve the safety and security of your warehousing operations:

  • Mobile computers equipped with augmented reality and navigation tools to help safely guide workers through picking and put away actions in busy warehouses and distribution centers.
  • Sensors, the Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain technologies to monitor time- and temperature-sensitive inventory as it moves through the supply chain.
  • A host of data security measures taken to defend against IT system breaches.

Yet, many warehouse and distribution center (DC) operators forget about how powerful their printers can be in proactive security and safety efforts and that needs to change. Especially with management tools like PrintSecure, companies can encrypt connections, allow only permitted access and regularly update their printers to address new threats.

Smart Cards (and Card Printers) Help to Improve Worker Safety and Data Security

Controlling access to your facility is the first step to keeping workers and data physically safe.

Shift workers, seasonal workers, transporters, inspectors, customers, supply chain partners and many others are constantly coming and going. Gate guards aren’t going to recognize every face, and not every warehouse has security officers and video cameras at all entry points or covering every square inch of its facility. On top of that, you may have restricted access areas within your four walls that require additional security clearances, such as areas where expensive equipment, goods, tools or hazardous materials are stored.

In these cases, card-based access control system can prove very valuable. However, you must be sure to mitigate the risks of stolen, shared or fake ID cards being used.

That requires you to use a very specific type of PVC or smart card technology and a very specific type of card printer to ensure the cards you issue can sync with back-end security clearance systems to flag anomalies.

For example, your printer should be capable of producing smart cards featuring highly detailed, rich color images, crisp barcodes and other smart security features that are critical to facilitating fast, accurate ID and access verification. An ambiguous photo can make it challenging to spot an impersonator with a stolen badge.

Ideally, you should select an enterprise-grade card printer that can also be used to print cards for other purposes, such as forklift training verification, time clock systems and more. Beyond offering edge-to-edge printing customization options, these types of card printers feature several integrated encoding options, meaning you can print contact, contactless, proximity or magnetic stripe cards right out of the box. This gives you flexibility in the type of access control system you deploy, and it allows the card to become multi use, helping you to:

  • Keep unauthorized parties out of your facility, specifically those who could be potentially hostile (which helps improve worker safety) and potential thieves (which helps protect your assets)
  • Know when authorized parties enter and exit your facility in case of an accident, theft or other occurrence in which further investigation is needed
  • Lockdown your data by giving workers an easier way to secure computing devices such as tablets and laptops when not in use

RFID Printers and Label Printers: The Secret “One-Two Punch” for Improved Warehouse Safety and Security

While the card printer can be a triple threat technology – or triple threat preventer – for your warehouse, there’s even more you can do to improve safety and security if you also have the right label printer and labeling technology on hand. For example, you can:

  • Better monitor time- and temperature-sensitive products, which helps to improve product safety in the supply chain
  • Track and trace inventory movements to identify and, ideally, mitigate potential losses
  • Confirm whether a missing item is actually stolen or just misplaced and then aid with locating and recovering the item
  • Improve worker compliance with supply chain safety standards related to proper materials handling, storage and transport of all items, including hazardous materials

Look for enterprise-grade thermal printers capable of producing barcoded labels and/or labels with RFID tags depending on the type of asset your trying to track. You may also want to consider investing in a high-resolution micro-label printer, especially if you produce or store extremely small but highly valuable electronics such as circuit boards or chips. The proper labeling can deter theft of this type of inventory and provide track-and-trace assistance should they go missing, as this white paper explains in more detail.

No matter what type of label you need to print, just ensure that both the thermal printer and labels themselves are designed to combat ink fading, tampering and even normal wear and tear through human and machine processing methods. The label needs to be readable at all times, whether by a barcode scanner, overhead RFID reader or a worker trying to determine if a shipment contains hazardous materials. It’s also hard to maintain a first-in-first-out rotation for perishable items if the date isn’t clearly printed on the plastic, cardboard, aluminum or glass packaging.

Just Don’t Forget to Prioritize Printer Security

Every single connected device in your warehouse or DC needs to be locked down – printers included. They contain a great deal of operational intelligence and can be targets just like your mobile computing devices and servers.

