A silver bullethow to effectively integrate mobile data capture solutions with SAP

INFORMATION: Free information is available from Peak Technologies on the subject in this story. Click here to request a copy

PEAK Technologies Werner Hinze (pictured) presents three very different options on how best to integrate mobile data solutions with SAPbut whats the best way to eliminate errors within the supply chain?


SAP is recognised today as the undisputed leader in market share across enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM) and supply chain management (SCM). (SAP has more than 33,000 customers worldwide and a predicted growth of 15 per cent in 2006.) SAP successfully handles some of the most extraordinarily complex processes, but outside of core functions, mobile data capture creates opportunities to enhance SAP. One of the most obvious, for the SCM market is the simplifying and streamlining of logistics processes utilising wireless technology.


Companies have introduced LES (logistics execution system) modules into their supply chain environments to manage increasingly complex and time-sensitive receiving, warehousing and shipping processes. In order to gain better stock visibility and control, they are required to stay on top of high volume key entry, as well as dealing with stacks of paper. Furthermore, a SAP implementation will not address the need for the delivery of accurate real-time data, particularly in the area of logistics/warehouse operations resulting in data errors, wrong decisions and higher administration costs.


Consequently, mobile data capture solutions are often seen as the silver bullet in eliminating errors and providing real-time, accurate information concerning business assets and their whereabouts. A mobile data capture solution requires the deployment of a mobile infrastructure, which differs significantly from the office environment and adds complexities such as network security, device ergonomics and battery life.


Before we go any further, its appropriate to explain that a mobile infrastructure usually comprises a wireless network using radio frequency technology, facilitating the bi-directional communication of data and instructions between hand held devices, such as computers, scanners and printers, and core business systems. Specific software is deployed, usually in client/server arrangement to allow data capture and integration.


Integration of mobile data capture solutions with SAP means that as goods arrive and depart, a simple scan of bar codes using hand held devices will instantly update the inventory data held in SAP. Furthermore, paper-based processes and lists for picking and putaway are completely eliminated, making the entire operation real-time and seamless.


To allow for this integration, SAP has a built-in framework for automatic data collection called SAPConsole. This does not contain business logic, databases, or external functionality. Its sole function is to translate SAP GUI screens in the SAP environment to the character-based equivalent, as mobile devices do not support SAPs front-end. SAPConsole empowers thousands of workers who use mobile data capture devices in warehouses and distribution centres around the world everyday. 


However, some may argue that SAP is mobile-ready with mobile data entry (MDE) transactions for logistics processes that can be emulated on SAPConsoleso whats the problem?


It is common knowledge that SAP MDE transactions do not support a number of the most frequently used business processes such as Goods Receipt against Purchase Orders. They do not link multiple transactions which are often combined in a real world implementation. Moreover, SAP MDE transactions do not offer a user-friendly application, and support only two screen sizes, thereby limiting the choice of hardware. Customer specific business scenarios are not supported, resulting in compromises that frustrate both the user community and back office staff.


Therefore, companies wanting to migrate from non real-time, paper-based systems, which are labour intensive, costly and time consuming, are faced with three options to achieve a further return on their SAP investments.


Option 1:  In-house development


At first glance, in-house development could appear to be the most attractive way forward. There are some strong arguments, particularly if there are available internal resources, i.e. SAP consultants and ABAP programmers. They may not have the necessary experience in developing and integrating mobile solutions, but they can get the job done from a software perspective. Invariably, history tells us that in-house developments take longer than anticipated, possibly due to limited knowledge and experience of the mobile environment functionality. Furthermore, there is always the risk that the solution may not be best fit and may exceed time and budget, not to mention the problems involved in taking highly valued resources away from their core business competencies.


Yet, there is no doubt that enterprising companies can develop serviceable mobile solutions. The issues then become deploying and maintaining the solution over a mobile infrastructure. Support teams may not be fully equipped to handle hardware and software problems and any additions to software functionality and hardware could prove time consuming. It is also important to consider the fast pace at which technology changes and the training required to keep internal resources up to speed on mobile technology. This will have a significant impact on costs and performance in the long term. It may not be the low cost, painless, solution you were hoping for!


Be warned, poorly planned and developed applications can lead to poor user acceptance and rejection of the system. The bottom line is that without sufficient expertise, the return on investment may not be delivered.


