In the driving seat

Vehicle mount computers are rarely found in the region’s warehouses, but they can play an important role alongside the more common handheld devices.

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By  Robeel Haq Published  December 1, 2005

In the driving seat|~|mount2.jpg|~|Companies may be missing a trick if they overlook vehicle mount computers.|~|Handheld computer devices are becoming increasingly common fixtures in Middle East warehouses. However, the sight of employees struggling to operate a handheld computer while simultaneously controlling a forklift illustrates that they are not always the best tool for the job. Introducing vehicle mount computers as part of the warehouse IT system could provide the solution to this problem. “The demand for handheld computers is strong in the Middle East,” says Tony Nasr, business development manager, Intermec. “However, warehouses are starting to realise that vehicle mounted computers could offer a more suitable solution in certain circumstances.” The adoption of vehicle mount computers (VMCs) is, of course, linked to the wider adoption of IT and wireless warehouses in the region. Local companies are increasingly abandoning dated paper-based processes and moving online in order to gain greater visibility across the supply chain. “Moving away from manual processes is becoming more essential, especially for third party logistics companies,” says Joe Iarocci, managing director, Psion Teklogix Middle East. “It is almost a requirement to show customers that you are using wireless terminals rather than paper systems, otherwise the competition can leave you behind.” Vehicle mount computers (VMCs) work in a similar way to handhelds, offering warehouse operators the same applications as a desktop or laptop in a ruggedised, wireless format. However, unlike handhelds, vehicle mounts are fixed onto forklifts and pallets stackers, which reduces the risk of dropping and breaking the system. They are also easy to use, as there is no need to juggle a computer system with one hand while operating a forklift truck with the other. “If the customer looks from the safety aspect, there is nothing worse than an operator trying to drive a forklift or a pallet stacker with a handheld in one hand and trying to operate the vehicle with the other,” says Mark Jones, general manager, LXE Middle East. “By having a fixed terminal, it allows the operator to complete the work with his hands free.” However, despite this advantage, VMCs were slow to catch on in warehouses, especially in the Middle East. A lack of awareness was one challenge, but for a long times VMCs were also less technologically advanced than their handheld rivals. “Vehicle mount technology has always been less developed compared to handheld technology, especially in this part of the world,” says Jones. “This has resulted in some warehouses exclusively choosing the handheld option and ignoring vehicle mounts completely.” This though can be a mistake. VMCs can play an important role alongside handheld devices within a warehouse, and they are also not much more expensive. As such, for certain roles they can produce greater efficiencies than handhelds and thereby generate a better return. “The suitability of vehicle mounted computers depends on the operations in the warehouse,” explains Nasr. “If the operators are walking short distances to pick light items, then handhelds are still recommended. However, if the warehouse is sending operators in a forklift to cover longer distances and collect heavier items, the vehicle mounted option is certainly worth considering,” he continues. There are a number of different vendors operating in the Middle East, offering a variety of vehicle mount computers. The solutions vary considerably, which means research is needed to ensure that the most suitable product is selected. “The customers should discuss their needs with different manufacturers,” says Iarocci. “During the consultation process, the customer is presented with a variety of different options. For example, should the vehicle mount computer feature a full size or half sized screen? What size keypad area is required? Should the systems be battery powered? What should the system weigh in total?” More generally, the computer also needs to be able to withstand the conditions found inside the warehouse. Temperatures and vibrations, for instance, can easily damage standard desktops and notepads, which makes picking a ruggedised solution essential. “Some manufacturers are placing computers on forklifts and claiming the system is rugged, but the customer needs to carefully understand the company’s definition of the word,” explains Jones. “A number of computers are rugged from the outside but not the inside, which means they are not really suitable. The most effective solutions are rugged internally and externally,” he continues. Industrial customers are realising that high repair and replacement costs for non-industrial strength computers, in addition to the decrease in productivity caused by downtime, can negatively affect profitability. “A lot of rugged computers can look good on the outside, but we encourage customers to look inside the computers too,” agrees Iarocci. “In fact the ruggedness begins inside the computer — adding the right screws, potting the components to make sure they do not move during vibrations, making sure the sealing is efficient — these are important considerations. Have a good look at the specifications before committing.” Once the customer purchases the VMCs, the implementation process begins. How long this will take will depend on the infrastructure already in place in the warehouse. Indeed, if the company already use handhelds and a wireless network, then can be just a matter of days before VMCs are up and running. “The consultation process is deeper than the implementation process, which means it takes longer,” explains Nasr. “Depending on whether the company already has a computer network in place, the implementation should take no longer than a week. The technology used by vehicle mount computers is almost self-configuring, which makes it very quick.” During implementation, the systems are integrated with the user’s back end computer system, allowing warehouse operators to access anything from basic text-based programmes to advanced warehouse management systems from their forklift. From a software point of view, this is fairly straightforward process. The bigger challenge is implementing the wireless network needed to collect and transmit data from the VMCs and handhelds within the facility. “The customer will need to decide what area of the warehouse needs wireless coverage for the system,” explains Jones. “Companies normally require blanket coverage, allowing the vehicle mount computers to work in every single area of the warehouse.” Depending on the area of coverage required, a number of access points are assigned to the company and placed in different locations within the warehouse. In addition, a redundant system is sometimes chosen as part of a recovery plan, in case one access point stops working. This ensures the warehouse always maintains 100% coverage. “The locations of the access points need careful consideration,” sates Nasr. “It is also better to make decisions about where to place the access points after the warehouse has shelving and racks set up,” he continues. “Testing an empty warehouse for wireless connectivity is not appropriate because once the metal racks are placed, they may block the signal. Therefore planning the locations afterwards is ideal, although, of course, that is not always practical.” After the implementation, some warehouse managers will heave a sigh of relief at the finished job. However such as reaction is premature as the process is far from complete. “The relationship between customer and vendor is long term and does not stop after implementation,” says Iarocci. “The Middle East market places particular emphasis on aftersales support because technology is changing so fast. The vendor will offer different levels of maintenance agreements, making sure the system is always working, keeping the customer informed about technology updates, such as RFID, and ensuring staff are completely trained.” Picking the most suitable maintenance agreement is also important. The company will need to weigh up the relative merits of different fixed payment programmes and decide which areas need to be covered. “There are a lot of options available in terms of maintenance,” says Nasr. “The company can opt to pay for each maintenance job individually, or select an agreement covering a specific time period, whether it is one year, or three years, or five years. The agreement can include spare parts and labour, it can include onsite or offsite support — there is something to cover all needs.” “A lot of our customers choose a maintenance agreement that involves us visiting the warehouse once a quarter and making sure everything is working properly,” adds Iarocci. “During the visit, we make conduct additional training for new employees, and ensure the clients are getting the returns they want. Alternatively, we can offer 24/7 support if needed, which some customers find useful.” With this kind of support on offer, there are fewer headaches involved in using a wireless system. The cost of implementing such a solution is also falling, which should encourage even the most reluctant of companies to look at the technology availablein the market. “Although many companies in the Middle East are realising the benefits of having such infrastructure in place, there is still a number of warehouses working manually, which is staggering” states Jones. “I think the initial investment holds companies back. It is possible these businesses do not realise the return on investment available to them. ROI can be anywhere between 12 and 18 months, depending on the rollout.” The ROI could also become even quicker, as the price of vehicle mount computers has been consistently falling over the years. As such, even smaller companies can now justify the investment necessary to implement them in their facilities. “It is more affordable these days,” says Iarocci. “With prices coming down, the return on investment is even better and lots of different size warehouses can start using vehicle mounted computers.” ||**||

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