That’s actually why Zebra introduced PrintSecure and why we’ve built our Printer Profile Manager Enterprise to enable IT staff to maintain the most up-to-date security on Zebra printers.

Being able to remotely manage, troubleshoot and configure fleets of thermal printers from a single location are among a few of the nine measures you can take to increase device and data security, as is encrypting all of your printer connections and rotating credentials

I also recommend that you invest in a printer that has security capabilities built into its operating system, as it will make it easier to configure printers to use secure connections, block unwanted access and ensure that data and infrastructure are protected.

This blog from Zebra’s Mike Millman provides more detailed guidance on what you should do to lockdown your printers now that you know that they, along with every other connected technology used within your warehousing operation, are a potential point of vulnerability.

In Summary

Take a close, hard look at the card, RFID and label printers in your warehouse. Are they able to produce the type of cards and labels you need to improve your warehouse safety and security with tools like PrintSecure? Do they offer the enterprise-grade IT security controls you need to prevent unauthorized access to your entire Industrial IoT (IIoT) architecture? If not, you may want to upgrade your printers sooner than later.


Three Ways That Real-time Location Solutions and RFID Can Help with Yard Management

By Jeff Schmitz | 01/13/2020 | 4:00 PM

As we kick off a new decade, there are a lot of discussions about how advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), intelligent automation and analytics can deliver new levels of agility across warehouse and distribution operations. However, supply chain leaders across many organizations – perhaps even yours – believe they are still years away from fully implementing such solutions, according to Zebra’s latest Warehousing Vision Study. For example, 77 percent of respondents agree they need to modernize their warehouse operations but admit they are slow to implement new devices and technology.

What can warehouse, distribution center (DC), transportation and logistics leaders do right now to facilitate measurable operational improvements as fulfilment volumes increase and delivery timelines shrink? Yard management improvements warrant increased investigation, and ultimately increased investment, right now.

For example, there have been many recent instances in which real-time location solutions (RTLS) and RFID technologies have been implemented to complement warehouse and transport management systems and automate larger, more complex operations. Active RTLS technology provides a better way to track the location of vital equipment than legacy systems and can even eliminate the need for manual yard checks. And by implementing RFID tags on trucks, it becomes easier to facilitate inbound and outbound scheduling, door-to-door moves and automatic parking assignments.

But these are just a sampling of the operational efficiencies you can gain almost immediately by increasing utilization of RTLS and RFID. Here are three more:

Gate Management

When a truck arrives to pick up goods, the number one goal is to turn it around as quickly as possible. Delays at the first stage of distribution can cause a much larger domino effect throughout the supply chain. To avoid disruption, you should aim to speed up the inbound processing of trucks at the gate by using RTLS and RFID guidance to highlight specific yard positions to drivers for live loading. When executed correctly, such intelligent parking assignments can also reduce travel distances between trailers and the dock door, which simultaneously decreases switcher fuel consumption and increases the speed of switcher productivity. 


Yard Operations: End-to-End Management

Every yard has its own unique operations and backend systems, so it is crucial that a yard management system (YMS) can adapt to your individual needs and demonstrate enough configuration flexibility. For example, confirm that the YMS will enable you to easily modify report views, create forms for checking in trailers, set equipment pool thresholds and establish business rules that direct trailers to parking locations. It is highly important that YMS solutions include an industry standard API, and you should ensure that gaps can be filled between the Transport Management Systems (TMS) and Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) to minimize the risk of business system silos and, therefore, data silos. Be sure to confirm the availability and user-friendly functionality when evaluating YMS options and know that the more advanced RTLS and RFID-equipped YMS solutions may increase yard throughput at a lower cost than other options.


Dock Door Management - Think about Your Workforce

The visibility provided – and logistics coordinated – by an RTLS and RFID-equipped YMS can empower you to synchronize your yard activities based on the demands of your warehouse operations. In turn, dock workers can be fully utilized, and trailers can be switched out in a timely fashion which helps to keep labor costs down. Business rules can also be configured within a more advanced YMS to plan trailer dock exchanges for a full shift of work (or even more) and instruct switchers on the order by which to pull and replace trailers from dock doors.

