The food industry's mobile workforce has been using batch computers on its delivery routes as far back as 1988, so while mobile computing is not exactly a new concept, there are a number of changes to the mobile computer.
These changes include greater usage trends, new features and new applications that amount to a golden age for handheld computer use on delivery routes across the country.
It's an exciting time, feature wise, for handheld computers. These devices are not only being used to verify shipping addresses and orders, take new orders and scan bar codes, most models are now equipped with a number of systems and features that are designed to increase connectivity and improve the paperwork process. Think of them as high tech Swiss army knives.
"The mobile world is increasing in complexity," says Kevin Mccloskey chief executive officer of MobileAware, a Cranberry, NJ-based company that provides software for managing mobile data solutions. "You have an increase in the number of wide area networks and wireless LANs, in addition to greater bandwidth capability and increased capabilities on the device side."
"Our product has a wide area radio in it," says Jon Rasmussen, industry marketing director for consumer goods for Intermec Technologies, Everett, WA. "It has a local area radio and even blue tooth for talking to the peripherals."
Intermec also manufactures handhelds with built-in two dimensional imagers that can be used for picture taking as well as scanning bar codes. "You can use it to get pictures of damaged goods," says Rasmussen, "and you don't have to line it up, all you have to do is make sure you're shooting at it."
Intermec's handheld has auto focus capability, so that workers can scan more information at longer distances. "You can actually read 50 to 100 mil types of labels out at 50 feet away, or down to very small compressed UPC codes."
One of the more recent add-ons is GPS technology. Companies like Intermec have offered GPS for some time as an add-on, or peripheral. However, now it's integrated directly into the handheld itself.
"A lot of customers in the private fleet environment really need to be monitoring their drivers," Rasmussen notes. "We've got some smaller handheld computers that are less expensive that give you the GPS and the wide area radio, so they can track vehicles. By adding GPS as part of the direct equation of the handheld scenario, employers can verify route drivers are where they say they are and even determine delivery times."
"There are many types of functionality in a mobile device," agrees Frank Riso, senior director, retail operations, retail industry solutions group for Motorola Inc., Holtsville, NY. "The drivers use a mobile device to tell them what stores are receiving what product and where the product is in their truck, it can also give them directions on how to get to the store."
Today's devices are also becoming more streamlined and less bulky than those of previous years. "The world of PDAs is catching up with the industry," says Riso. "We've designed products to look a lot like PDAs, but we call them EDAs or Enterprise Digital Assistants and they have a bar code scanner built into them. They have one or two radios, depending on how they're being used. Instead of having to carry the large, very rugged devices, these devices have been designed to fit in the pocket."
Multiple Networks Available
With the incorporation of multiple wireless radio networks into handheld computers, task work is becoming more streamlined for the route delivery person. Workers are also becoming more productive.
"In years past when the truck came back to the depot, they would have to physically come inside the depot and plug in the device to upload any data," Riso says. However, many DCs now cover their yards with local area wireless, such as 802.11 A, B or G, which is less costly to transmit over because they are able to use their own enterprise system. Because of this, drivers are able to upload their ending reports at night, right from the truck to the building.