Option 2: Proprietary middleware solutions


There are several off-the-shelf proprietary middleware products available, usually designed around certified SAP interfaces,  which can be integrated into SAP in what appears to be a quick fix. Even though they are on the periphery to all SAP services, they can still be a very attractive proposition. Typically, middleware products seem technically straightforward and can suit a comparatively low cost implementation approach. They offer a degree of flexibility, and by residing outside of the core SAP system; they also offer some resilience from potential SAP downtime or network problems. Such middleware products are a good answer to 24 x7 operations, whereby uninterrupted data capture is business critical. Examples include high volume serial number tracking or pick and pack operations deploying bar code scanning.  A high level of mobile expertise is still necessary to achieve a seamless environment that delivers against desired business objectives.


While proprietary middleware seems to be a quick-fix solution, it is not as straightforward and low cost as it first appears and there are a number of pitfalls.  The one strong argument for it, which is its protection against SAP downtime, is easily dismissed. For starters, SAP has an all-encompassing, reliable infrastructure, which has evolved to offer a very resilient clustered service, and unscheduled downtime is becoming a very rare occurrence. This alone is sufficient reason to reject middleware. However, the main argument against it centres on maintenance and support. In reality, middleware solutions are not easily integrated with SAP and there is always  a significant burden placed upon the IT department in supporting and maintaining a number of different applications, rather than one streamlined SAP environment.  Furthermore, there is no protection against future technological developments or market changes and there is a higher risk of obsolescence when SAP is upgraded.


All in all, though middleware appears to be a comparatively low cost solution today, it may turn out to be costly in the long term, due to recurring maintenance and support costs.


Option 3: An end-to-end SAPConsole solution


A total SAPConsole solution from a specialist supplier is always going to be the best way forward. Here the logistics provider brings in the expertise in all aspects of the mobile solution, a comprehensive understanding of the business drivers and a thorough knowledge of SAP. Such a solution will deliver, within the allotted timescales, a seamless mobile infrastructure that has high user acceptance and is integral to SAP. Organisations wanting to migrate from non real-time, labour intensive, paper-based systems, can choose from a variety of mobile data capture solutions to suit their business needs. Developed, pre-configured and proven best-practice solutions can be rapidly implemented to customer-specific, bespoke solutions. They also remove the headache of managing internal development and cater for continual maintenance and support services, without being a drain on internal resources.


So wheres the catch?  Well, Option 3 may appear to be cost prohibitive in the short term, but it offers undeniable long-term benefits when compared to Options 1 and 2. For a start,  end-to-end SAPConsole solutions are less of a support overhead because they provide complete transparency and allow for easy integration to existing support procedures.


Be warned though, a specialist company may not tick all the boxes where a total solution is required so look for experience across the board, paying particular attention to effective coverage of RF (radio frequency) wireless networks.  Another important consideration is to look at the security aspects of these systems and the performance of the seamless link between the wired and the wireless. Finally, assure yourself that the solution and provider you have chosen is tightly aligned to SAPs roadmap for the future. In this way, you will have future-proofed your investment in mobile technology with the flexibility to meet unexpected demands of a dynamic business environment.


Clearly, the continued demands placed upon organisations means that they cannot afford to buy into short-term solutionsno matter how financially tempting they may initially appear to be. Over the last few years, a significant number of Peak Technologies' customers have moved to Option 3 after the disastrous failure of other solutions, making in-house development and middleware products a very costly process indeed! As a specialist end-to-end mobile solutions provider, PEAK Technologies sits firmly within the realms of Option 3. This is where experience shows that a customer will make the most gains, in both the short and long term from their deployment of a mobile infrastructure, which delivers integrated, real-time data capture across a wireless network. Then and only then, can organisations be assured of a low risk solution that continues to maximise and exploit an investment in SAP.


Peak Technologies, a Platinum Equity Company, is an international provider of automated identification and data collection (AIDC) systems, enterprise mobility solutions and ongoing life cycle service and support. Peaks primary applications include solutions for warehousing, manufacturing, distribution, and retail operations. Headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, Peak Technologies has locations throughout North America and Europe providing a comprehensive footprint for multi-national life cycle service and support. The UK office is based in Ascot, Berkshire. 

INFORMATION: Free information is available from Peak Technologies on the subject in this story. Click here to request a copy

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