In other words, installing a well-refined YMS that utilizes RTLS, RFID and mobile computing technology will enable you to see, analyze and act on opportunities to immediately optimize yard processes and improve the efficiency of overall distribution logistics. Just be sure that the solution is scalable if you want to maximize your return on investment. While a simplistic YMS design may be sufficient today, you may require new system interfaces, configuration options as well as planning and execution tools as the velocity of your warehouse, DC and T&L operations increase in the coming years.

Need help identifying the YMS technologies you need to achieve a fully-automated yard management workflow? Download our most recent Yard Management Solution Guide.


Two Imperatives for a Successful Supply Chain Operation in the On-Demand Economy

By Jeff Schmitz | 12/09/2019 | 6:40 PM

According to Zebra’s 2020 Shopper Study, omnichannel shopping is the new normal and e-commerce fulfillment (e-fulfillment) options are now expected of all retailers, including startups, small businesses and chain retailers who generate a significant amount of revenue from their brick-and-mortar footprint.

Supply chain operations are being forced to adapt fulfillment strategies and integrate technologies that build data-powered environments for smarter fulfillment. This enables businesses to predict and stay ahead of the high volume of customer demands. But simply collecting data isn’t enough. Organizations need a way to make sense of it in real time so that workers on the factory or warehouse floor know the “best next action” to take at all times. These front-line workers need up-to-the minute insights into everything from inventory locations to change orders to be able to mitigate costly fulfillment delays or shipping mistakes. In other words, visibility and agility are required to sustain supply chain operations today to support the demands of omnichannel shopping and e-fulfillment.

Increasing Inventory Visibility

With inventory coming and going faster than the industry has previously seen, full visibility has never been more important. Businesses need to know what inventory is in stock, where it’s located—whether in a warehouse, store or out for delivery—and its condition.

According to the latest Zebra® Future of Fulfillment Vision Study, transportation and logistics businesses along with manufacturers and retailers believe that, on average, inventory accuracy must exceed a minimum of 76 percent to handle the rise of omnichannel logistics. However, with consumers’ growing “on-demand” expectations, businesses need to be able to trust their inventory accuracy across their enterprise and beyond—including fulfillment centers, stores, third-party logistics warehouses and even their vendors. And accuracy rates will need to be much higher than 76 percent to keep consumers truly happy.

With omnichannel fulfillment, an order can ship from anywhere. Businesses need to be able to rely on their inventory numbers and have the confidence that they are as close to 100 percent as possible. While many feel they have to settle for 76 percent accuracy due to staffing, technology or process limitations, , businesses can in fact achieve even higher accuracy rates with the right inventory management solutions that would equip operations for future efficiency and efficacy.

Rugged, enterprise-grade handheld, wearable, tablet and vehicle-mounted-computers can be combined with scanners, RFID technologies, locationing systems, printers, software and services to create a solid technology foundation for data aggregation, analytics and distribution – all of which are essential to gaining 365-degree visibility into your operations and your entire supply chain. Whether customers are buying online and shipping merchandise home, buying online and picking up in store, or ordering in store to ship to home, front-line workers equipped with these tools will find it easy to fulfill complex orders in cooperation with your supply chain partners and each other.

Being able to know exactly what’s in stock and where it’s located throughout the supply chain means those at the front line of business can be more productive and effective. Workers don’t have to waste time manually searching through aisles or shelves. Information is available at their fingertips, enterprise-grade mobile computers allow them to look up anything and get real-time information — ultimately saving time and increasing workflow efficiencies. The faster items are found, the faster they can be processed for shipment. And the faster customers receive their orders, the more they are satisfied.

Increasing Fulfillment Agility

Real-time data and analytics also prepare supply chain operations to manage the exploding volume of orders, especially during the current peak holiday shopping season. Smart technology connects every link in the supply chain and enables transparency that improves operations at any part of the journey. It empowers workers with best-action guidance so they can make decisions that impact overall success.

