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During the Christmas rush, logistical excellence is, more than ever, a non-negotiable for delivery fleets and warehousing personnel. Paul Sykes, managing director, StockMarshal, outlines the optimum route to seasonal logistics survival.

Logistics organisations often face a raft of supply chain challenges; conducting regular checks such as goods in-goods out, vehicle loading and point of delivery, as well as strictly adhering to specific delivery dates and quickly adapting to satisfy sudden changes in the order book. This task list may seem daunting in itself, but such activity can be redoubled during seasonal demand spikes such as Christmas, with the additional hurdle of substantial increases in return stock. Therefore the optimum data capture methodology must be in place to ensure maximum visibility of all incoming and out-going products, parts and materials, daily delivery fleet performance and point of sale/receipt confirmation.

Outmoded
Traditionally, logistics and transport companies have relied on paper-based methods of SKU-level record keeping; logging product description, serial numbers, quantities and warehouse location. And then there is all the required information gathering and record keeping related to shipment and delivery to the end customer, including specified lead times, and the nature and quantity of goods required. However, reliance on paper can quickly result in outdated or inaccurate inventory records and a lack of real-time communication with fleet personnel, their routines and any problems encountered en route. Even when the drivers end-of-day field report is eventually received, the information has to be manually transferred to activity and payroll spreadsheets, taking up valuable time and resources.
Such an antiquated methodology can prove to be slow, costly and inefficient in a modern logistics environment where efficiency is a non-negotiable. Worse of all, these failings can also result in loss or reputation among customers and, as a consequence, a loss of business even that big key account that could make or break the business.

Solution
The solution to such constraints is a modern mobile software solution dedicated to capturing stock, delivery and asset management data in the warehouse, loading bay, in transit and at the customers site. It should also be capable of signature capture at the point of delivery, and able to manage not only deliveries but returns. Mobile computing isnt new. However price and scope of functionality, not to mention the lack of flexibility of both the software and wireless communication and data capture technologies, have been stumbling blocks for many logistics companies in the past. Now, mobile technology has come of age. And in times of particularly buoyant seasonal activity, it is a must-have in order to remain competitive and effective in satisfying customer demand with no questions asked.

Specifications
In terms of specification, the mobile software should ideally be packaged with a state-of-the-art relational database designed to run on a proven operating system such as Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003 or later. Most of the leading mobile EDA and PDA hardware manufacturers supply their solutions with such an established platform. And in terms of the hardware itself, ruggedised is the watchword in any busy warehouse or transportation environment even more so when the pressure is on leading up to periods of peak customer demand. When the PDA hits the concrete floor of the loading bay amid a flurry of handling and scanning activity the operator will know his company made the right purchasing decision.

Comfortable companion
The software of choice should also be capable of sitting comfortably on the same hardware device along with the users existing functionality of choice, if required; a Satelite Navigation System, for example. And the addition of a bar code or RFID tag scanner and imager is also becoming de rigeur in world of modern data capture and inventory checking. The latest barcode and RFID technology can both track the supply of consignments from the warehouse to the customer, and all locations in between. And as part of general inventory best practice, such technology can also ensure the company in question is always fully in the picture with regard to expiry dates and obsolete stock.

Then there is 802.11 or Bluetooth for WAN/LAN/PAN voice and data functionality. Any supplier of mobile data capture software and accompanying hardware should offer this as part of the complete mobile package. 802.11 or Bluetooth can, for example, prove extremely convenient for printing out data and graphs maybe sent from the logistics company to the driver via his/her mobile computer a moment previously on a wireless printer situated in the vehicle.

With such a system, logistics organisations are not only geared to improving stock, delivery and asset management efficiency throughout the year, but ready to grapple with that most formidable of calendar events, the Season of Good Will, with all that extra consignment stock to deliver, not to mention the spate of extra inventory recording to be undertaken in the warehouse, during vehicle loading and on the customers goods in floor at the point of delivery. Additionally, there are always all those returns to collect and check around the New Year. Here again, RFID and barcode technology earn their corn.

Unforseen
Business can be a minefield of unpredictability, and logistics is no exception. Indeed, it can often be cited as a prime example. By utilising mobile data transfer from the vehicle the driver can relay critical information back to the organisation, ensuring it has the best chance to react to any changes in circumstances. For example, the driver may have been involved in a traffic accident, meaning a delivery will be delayed. Maybe a retail customer has had to increase its order due to a hike in predicted or known demand from the public. The organisation can then plan re-routes and new consignments, often within minutes.

Employee efficiency
Through exploiting the latest mobile software and wireless technology an organisation can also ensure they are kept in the picture with regard to staff activity and efficiency. This provides greater visibility of hours worked, schedules completed and any periods of inactivity, as well as ensuring the organisation has the best data available to re-assess future routes, delivery to promise dates etc. This all adds up to continuous improvement and potential cost savings.

Broader picture
In terms of the broader picture, data gathered in the field in real time on a mobile computer system, and phoned through to the logistics organisations business management systems via its smart wireless hand-held hardware device, can massively improve the firms planning operations. Through such a data integration regime, information can be analysed and in turn shared with supply chain partners, providing visibility of information on all fronts and ensuring all parties are in the best position to react to sudden or planned demand. Data gathered from the best mobile software solutions can be transferred to standard desktop spreadsheets and databases (e.g Excel or Access) or for more complex data handling applications passed to Warehouse Management Systems (WMS), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) business software package, Demand Planning software or front-office Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, etc. By analysing data captured in the field, a company can better prepare OLAP reports and plan for future demand from the same, or similar, customer.

The final link
Many organisations involved in supply and delivery will already have on-site computer-based systems such as WMS. However, a considerable number still dont have in place the delivery link from a mobile system. The good news is that, due to the speed of implementation of such delivery-based mobile solutions, there is still the opportunity for logistics organisations to source such a system in the lead up to Christmas and benefit from it during the festive period. Also, such a system doesnt have to be manufactured or supplied by the provider of the logistics organisations original computer system; many mobile solutions are brand independent.

Wide-ranging benefits
Through the use of the right mobile data capture software, coupled with state-of-the-art wireless hardware offering real-time data transfer, logistics organisations can enhance workforce/driver performance, tighten up on delivery times, reduce costs, increase supply chain visibility, keep better track of goods in the warehouse, in transit and at the point of delivery, and most importantly maintain or improve customer relations. Mobile computing has to be a no-brainer.

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