Mobile Supply Chain Management: The Dream Is Becoming a Reality

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Mobile solutions for businesses have made great strides since short message service (SMS) was the pinnacle of mobile business collaboration some 10 years ago. Gone is the time when personal digital assistants (PDAs) and cellular gizmos were the Transformers toys for in-the-know business men. That time saw the first attempts toward the development of ultra-portable solutions. But for the past five years, smartphones, along with the offerings from software providers and hardware manufacturers, have been pushing the boundaries of ultra-portability to squeeze that personal computer (PC) into the palm of your hand.

Despite incredible achievements, ultra-portability still means restricted ease of use and functionality. Incidentally, ultra-portability is the reason why laptops still reign supreme in the business world today—it’s your office folded in two, with no compromise. However, with the release of the iPad by Apple last year, a hardware revolution with tablet computers has begun, opening up a new horizon for supply chain management (SCM) systems for businesses.

In this article, I will first discuss hardware for mobile solutions, as the latter are designed with the supporting hardware in mind. I will then show you how hardware can support the expansion of a range of mobile solutions for SCM and, lastly, how the cloud will help you achieve total portability.  


The Goods
The concept of tablet computers is not new. In fact, tablet computers have been around for close to 20 years. First-generation models were rather hungry for battery life and their user interface (UI) was pen-based. Those models had poor performance, despite running on a full version of a standard operating system (OS) (e.g., DOS or Windows XP), thus resembling PDAs more than PCs.

Later-generation models were laptop-inspired, with a flat-fitting screen over the keyboard and a touch-sensitive UI, effectively trading the pen for fingers. But these computer models were bulky, roughly one and a half inch thick, and heavy, averaging over 4 pounds. The low battery life also made you look for wall sockets after a couple of hours of use. With a certain pragmatism, users left them behind when smartphones broke through new boundaries.

What tablet computers bring today is an entirely new format that marries the looks of a large smartphone with specs akin to netbooks. Apple made the case in point with its iPad. And, clearly, imitation is a sign of envy, as the slew of tablets looking to gain market entry in 2011 is tantamount to the gold rush of the olden days.

Screen sizes range mostly from 5 to 12 inches. Wi-Fi is just about standard for all models, followed closely by Global Positioning System (GPS) and assisted GPS (aGPS). Some models even support 3G and will soon support 4G for cellular data connectivity. These tablet computers enable phone calls through voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), and gradually more models come with front-facing cameras for video conferencing. Their battery life ranges wildly from 4 to 12 hours, while thickness ranges from 0.5 to 0.75 inches and weight ranges from 0.5 to 1.5 pounds.

Another perk for the iPad, Research In Motion’s (RIM’s) Playbook, and tablets running on OS Android 2.2 (and up) is the remote wipe capability—the ability to remotely wipe all data and reset to factory settings a device that has been lost or stolen. Considering how often laptops or mobile phones gets stolen, consumers and particularly corporate users now have the means to secure their data in case of theft. I wouldn’t be surprised if this very useful feature made its way to other platforms—laptops easily come to mind.

In short, the sheer portability, processing power, and connectivity of these computing devices, combined with their decent screen size, has paved the way to new capabilities for businesses.


The New Horizon
Efforts in developing mobile business solutions have been directed primarily toward customer relationship management (CRM) and business intelligence (BI). This is understandable, considering that these solutions are intended to manage and display information, with relatively light needs for interaction when compared to SCM solutions. And despite the much greater capabilities native to their desktop or laptop versions, you can leverage a significant amount of use from their mobile versions.

On the other hand, mobile SCM solutions are very sparse and limited primarily due to their high level of content and interaction with a variety of players, such as suppliers, carriers, shop-floor personnel, etc. They command a high level of input/output from their users, despite the increasing level of automation in procurement, purchasing, logistics, workflow, and warehousing. This greatly limits the type of access to certain operations or requires heavy handling of multiple windows, making mobile SCM solutions functional but far from efficient.

The only way for a mobile SCM solution to work efficiently on a smartphone device would be using very exhaustive data capturing processes in order to limit the number of fields to be populated without sacrificing the level of granularity that is required for your business—e.g., automated bar code scanning or radio frequency identification (RFID), complete shipping compliance information imbedded at the item level, tracking information directly uploaded from carriers, etc. However, this would rely heavily on organizations and vendors working hand in hand to push effective mobile SCM solutions into a smaller medium.

As much as smartphone screens are bigger than ever, there is only so much screen real estate you can leverage before it becomes overly crowded. And while some smartphones can connect remotely to desktops in dire straits, working with a view intended for a much bigger platform, in cases of an emergency, is certainly far from optimal.

Tablet computers bring a much larger screen and more computing power, making a virtual transition from your desktop or laptop possible. While accessing your desktop remotely is also an option, you could port SCM solutions to this new medium with virtually no changes, thus dissipating huge boundaries for mobile business users.


Cloud Power
By far, the cloud is the medium that will put tablet computers on the fast track to business mobility. While it’s true that not only SCM solutions will derive benefit, the cloud is nevertheless the gateway for SCM users to gain as much as mobility and reactivity as needed. In contrast to traditional on-premise solutions (unless supported by remote browser connectivity), cloud power makes porting applications to other platforms (such as smartphones or tablets) irrelevant. Additionally, you will free up processing power as more of your business applications are cloud-based.

By combining the high level of portability and connectivity of mobile computing devices, you will be able to manage virtually all aspects of your operations with a tool the size of a regular clipboard. Additionally, you will be able to leverage the full set of functionalities and interactions from your vendor base. Imagine this example of a purchaser receiving a notification about a compromised shipment while visiting a supplier, and having total access to his full set of tools and information to find a proper resolution—how great would that be? And that’s just the beginning.

Consequently, SCM providers that have embraced a cloud platform for their offerings will likely rejoice that their solutions can be even closer to their clients. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a close relationship developing between SCM providers and tablet manufacturers.

Obviously, your level of flexibility will depend mostly on whether Internet access is available—be it from Wi-Fi or a cellular network. This is a particular concern if you are travelling abroad to regions where Internet services are not readily available. Regardless of whether you are using ported or cloud-based applications, working off-line will present the same challenges of data integrity. The data being worked on cannot be uploaded to your database until your next connection, and corruption can take place if data has been modified since your last data set was downloaded. A boon to our silicon hearts is that Internet access and cellular coverage are constantly expanding.


It’s Christmas for Productivity
As businesses strive to be flexible in addressing market needs and aligning their supply chain accordingly, having the right tools to leverage that flexibility is just as important, if not crucial. The advent of enhanced capabilities brought on by modern tablet computers is imminent, as it is not a question of “if” but rather of “when.” And that when is likely closer than not.


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