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Wireless Workstations Save Time and Labor


By Christine Wheeler, [email protected]

Thanks to wireless technology, carts with on-board power supplies are opening up new frontiers of efficiency, productivity, and profitability in retail stores and distribution centers. These mobile powered workstations (MPWs) carry computers, barcode scanners, and printers of all kinds, reducing foot travel and paperwork wherever they go.

Capitalizing on the benefits of auto-ID technologies, MPWs integrate a facility’s software with wireless devices to establish mobile stations for barcoding, label-printing, and so on. In many enterprises, countless hours are wasted as employees walk to and from a deskbound computer where they log information into a database, print labels/orders, etc. Often, these employees are merely keying in or confirming data they have previously written on paper at the work site — a classic redundancy of effort. In contrast, an employee operating an MPW has continuous, paperless, real-time access via warehouse management systems (WMS), enterprise resource planning (ERP), or automated data collection (ADC) software from anywhere in the facility.

Because an MPW can carry a computer and relatively heavy peripherals, such as a high-volume label printer, it is more versatile than a handheld scanner or thermal printer. If you already own the computers that the carts will carry, it is also less expensive than converting to handhelds. An “on-demand” high-volume label printing/PC station saves time and labor because it enables the use of more than one type/size of label, a full computer screen to toggle between different programs, and more.

An MPW can increase the number of items processed per day by facilitating stocking, inventory management, receiving, order-picking, inspection, packaging, shipping, cross-docking, etc. With such streamlined operations comes improved accuracy, in part because stock-keeping units (SKUs) can be identified with barcode scanners and immediately entered into or checked against the facility’s database. Although a large facility might need more than one, a single MPW can often do the job of two or three stationary desks, which means fewer computers and peripherals will be needed overall. For example, the cart can be used all morning at a receiving dock and then wheeled to the shipping department for the afternoon.

In receiving, an MPW operator can quickly scan barcodes to identify incoming items and then inspect, re-label, and re-route them, all at the same workstation. The operator can track previously shipped parcels and keep track of multiple SKUs. He or she can even take and file a digital photo to provide proof of the condition of a returned shipment, immediately credit the customer, and print a receipt.

For put-away, SKUs can be easily barcode-labeled/re-labeled as they are placed on shelves, which can also be labeled. That way, when the time comes to pick the item, it is more likely to be where it is supposed to be. For directed picking (coordinated picking for multiple orders), when the MPW is on a particular aisle the system’s software can tell the operator what other items are needed from that sector of the stockroom/warehouse.

In shipping, an MPW operator can quickly scan outgoing items to verify that the order is correct and scheduled for the proper method of shipment. For break-bulk and mixed-unit orders, MPWs allow fast, on-site printing of labels, packing slips, etc.

In Virginia, Care-A-Lot Pet Supply tested an MPW in their distribution center, scanning products in their receiving and shipping departments and printing labels for pallets and general organization. Management was so pleased with the improved efficiency that they purchased several MPWs for the center and more for the company’s retail stores. Care-A-Lot reports that since the workstations were introduced, productivity has increased by 40%.

Shipping accuracy was the major concern at the Magneti Marelli Powertrain USA plant in North Carolina. Management there was determined to reduce the number of mislabeled outgoing pallets loaded with electronic throttles and other components bound for automakers and other customers. A typical shipment consisted of multiple pallets, each of which required at least two labels. The weak point turned out to be the 30-40 steps each inspector had to take to the label printer. Sometimes, after an inspector had retraced his/her steps, labels in hand, the labels would end up on the wrong pallets. The number of errors was significantly reduced once the company purchased MPWs. Now, every inspector can scan and print labels right beside the pallet that needs them. Thanks to swivel casters, the workstation can be easily maneuvered to the next pallet in seconds.

Obviously, different needs require different MPW configurations, so shop around until you find the model that fits your facility. Some basic attributes, such as sturdiness and durability, trump other characteristics, but the best MPWs are also ergonomic. For starters, the one you choose should have large, stable work surfaces and adjustable shelves. A tall employee should be able to quickly raise a shelf to the most convenient height, and a shorter worker on the next shift should be able to lower it just as quickly. Casters should roll smoothly and quietly, yet should be lockable for stability and safety.

The more your workstation can do, the more your business can accomplish, in ways you might not yet envision. That’s why you’ll want your new MPW to be versatile. Check the weight capacity of individual shelves and of the unit overall. For maneuverability in narrow warehouse aisles, a small “footprint” is important. The cart you buy should definitely be powerful enough to run various devices simultaneously — look for one that can hold and power four devices for at least eight hours and can be recharged in five to eight hours.

Choosing the best MPW power package for your business can be difficult on your own. Some manufacturers have technicians who will make sure your package is fully integrated with the cart and the devices you intend to run. Some even have software tools on their websites that help the customer choose the most appropriate power package by calculating the total wattage of the equipment to be supported.

Christine Wheeler is marketing director for Newcastle Systems, Middleton, Mass. She can be reached at [email protected].

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