Having access to real-time data offers the ability to track inventory even when it’s in-motion, which allows for greater flexibility to optimize efficiencies. This could mean adjusting a delivery route or creating a smoother picking and packing workflow. The possibilities are endless. It also allows your team to react fast if a customer changes or cancels an order prior to fulfillment, which minimizes the risk of a later return.

When every area of your operations area connected to the same data, and that data is being generated by software-enriched devices at the operational edge of your business, your ‘systems of record’ become ‘systems of reality.’ With this strong foundation, it becomes easier to pinpoint efficiency opportunities that will increase the level of customer satisfaction in a dynamic, customer-centric environment.

These new fulfillment challenges don’t have to create setbacks. Modernizing your operations across warehouse, retail, manufacturing and logistics with technologies at the edge of the network offers limitless opportunities for increased efficiency, productivity and profitability.

Download the Zebra® Future of Fulfillment Vision Study to view the full set of findings.


"Disruptive Technologies" Aren't Actually Disruptive. They Are Necessary to Prevent Operational Disruptions, Though

By Jeff Schmitz | 11/15/2019 | 2:39 PM

Just as technology continuously evolves, so too should the way we talk about it.

For instance, when the term “disruptive technology” was first coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen over 20 years ago, it was used to refer to “any enhanced or completely new technology that replaces and disrupts an existing technology, rendering it obsolete.”

However, the term “disruptive” tends to carry a negative undertone. For many warehouse and distribution center (DC) operators, the idea that they have to migrate from legacy, trusted systems to completely new architectures dependent on “disruptive” technologies has a tendency to elicit fear, not confidence.

Flipping the Script (and Strategy): Aim for Technology That is Game-Changing, Yet Sustainable

As Gartner experts James Lisica and Amber Salley noted during their keynote address* at the 2019 Gartner Supply Chain Summit in May:

“What was once considered disruption is now considered strategy.”

To put it another way: the technologies that are usually coined “disruptive” are actually the technologies enabling you to avoid operational disruptions.

Automating historically manual processes with “machines” – whether in the form of Internet of Things (IOT), intelligent automation or machine learning systems – doesn’t lead to more significant resource strains or prolonged periods of downtime. They do just the opposite: they give you the intelligence and tools you need to minimize the risk of operational disruption as demand skyrockets, the labor pool shrinks and customization of every product and service offered becomes the standard rather than the exception.

Now, I realize that you may be more comfortable taking a “wait and see” approach to advanced technology adoption, especially if you have fully mobilized your workforce and digitalized business processes. However, customer demands are highly fluid, and the market is changing every day.

Every supply chain organization must consider ways in which they can empower humans and technology-powered systems to interact in more connected, intelligent ways today, not a year or five years from now. They must also embrace technologies such as connected sensors, 5G, augmented reality (AR), blockchain and digital twins at the edge of the enterprise. Workers need to be able to collect and visualize the right data from endpoints in real time to make the right decisions and take swift action. Those who don’t move fast enough toward this type of technology will be forced out of the market. On the other hand, enterprises committed to embracing IoT will be the first movers in becoming fast growing, intelligent businesses.

I realize that the migration from legacy platforms, such as Microsoft Windows Embedded devices, to Android devices may seem like more than enough to take on right now. However, front-line workers can’t be the sole source of data for your business. Nor can they be expected to analyze the enormous volume of information available to them in a split second.

If you want to be agile enough to keep up with customers’ ever-changing demands, you need IoT platforms, sensors, automated intelligence solutions and more working together to sense and analyze what is happening in your entire supply chain so that your front-line workers will know exactly how to act when any issue or opportunity arises. Mobile devices and the workers using them are only as smart as your intelligent enterprise systems enable them to be.

So, instead of seeing technologies as potentially disruptive, embrace them for their ability to prevent disruption and propel your business forward no matter what challenges may lie ahead.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, and we’re going to have to work hard to convince our customers, bosses and others that AR, AI, IoT and other buzz-worthy technologies are worth serious investment consideration right now. Together, we need to find ways to:

  1. Demonstrate that “disruptive technology” can be game-changing without actually being disruptive.
  2. Eliminate the perceived risk that embracing “disruptive technology” will slow modernization efforts or create new operational deficiencies.
  3. Show how supply chain organizations can integrate these types of technologies without having to change too much for their workers at once.

