Designing devices for the warehouse environment
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

The rigours of the warehouse environment – both physical and mental – are crucial factors when it comes to technology product design in the logistics sector. Philip Mason investigates

Of all the different sectors covered in Land Mobile, there are few which take place in as challenging an environment as logistics.

First of all – simply from a business perspective – it is an industry which is becoming exponentially more competitive all the time, primarily in line with ever-increasing consumer expectation. If one company can deliver my sofa on a particular day, for instance, the next will have to differentiate its offer by providing me with a specific time. The level of accuracy in terms of picking and dispatch also has to be extraordinarily high, meanwhile, particularly in these days of instant trial by social media.

At the same time, the literally physical warehouse environments representing the back end of the logistics chain can also be incredibly tough to operate in, particularly for long periods of time. Potential occupational hazards, depending on what’s taking up floor space, can include loud noise, both low and extremely high levels of light, as well as extreme cold if products such as ice-cream are being stored.

With that in mind, digital communications technology has a huge part to play in making sure that everything runs as smoothly as it should, both at the dispatch and delivery stages. This involves not just a device’s internal architecture, but also how the product in question is designed to actually be used by operatives in the field.

Taking account of human beings
Zebra is one of the biggest names in the field of handheld mobile computers for use in the logistics sector. It has recently launched the latest iteration of its MC9000 unit, a series which has become somewhat of a standard within the industry.

According to the PR information sent out on behalf of the company at the time, the new Android-based MC9300 “is ideal for inventory management, receiving/put-away, returns processing, cross-docking, quality control, parts tracking and price audit applications. Its advanced scanning technology can read direct part marks, dot peen and laser-etched barcodes and quickly capture 1D or 2D barcodes in virtually any condition and from three inches to as far as 70 feet.”

So far, so useful. What differentiates the product as much as anything, however – at least if you believe Zebra – is the way it has been designed to take account of the human beings who are tasked with operating it. This, once again, comes back to the rigours of the logistics (and, more specifically, the warehouse) environment itself.

Speaking of this, Paul Reed, Zebra EMEA regional product manager, says: “There are any number of disparate operations which take place within the warehouse, such as receiving the goods, labelling them, identifying them and so on. We use RFID (radio frequency identification) capabilities to track objects through the entire process, which is obviously a huge benefit to those on the floor of the warehouse.

“At the same time, we also have to design for use by people who are at the coal face, which means spending time there and watching them carry out their jobs on a day-to-day basis. The learning we derive from that then gets incorporated into how we manufacture our products.”

According to Reed, there are two core components of the design process, the first of which is to help ensure that the product survives the rough and tumble of almost constant use during the working day. The second is to maximise efficiency on the part of whoever is using it, for instance by increasing accuracy when scanning, something which can sometimes fall away after eight hours’ worth of performing essentially the same action over and over again.

Elaborating on this, Zebra EMEA CTO and director of user experience James Morley-Smith says: “Product design essentially revolves around understanding our customers, and therefore being able to maximise the performance of their business. A lot of the time the devil is in the detail, and when you’re able to include seemingly small design features at scale – if you can shave off a second of under-performance – it makes a world of difference.”

He continues: “A lot of this is about providing reassurance that it’s going to keep working no matter what happens. Those on the warehouse floor need to feel comfortable with it – it needs to engage muscle memory, in other words – but they also need to know that it’s stable.

“We ensured this through drawing on the design of previous iterations of the product, as well as making it extremely rugged via things like a multiple internal isolation system and external bumpers. We don’t actually tell our clients just how resilient it really is, because of the possibility some of them might want to put it to the test.

“We’ve heard stories about devices which have been thrown against the wall or even deep fried. They still worked, but that kind of thing really is not ideal.”

As crucial as this level of resilience clearly is, the point at which things get really interesting from a design perspective is when the process starts to drill down into the specific user experience itself. This is, in the first instance, to identify – sometimes literally – pain points, while at the same time helping the user to form what could be regarded as a relationship with the equipment itself.

“As well as the stress of the environment, the people working in warehouses are also under constant pressure to get the job done while at the same time increasing productivity,” says Reed. “The challenge in relation to that is that neither we nor anyone else knows where the next big breakthrough is going to be in terms of technical innovation in this context.

“With that in mind, what we need to do now is look at the minutiae. For instance – because these are environments in which it’s sometimes difficult to see or hear – we have to account for what we think of as a kind of ‘situational disability’. As a result we’ve had to find ways of communicating information without using sight or sound, such as through intuitive design of the battery removal mechanism. It’s far more awkward to take it out the wrong way than the right way.

“Another potential issue in relation to that is the scanning trigger, which obviously gets used a huge amount. It’s actually quite a stressful action, physically speaking – particularly coupled with the pressure of attaining absolute accuracy – so we need to make it as comfortable as possible.”

Product designers have to take into account environmental factors such as poor visibility and high levels of noise

The move to Android
As mentioned earlier, the new Zebra unit is based on the Android operating system. This is a detail which will become massively pertinent in the coming years, specifically during the run-up to Microsoft ending its support for existing Windows-embedded handheld/CE7 devices between 2020 and 2021.

That being the case, another device being increasingly used in the logistics/enterprise sectors is the ruggedised tablet, a type of technology which has obviously incorporated Android for a number of years. An interesting example of this continuing trend is drink dispensing system maintenance company Innserve’s recent adoption of Panasonic Toughbook L1 tablets for use by its 400 technicians.

According to the company, employees will plan their schedule using the device, as well as recording information about each visit. It will also be used to place orders for – and return – parts, as well as enabling access to the company’s HR systems.

Discussing why Innserve chose an Android device in particular to perform these functions, its director of IT Kieran Delaney says: “The first reason is purely for the level of empowerment it affords our mobile workforce to react to things in real time. We can also keep track of them far better, which is beneficial to everyone.

“The mobile piece has consolidated over the last couple of years, and it’s now a really mature platform [upon which to carry out operations]. Our recent work with Panasonic has shown us how drastically the landscape has changed, and we know now exactly where we’re going as a company. The chipsets are different now, things are much more flexible and so on.”

He continues: “The benefit of having Android in particular, meanwhile, is that it’s such a flexible and open operating system. Obviously iOS is great at certain things, but if I want barcode scanners, I have to look somewhere else. It’s the same with thermal imaging cameras or any other built-in sensor.

“Our engineers are now able to scan barcodes in the field in real time, with the information hitting the server immediately, which is great for asset control, inventory control and so on. The big thing about Android for us is that it’s consumer-level technology which we’re using in an enterprise fashion. That means that were not having to ask technicians to log in to change the settings or whatever in order to do what we want to do as a business.”

Digital communications technology is providing numerous ways for businesses involved in enterprise and logistics to maximise their profits by creating efficiencies. It’s clear, however, that this can only be accomplished through user-focused intuitive design.

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