Keeping Mobile Workforces Mobile

The latest handheld computers streamline route delivery work.

And, because a driver will leave the handheld in the truck to charge overnight, new route information is simply downloaded from the system into the handheld the following morning, for the driver's convenience.

"Once it leaves the yard, it'll switch over automatically to the wide area network," Riso says, "which is basically like your cell phone—it's the same cellular network, just data instead of voice." In fact, many handhelds now have the ability to accept a sim card right out of a cell phone, in order to facilitate phone calls.

Drivers are able to call a customer and let them know they're the next stop, in order to give a restaurant or store a "heads up" and give them a chance to prepare for the delivery. "Many times the receiving guy won't let the driver in if the merchandiser isn't there to take the product out to the floor," says Riso, "because they don't have any space in the back room anymore."

Printers Are Evolving

"What we're seeing is kind of a refresh of the technology," says Marty Johnson, practice leader, mobile workforce for Zebra Technologies Corp., Vernon Hills, IL. "People are moving to the latest handhelds and the latest printers."

And, like the handhelds, printers are becoming somewhat smaller and faster, enabling companies to move away from bulky three-part invoice forms to four inch, direct thermal receipts. Should customers require multiple receipts, because of the speed of printing, these can be printed out very quickly, back to back, cutting down on paperwork time.

Because units are smaller, they can be combined, thanks to the route pad, a unit that allows drivers to integrate the handheld computer and the printer into one piece of equipment worn on a strap, "as opposed to having a handheld on one hip and a printer on the other," says Johnson.

The industry's embrace of direct thermal printing means that the printing of high resolution graphics and logos are possible.

Suppliers such as Zebra are providing pre-printed receipts for companies. This can include multi-colored graphics and logos that are designed to enhance a company's image, while simultaneously presenting information to their customers.

"They're looking at it more as continuing to leverage," says Johnson, "and build their brand equity by using the capability of the printer and the media." Companies are also getting receipts pre-printed with all applicable terms and conditions on the reverse side of the roll.

The types of media that today's printers use is also less expensive. Mission Foods is saving approximately $30,000 annually over the older forms that it previously used.

J.J. Taylor Cos. Inc., a Jupiter, FL-based beverage distributor that delivers more than 23 million cases of beer annually, had recognized the limitations of its legacy mobile printers and wanted its route delivery people to have printers with more advanced capabilities.

The distributor turned to Zebra, who provided it with Bluetooth-enabled thermal printers. "With Bluetooth, you don't have to worry about cables breaking," says Johnson. "You don't have to worry about pins breaking or people connecting it incorrectly."

"Drivers like the Bluetooth connectivity better because the cord isn't dangling everywhere," says CV Eaton, J.J. Taylor's manager of information services. "Plus, we don't have to worry about replacing cables."

The use of Bluetooth also makes the driver's day a whole lot easier, since the safety concern that cables might get tangled up or caught on various items in the vehicle is completely eliminated.

Affordability Driving Sales

Prices for mobile computer technology have been going down over the last few years, driving up the usage of handhelds— thanks in part to companies like Motorola, which are hard at work developing lower cost versions of the handhelds.

"The challenge we hope to meet," says Motorola's Riso, "is to make these devices so affordable that everyone in the industry has their own unique device—something that would be in the $300 to $400 range as opposed to the $1,000 range today."

Additionally, the communications fees for using handhelds have been dropping as well. "It used to be priced per megabyte of communication," says Intermec's Rasmussen. "You'd pay a fee for voice communications and you'd pay a fee for data communications and everybody looked at it and said it was too expensive."

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