We can start by embracing a more collaborative approach to innovation and having more honest conversations about what has worked along with what hasn’t and why in fulfillment centers and beyond. Let’s offer each other solid proof that so-called “disruptive” technologies, if strategically integrated, can facilitate significant, sustainable business improvements without being disruptive whatsoever.


Learn more about how Zebra can help your supply chain organization develop and execute a sustainable technology strategy. Visit www.zebra.com.


*Gartner Event Presentation, Supply Chain Keynote: A New Era: Converging Physical and Digital Supply Chains, James Lisica and Amber Salley, Gartner Supply Chain Summit, 13 May 2019, Phoenix, Arizona

Warehouse Automation Critical to Future-Proof Fulfillment Strategies and Operations

By Jeff Schmitz | 07/07/2019 | 3:36 PM

Most enterprises recognize that technology can fuel greater speed and efficiency in their operations. As a result, warehouses and fulfillment centers are evolving with the latest technology to keep up with the growing on-demand economy. Zebra’s 2024 Warehousing Vision study reveals the benefits of an intelligent operation and its impact on future growth plans. The study found that almost half (46%) of surveyed respondents cited faster delivery to end-customers as the primary factor driving their warehouse growth plans.

Zebra surveyed more than 1,400 IT and operations professionals in manufacturing, transportation and logistics, retail and wholesale distribution markets globally. More than 60 percent of those surveyed said IT and technology utilization was the most anticipated operational challenge over the next five years and a desired long-term outcome for increased asset visibility, real-time guidance and data-driven performance.

Sixty percent of organizations cited labor recruitment and/or labor efficiency and productivity among their top challenges. This is particularly relevant to enterprises that experience a peak season and struggle with the speed of training temporary employees. To speed-up new hire training, innovative mobile devices that are intuitive and require little to no training are the solution. Most respondents (77 percent) agreed that remaining competitive in this economy means modernizing processes, but many respondents also stated that they are slow to implement new technology.

Thankfully, transitioning to a more technologically advanced workspace isn’t an all-or-nothing overhaul approach. Instead, companies can incrementally implement new technologies so they can move at their own pace while also arming employees with the tools necessary to be successful in the fast-changing warehouse space. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of respondents agreed that augmenting workers with technology is the best way to introduce automation in the warehouse, showcasing the potential for technological innovation to improve productivity.

The future of warehouses looks bright, with about nine in 10 enterprises (87 percent) currently increasing or planning to expand the size of their warehouses by 2024, and 83 percent of respondents plan to increase their number of employees. Today’s consumer demands, like one-day shipping, mean enterprises must find ways to create more efficient work flows to fulfill these needs, and the latest technology is a key part of the solution.


Deploying Intuitive Technologies to Train the Next Generation Workforce

By Jeff Schmitz | 06/03/2019 | 9:10 AM

With summer quickly approaching and millions of new college graduates entering the job market, companies have the opportunity to recruit the next generation of employees. Training plays a pivotal role in onboarding these new hires to set them up for positive performance and long-term success.

U.S. companies spent an astounding $70 billion+ last year on learning and development. Today, many enterprises are exploring new strategies to train employees at a lower cost. With digital transformation, new technologies offer companies fresh ways to train their new talent.

Because Millennials and Generation Z are “digital natives,” they can easily adapt to new technologies. Better yet, many newer handheld devices and interfaces mimic the look and feel of technologies used outside the workplace, like their smartphones, making adoption more seamless.

One example is Zebra Technologies’ MC9300 Android enterprise mobile computer. Ideal for inventory management, receiving/put-away and much more in warehouses, manufacturing, logistics and back-of-store retail environments, this device was specifically designed to be highly intuitive for ease of use. Zebra’s proprietary Mobility DNA suite of end-user applications, application development tools and utilities transform this Android device into a worker productivity tool that reduces training and adoption time.

