How mobile devices are changing Supply Chain Management

Supply chain management used to be driven by the issue of discrete pieces of information against a plan and then a period of waiting notification of the result before the plan could be updated. This principle could be applied to each discrete operation such as placing orders on manufacturers, goods being eventually delivered, pickers being sent out into the warehouse with a list and completed orders returned and then delivery drivers being dispatched on the road so that ultimately the goods would arrive at the customer.

Each of these tasks were managed as islands of activity and although the basic processes may have been sound and planning of each phase was comprehensive the additional effort required to control and monitor the total work was considerable. The systems developed to control these aspects grew out of the traditional processes that were being examined, The overall view of how successfully the complete operation was meeting requirements and how the various parts of the chain were working together was very hard to obtain for senior management.

We have now become accustomed to the use of computing power and the associated systems to assist in the definition of the work to be done and the recording of completed tasks after the event, but the actual moment of action and the decisions made away from the planning process continued to remain opaque. Computing power is now available to join up these processes. This is already well established in the exchange of information by internet between fixed systems in the case of orderer/manufacturer relationships but the concept can now be extended into other areas of these supply chain processes by the use of mobile devices.

A specialised use of mobile devices is now completely accepted in warehouses where the use of localised radio systems has supported the development of data or voice links to the picker on the floor. This has brought the real time management of stock and of picking and replenishment activities into the realms of not just the possible, but the essential for the efficient management of distribution centres and warehouses. The capabilities of these mobile devices and their ease of use by operatives continue to improve. Their early problems with robustness and reliability have generally been overcome Although their use in this application may not be regarded as part of the mobile computing revolution as seen by the public and discussed in the media, this type of device and the opportunities it has opened up, have led the way in the development of what are seen as the genuinely portable and mobile computing applications that are beginning to affect us all.

Mobile and portable computing may have been led by supply chain applications when confined to a small area but other, more public, opportunities have been the leaders in the establishment of a fully accessible network in the wider world. Although this was initially driven by voice telephony, data availability has become an essential for modern living. In this case the supply chain applications have followed along behind the pathfinders and the full power of the ability to finally link the remaining parts of the supply chain process is only just coming to fruition. Tracking of vehicles on the road, real-time optimisation of delivery routing and instant confirmation of delivery are now completely possible.

So if all of the traditional elements of the supply chain process can now be monitored and amended by the power of real time data links and mobile devices, is it time to review the individual processes and systems that have been developed to manage these processes? Will the next stage in system development see the merging of separate order processing systems, warehouse management systems and vehicle scheduling and delivery confirmation systems into an overall supply chain application that seamlessly optimises all aspects of business processes? This possibility has been opened up by the development of mobile devices and always-on data networks.