Inventory Accuracy Technology Updates
As technology is constantly changing, I will continue to post technology updates as a supplement to the technology chapter in the book. I currently have updates for the following categories:
Check back periodically to see what's new in technology related to inventory accuracy.
These technology updates are intended to supplement the information in the book, Inventory Accuracy: People, Processes, & Technology
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There has been dramatic growth in consumer electronic devices that use the same technologies we can apply to inventory-related tasks, and most of us now have access to these technologies. I bring this up because there is a lot that can be learned from these consumer devices about user interfaces.
Cell phones and voice dialing. Many if not most new cell phones now provide voice dialing capabilities. The functionality is generally a combination of the phone recognizing numbers spoken into the phone (user speaks actual phone number into the phone), phone trying to figure out what you are saying and match that to a contact, and voice-based speed dial (where the user defines specific words or phrases that are attached to specific numbers to auto dial). Once you start using this type of functionality, it's easy to grasp the advantages and disadvantages of utilizing speech to communicate commands to a computer (modern phones are actually computers).
More specifically, you'll see how pure speech recognition (where the system tries to figure out what you are saying) is still a bit hit-and-miss. But, if you use the "speed dial" scenario where you train your phone to a specific word or phrase (or sound), that tends to work quite well. In fact, I was a bit disappointed when my new "smart phone" didn't have the older "speed dial" functionality, and instead forced you to attempt to use pure speech recognition. This is a very good example of how more advanced technologies are not necessarily better for some tasks. Fortunately, many speech-based systems designed for warehouse tasks use the simpler and more-effective approach to speech recognition used in the older speed-dial scenario.
Automotive GPS navigation systems. Here we have vehicle-mounted consumer devices that use touch screens, speech recognition, and voice direction. If you've used several different GPS devices over the years, you would also get a good feel for the difference between a good user interface and a poor one.
You can get a good feel for how a good touch-screen device not only eliminates the need for a keypad, but also makes entering information much easier than a keypad because the touch screen adjusts automatically for the specific task you are doing. You can also get a good feel for how properly combining technologies can result in a far superior system than just focusing on a single technology. The voice direction ("turn right in 1.5 miles on Elm Street") is extremely useful, but you still need to use the screen occasionally. Little details like showing a distance countdown to the next turn on the main map screen is incredibly useful and seems like an obvious standard feature once you get use to using it, but it may not have existed on some earlier devices simply because the designers didn't think of it. In fact, if I look at the information that's included on my main navigation screen, I see it has the key information I need and nothing more. Hmm, I wonder if they read my book?
The lessons to learn here relate to the appropriate use of technology. Not only choosing the right technology for the right task, but also setting up the user interface properly for the specific task. Even though I'm very good with computers and am a bit of a technology junkie, I choose to use a rather inexpensive GPS navigation system that doesn't have all the bells and whistles of higher-priced devices. Not because I'm cheap (I am), but because the less functional device is actually easier to use. It's built for a very specific purpose (navigation) and for non-techie users. As soon as I turned it on, it was obvious how to use the main navigation features. It's very efficient at helping me get from point A to point B.
If you're thinking about using portable computers in your warehouse or on your shop floor, I recommend spending time using these types of consumer devices as part of your research. Not that you can use these actual devices, or that the functionality you implement will be identical, but that just getting a feel for how these technologies work (or can work) can prove to be very useful.
It looks like 2D bar code scanners are finally coming down in price. Though I still don't see the need for 2D in most inventory applications, it is good to see new lower cost 2D scanners becoming available. In addition, many scanners are now available with USB connectivity (though some still connect via serial port or keyboard wedge interface).
And, of course, we can all now use the cameras on our smart phones and tablets as bar code scanners. Now before you get excited and think you can use phones as scanners for warehouse tasks, keep in mind there are limitations to just how effective a phone is as a bar-code scanning data collection device. That said, you can actually use a cell phone for some light data collection activities. I paid less than $5 for a little app that allows your phone camera to scan barcode information into an excel spreadsheet.
Well, I'm still less-than-impressed with the hand-held portable industrial computers being marketed towards warehouse applications. The majority of my comments made on pages 218-222 still hold true.