New technologies help streamline common pain points like training and day-to-day tasks for recent college graduates and other front-line workers. Deploying intuitive devices, operating systems and platforms allows employees of all ages and even those who are less tech-savvy to feel comfortable with learning new processes or skills. The more enterprises invest in training employees with new technology, the more streamlined the onboarding process will be in the future.

Whether in a busy warehouse or an active back-of-store area, spending hours or even days training new hires can be prevented using the right technology. Companies that embrace new tools will help ensure their employees are more productive in the long term.

Embracing New Expectations Around Mobility Across the Supply Chain

By Jeff Schmitz | 04/08/2019 | 7:35 AM


As the modern workplace continues to evolve into an intelligent, innovation-driven environment that connects the physical and digital worlds, front-line workers throughout the supply chain have experienced enormous change across their job functions, especially in recent years. From cycle counting and put away to replenishment and picking, their daily tasks have been modified by technology, resulting in increased efficiency and productivity as well as a greater level of data-driven operational visibility.


In many aspects, the emergence of the modern workplace goes hand-in-hand with the “on-demand economy.” Driven by shifting expectations, both from businesses and consumers, companies across the supply chain are closely evaluating processes and implementing new standards and practices around e-commerce and omnichannel fulfillment, inventory management, labor optimization, safety protocols and more.  


Meeting shoppers’ omnichannel product delivery and fulfillment expectations calls for a digital transformation of the supply chain that addresses key pain points. In today’s highly competitive and fast-paced marketplace, failure to adapt new productivity-enhancing technology can be very costly. By leveraging intuitive mobile technology, including rugged smartphones and tablets, scanners, printers and wearables, growing pains for manufacturers, warehouses, retailers and transportation and logistics (T&L) firms have been reduced. However, there are no signs that this rapid pace of innovation will let up anytime soon.


A New Age of Operations and Mobile Computing

Supply chain participants count on real-time data to improve productivity on the plant floor, accelerate collaboration across disparate teams and plan their next move (or react to unplanned events). As businesses adapt new workflows around order processing, materials handling, returns and other activities in the B2B2C era, they need to implement the right Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to capture and communicate data. Zebra’s new MC9300 mobile computer is an example of a connected device that empowers employees at the operational edge of the supply chain to share and act upon real-time insights, giving their business a performance edge over those who may be utilizing legacy data capture and mobile computing technologies.


But technologies new and old alike are only as effective as employees are confident in their ability to utilize those technologies.  Employee training has been a pain point for manufacturers and distributors for a long time, in particular for those with sizeable seasonal staff and high turnover. Supply chains can’t afford operational slowdowns or errors caused by technologies that aren’t intuitive, so new employees need to be onboarded in a timely, effective manner and trained how to leverage these tools within their workflow on “day one.” Intuitive mobile computers like the MC9300 offer an avenue to support this best practice by reducing the learning curve and adoption time by leveraging the Android operating system and enhancing it for key tasks across the supply chain. For example, essential information regarding inventory management, shipment status, quality control and more can be easily accessed on-the-go, helping to improve worker productivity by as much as 10 percent over legacy solutions. Furthermore, as tech-savvy millennials join the workforce, technology that mimics the experience of a smartphone helps expedite training without compromising the unique environmental and ergonomic requirements of an industrial enterprise setting


As Microsoft prepares to end support for existing Windows Embedded Handheld and CE 7 devices in 2020 and 2021 respectively, decision-makers are relying on their enterprise devices to offer features that facilitate a seamless migration to Android. Building on its extensive supply chain experience, Zebra offers enterprise leaders a clear path to Android operating system migration with the MC9300 through extended lifecycle support. It also includes innovation like a Terminal Emulation (TE) application designed to take advantage of the graphical capabilities of the device while easily supporting traditional “green screen” usage.


As companies continue modifying their operations to better accommodate and advance best practices relevant to the on-demand economy, they will need the right tools to do so. Seeking out and deploying next-generation solutions – designed with front-line workers in mind – is a critical first step toward embracing mobility and maintaining a competitive edge.

Why IoT and Mobility Investments Will Continue to Rise in the On-Demand Economy

By Jeff Schmitz | 02/22/2019 | 9:53 AM

2018 was a year of impressive growth for many manufacturers, transporters, 3PLs and warehouse operators: a strong on-demand economy led consumers to embrace the omnichannel retail model for everything from cars to clothes, big-ticket technology items to everyday grocery essentials. That generated increasing demands on manufacturing, warehousing, distribution and delivery services. It also placed renewed pressure on many organizations to invest in technology solutions that would enable them to meet new compliance, efficiency and cost standards enforced by industry regulators, partners and customers alike while simultaneously addressing a capacity shortage from both the warehousing and transportation perspectives.

In the last 12 months, many manufacturers took meaningful strides toward modernizing technology infrastructures in their factories and implementing fully paperless workflows. Warehouses began their migration from Windows Mobile and CE operating to Android-based mobile computers, and T&L leaders continued to upgrade their scanners and mobile computers to more advanced, reliable rugged technology platforms that can provide real-time guidance for drivers and loading dock crews. The goal is to keep things moving without delay, and these fundamental technology investments are mission-critical for companies that want to keep up with growing consumer expectations without compromising operational efficiency or precision.

But it is no longer enough to simply give workers a mobile device in lieu of paper-based forms or checklists. Manufacturers, retailers and their T&L industry partners have become highly co-dependent on one another to meet the expedited production and delivery deadlines dictated by the “on-demand economy.” There is a shared accountability to deliver what customers want, when they want it – and that requires supply chain organizations to deliver what their industry partners need, when they need it. Yes, using mobile technologies to collaboratively track and trace raw materials or finished goods, increase picking and packing speeds, conduct thorough quality inspections and manage real-time order changes is now mandatory. But so is continued innovation.

If anything is clear as we look ahead in 2019, it’s that mobile technology utilization is ripe for expansion, and many supply chains are well-primed to implement more advanced Internet of Things (IoT) solutions throughout their production, warehousing, and distribution operations. Real-time data accessibility – and a clear understanding of that data – have become essential to the improvement of supply chain performance and central to meeting consumers’ growing expectations.


Data Delivered Faster

Manufacturers, T&L providers and warehouse/DC operators require up-to-the-minute asset data to identify inventory locations, understand customer preferences, manage change orders, improve utilization and more. It is real-time data that empowers them to relieve congestion on warehouse floors, alert team members when materials have arrived, flag issues to managers and remain agile during periods of market volatility.

Openly sharing data with internal teams and industry partners via IoT technologies, wearables, rugged scanners or rugged mobile devices – such as handheld, tablet, and vehicle-mounted computers – can increase collaboration and help identify spot areas for improvement throughout the supply chain. In fact, sharing and acting on real-time data will likely differentiate enterprises over the next year, giving users of real-time data a performance edge over those lagging in their deployment of real-time data collection and distribution solutions.


Direct-To-Consumer Shipments

 The prioritization of convenience for consumers reinforces the need for manufacturers and T&L leaders to invest in enterprise-grade IoT and mobility solutions. Business to consumer (B2C) and business to business (B2B) operations have traditionally been separate within these industries. However, with the growing popularity of e-commerce, there is more pressure for companies to accommodate a B2B2C business model. Drop shipping and direct-to-consumer shipments, or sending goods from warehouses directly to consumers, will continue to gain traction over the course of the next year. Successfully executing these two delivery models will require manufacturers and their supply chain partners to embrace digital technology architectures that facilitate the faster movement – and improve the management – of goods as they change hands from the factory through the last mile. IoT technologies are central to these architectures as they are uniquely capable of providing deep visibility into business processes and supporting increased transit speeds. They also keep customers continuously informed about the movement of their purchases, which keeps them happy and minimizes the burden on your team to field order status inquiries. But IoT is not just beneficial for asset tracking; though it certainly excels at that job.