Virtually all of the new models have adopted Windows CE/PocketPC as the operating system of choice though you'll still find DOS in some of the older models still being sold, and linux is available on some. With the continued growth of Windows CE in the hand-held area, I need to once again warn that the use of a stylus on a touch screen is not appropriate for warehouse environments. Make sure you make this message very clear to whomever is programming your devices. Don't assume that they know better than to program stylus requirements in their programs.
I did notice that the color displays on these devices seem to be getting better (I have no scientific evidence of this). I especially noticed the color screens on handheld computers made by PSC which seemed to be brighter and clearer than others.
The most significant--though not particularly useful--change recently with portable hand-held industrial computers is the incorporation of RFID readers. This is discussed in greater detail in the RFID update. Also, (as mentioned again below) most handheld computer vendors now have devices with voice technology capabilities.
2007 Update: I'm seeing more wearable options out there, but nothing I would consider revolutionary. LXE now has a wrist worn computer called the HX2 . Socket has a new wireless ring scanner . I think just about every portable industrial computer vendor has voice capable devices now. I am pleased to see that many of the portable computer vendors are thinking hard about not only wearable, but also devices that use combinations of voice, bar code scanning, RFID, and other technologies. I see these technology combinations to be the ultimate solution for many industrial applications.
2005 Update: I'm still seeing promise for using speech-based technology for material handling tasks (especially order picking). I think the recent hype over RFID has somewhat overshadowed the emergence of speech technology in the warehouse and distribution applications.
I remain disappointed to see that many "wearable" computers being integrated with voice technology are still just hand-held devices stuffed into fanny packs. I do, however, continue to be impressed with ergonomic device manufactured by Vocollect. In addition, Vocollect has recently partnered with MCL Technologies to provide development tools that will allow greater access to voice technology. More specifically, it should help to integrate voice with bar code data collection (MCL's specialty). As mentioned in the Inventory Accuracy book, I see this combination as the ultimate in accuracy and productivity in the near future. Voxware has also introduced a new device that is designed specifically for voice systems. Their VLS-410 device is carried inside a fanny pack, but it is designed specifically for that purpose, resulting in a smaller and more comfortable device than a hand-held device in a fanny pack.
Intermec has partnered with Syvox to incorporate voice technology into their systems. At Supply Chain Week, I saw a demo of a system from Intermec that utilizes voice in combination with RFID. This system was in its early stages and was designed to be used as a vehicle mounted system. A full-color LCD vehicle mounted touch-screen computer combined with voice prompts and voice command capabilities with a lift-truck mounted RFID antenna. I think the Intermec guys are having a hard time letting go of the visual interface (computer screen) that voice is designed to replace. Although, in a vehicle-mounted application I guess I won't be as critical as I would in a wearable system.
When implementing voice technology, make sure you review the prompt recommendations from pages 226-227 of the book. I have noticed some of the voice system vendors have already changed their demos to reflect a more streamlined voice/response script such as that suggested in my book. Maybe they arrived at these conclusions independently of my book, but I think I'll take credit anyway.
NetworkAnatomy is working on some interesting wearable technology. Their products are not focused on warehouse and manufacturing processes, but you should find it interesting to see some of their products. Of particular interest is a device built into a glove called the CommanderGauntlet. Again, this isn't designed for inventory management, but you can begin to see some of the possibilities.
I had mentioned in the book using website design programs to create training materials. In recent years there has been an explosion of highly functional open source (free software including source code which can be modified) software products designed as web collaboration and content management tools. Wikis are a great example of these. They allow you to quckly set up a highly functional site that is organized, searchable, and provides easy editing of content by users. The most well known example of a Wiki is the Wikipedia Project, a massive community created encyclopedia. In addition to numerous open source wiki products available, there are also content management systems and even tools specific to education. Below are some examples of available "Free" programs.
Mediawiki.org Wiki software used by Wikipedia
- Joomla Content Management System (Accuracybook.com uses Joomla)
Mambo Content Management System
Moodle.org Course Management Sytem
In recent years I've also become a big fan of Microsoft OneNote. I use it in my business to organize all the stuff that used to exist in hundreds of separate documents. Though I just use it as a single user, it looks like it has a lot of potential as a "knowledgebase" tool for organizations.
I have set up a separate page for RFID Updates.