Just consider the expansive capabilities of Zebra’s Savanna™ data intelligence platform. You have massive volumes of data flowing through your organization every second, but it is useless unless you have a way to quickly collect this data from your devices and sensors in real-time and then analyze that raw data to gain an accurate picture of your current business – and supply chain – performance.  Savanna encompasses building blocks such as IoT, artificial intelligence and machine learning. The platform powers next-gen applications and solutions, allowing them to transform seemingly disparate nuggets of data into digestible, and actionable, insights that are accessible across a host of mobile computing devices that are already in the hands of workers, supply chain partners and customers. These intelligent edge solutions create the data-powered environments and provide the real-time guidance needed to replace “best guesses” with fully-informed decisions.


Ultimately, more enterprises will rely on technology-agnostic platforms such as Savanna to reveal the best path forward for their digital transformation. More manufacturers and T&L providers will be empowered to progressively innovate in a way that delivers fully digital workflows, increases efficiency, and makes business more profitable and productive, without being disruptive or wasteful.

What It Means to Be an Intelligent Enterprise in 2019

By Jeff Schmitz | 01/02/2019 | 12:25 PM

Today, more than ever, transportation & logistics (T&L) and manufacturing companies are leveraging mobility, cloud and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to transform their business and better serve their customers in the on-demand economy. Based on Zebra Technologies’ second annual Intelligent Enterprise Index, 82 percent of surveyed companies across both industries are sharing information from their IoT solutions with employees more than once a day. This is up from 70 percent in 2017. And approximately two-thirds of these share it in real- or near-real time to help prevent and address disruptions or mishaps. Leading companies are making the transition to Industry 4.0 – collecting and analyzing data during every step of their processes – to maximize their efficiency. Ultimately, this has resulted in the adoption of more “intelligent” business practices.

However, it is no easy feat to quantify how intelligent an enterprise is or how much the T&L and manufacturing space is changing to adopt IoT solutions. How “intelligent” an enterprise is cannot simply be determined by which technology solutions a company utilizes. It also depends on how they analyze and use the data they collect, their plans for change management and solution adoption, IoT security and infrastructure, and more. Each of these activities help enterprises empower their employees to excel at their jobs and provide an exceptional customer experience.

For the past two years, Zebra has tracked the progress of intelligent enterprises through our Intelligent Enterprise Index, an end-user survey designed to understand where companies are on the path to becoming a truly intelligent enterprise. This global survey reveals that more companies than ever are adopting IoT solutions to make smarter business decisions. The number of companies meeting the criteria that define today’s intelligent enterprise has doubled to 10 percent this year, highlighting new momentum around IoT deployments. The criteria include business engagement and the use of technology solution partners among others.

The survey also shows there is now less resistance to the adoption of IoT solutions as they become more prevalent. This year’s report shows 50 percent of companies are not expecting or experiencing resistance to IoT adoption moving forward. In last year’s survey, only a quarter of survey respondents reported a lack of resistance. In addition, 84 percent of companies anticipate it will take two years or less to complete implementation of their IoT solutions, showing a positive trend toward quicker execution compared to the prior year (79 percent).

As new technologies continue to digitally transform the front lines of business, it’s critical for manufacturers and T&L firms to adopt IoT solutions. Companies across the globe are demonstrating a greater reliance on a solution ecosystem with many relying on a strategic partner or vendor to manage their IoT solutions. Our survey findings reveal that more than half of companies have established an IoT vision and are executing on their IoT plans. With the right vision, technology and partner, the results of our survey indicate becoming a truly intelligent enterprise is more attainable than ever.

The opinions expressed herein are those solely of the participants, and do not necessarily represent the views of Agile Business Media, LLC., its properties or its employees.

About Jeff Schmitz

Jeff Schmitz

Jeff Schmitz is senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Zebra. Mr. Schmitz most recently served as executive vice president for multiple business units and sales at Spirent Communications where he had previously also held several senior leadership roles including chief marketing officer and vice president of networks & applications. Prior to joining Spirent, Mr. Schmitz held senior marketing positions at Rivulet Communications, Visual Networks and Tellabs Inc. Mr. Schmitz holds a B.S. degree in electrical engineering from Marquette University and a Master of Science degree in computer science from the Illinois Institute of Technology.


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