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White Paper: Mobile Device Considerations for Supply Chain and ERP Related Systems
Author: Byron Clemens, President/Principal Consultant, CKK SolutionsSubscribe
If you’re going to use it, use it properly
Byron Clemens, President/Principal Consultant, CKK Solutions, LLC sets out some mobile device considerations for Supply Chain and ERP related systems
With the increasing mobility of users and rapid enhancements to hand held technology, Supply Chain Management, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and related systems must move to take advantage of this environment to enhance timely transaction handling and data collection as well as support robust tools for management decision making. Though technology is the prevalent driver at the moment, applications must be developed for fit and viability on mobile devices without detracting from system functionality. Not only must internal application requirements address the mobility needs of users within the business but interaction with external entities (e.g. suppliers) must also be considered.
Mobile commerce, or m-commerce, has been described as the next generation of e-commerce. Key characteristics are mobility and accessibility. Related to these characteristics is an economic value transcending other aspects of e-commerce. Along with the growth in mobile networks and technologies, business-to-business (B2B), employee-to-business (E2B) and business-to-employee (B2E) solutions have expanded.
From the perspective of e-commerce for Supply Chain and ERP related systems, the most significant advance for mobile technology has not been the devices, but rather the ability to integrate with back office systems. This has resulted in increased interaction between… companies, their employees, partners in the supply chain and customers. From a Supply Chain Management (SCM) perspective, m-commerce opens new opportunities for e-procurement, materials handling, warehousing, inventory management, logistics and fulfillment, and asset tracking; as well as sales and field force automation and dispatch management.
All of this is enhanced by continuing technological advancements. With 3G broadband, mobile users can more quickly collect and interact with data (including video, pictures, and graphics) once not readily available outside of fixed locations. Though not yet universally available, 4G will offer even greater speed and connectivity among other advances to exploit the capabilities of future technologies.
The history of devices used for Supply Chain and ERP type systems, including variations on materials requirement planning (MRP and MRPII), follows the typical development history of all universal hardware devices and, at times, influenced the use of certain technologies. Limitations on the technology itself have always been influenced by the location and space availability for users with the various systems.
The introduction of keyboard inputs raised the dilemma of what is the most efficient means for typing in information. Review of text entry systems introduces two significant trade-offs: between potential efficiency and training time, and between device size and character-set size. However, in the early days of data entry, the main focus of any keyboard was to allow enough characters for all information to be sent electronically through the system(s). The ASCII character set has typically, since its early days, been the predominant format for English speaking users.
As more shop floor planning came into play in the late 1980’s to 1990’s, devices needed to be able to work in environments that were not always conducive to the same equipment that was used in office settings. It was realized that capturing data closer to the source of activity was a timelier and more effective approach, than, in most cases, having to have individuals outside the shop floor do the transactions. Installation of cases made from durable materials around typical terminals and printers was the first approach to protect equipment and move it closer to the end users. Most implementations still required hard wired equipment and placement of the devices close to where the work was actually being performed, such as by heavy, installed machines, in warehouses for inventory activities, or in hangars where aircraft were located.
For information to be current and relevant plus, of course, accurate, complete, economical, reliable, and secure, various means for capturing data were implemented. Bar-coding became the most widespread tool for data capture. Inventory, including parts, was captured from the point of manufacture at the suppliers to actual use on the shop floor or even distribution through to the end consumer. Bar-coding could capture the origin of the product, be associated with orders, and be the mechanism for capturing data related to further manufacturing processes, labor capture, etc. The bar-coding process could then be integrated with other systems, such as time and attendance, human resources, and systems not already integrated into the ERP system at hand. Originally, the bar-coding solutions still required manual intervention for the users to scan or place the codes through readers, themselves often still wired to the devices in use by the system.
Eventually, users realized that the hard wired, dedicated terminal installations could not be a cost effective, long term approach; considerations of the support, space, and usability they required made that much clear. As the IT industry went, so use of Supply Chain related and ERP systems would follow. Developers of RF (radio frequency) data collection systems looked at the ability to transfer data from the shop floor into a computer system without the limitations of wired equipment. Typical installations initially included computers resembling laptop PCs, and then devices such as Panasonic Toughbooks, mounted on movable equipment in a protective covering. Of course, the use of RF technology would depend on the location of end users, relative to the RF communication devices.
During the late 1990’s handheld devices came into use, initially as stand-alone units as against today’s integrated smartphone. The range of possible devices as of the mid-2000’s ranged from PDA (Personal Digital Assistants), handheld PC’s and hybrid devices. Handheld PCs utilized cut down versions of Windows operating systems, such as Windows CE. Typical cell phones at the time had a screen size of about 150×150 pixels and between 4 to 12 lines of text with limited keyboard functionality. Smartphones provided larger screens with higher processor power, more memory, storage, and the ability to utilize browsers. Developments in smartphones, tablets, and similar devices, as well as the unprecedented impact of the Apple iPad and related applications, have opened further possibilities.
In fact, the iPad, with its size, portability, and continued expansion into more memory, storage, processing speed, and strength of connectivity, presents even greater opportunities to the world of mobile computing. For instance, UNIT4, a leader in enterprise resource planning (ERP) and financial management software, has expanded its Agresso Business World’s (ABW) dynamic reporting capabilities to be used on both the Apple iPhone and the iPad. This tool allows for dynamic querying of any information, with the ability for the user to create and store their own set of reports, using drag and drop functionality.
Also CA Technologies has introduced its project and portfolio management (PPM) solution, which will work with users of Chatter (a popular sales force communication tool and private enterprise social network) to allow project teams to collaborate and easily follow requirements and status updates on mobile devices like the iPad, iPhone or BlackBerry. Plans are for greater integration with leading ERP systems to bring in critical resource information to facilitate better portfolio planning and decisions.
In addition to the iPad, a number of other tablet devices are becoming available, from manufacturers such as Research in Motion (RIM) with the Blackberry device, and various Android operating system devices from Motorola and HTC. The key to evaluating any of these devices will be when Supply Chain and ERP related system vendors and internal developers are able to spend their time and company resources on developing applications for them.
Of course, smartphones present a more portable alternative to the tablets, both in size and expense. Also, users are already carrying these devices as a means of communication and social interaction for both business and personal reasons. Whether or not applications can be effectively scaled to the size and power of these devices is still to be researched and applied where possible.
Considerations for Use
The Supply Chain
In mobile Supply Chain Management (mSCM), integration of real time events with the use of wireless technology enables a constant flow of up-to-date information from both inside and outside the organization. Since prices of products and services can be changed utilizing dynamic pricing, as an example, mSCM helps companies to cope with changes in uncontrollable external factors affecting demand.
Regardless of the specific implementation of Supply Chain, ERP, and MRP solutions several key factors must be kept in mind, as portrayed by Alexander Renz from Microsoft in Denmark:
- Integrating business. An adaptive foundation must be established, providing consistent data and visibility across end-to-end processes which themselves are consistent and repeatable. Integration of internal processes is the key, in conjunction with implementing ERP systems, or other adaptations of MRP or MRO systems, to include basic supply chain management functionality, to link front- and back-office functions. Web portals would be utilized for information sharing.
- Optimization. Better decision making tools would be integrated to provide the greatest efficiencies. This can included business intelligence tools and analytics tools, provided by a number of manufacturers.
- Collaboration. This stage entails extending processes to supply chain partners using networking and collaboration technologies such as Web portals and shared workspaces. Such tools allow for the real-time, accurate exchange of information about demand and supply, and the ability to quickly feed electronic orders into back office and operational systems to shorten cycle times.
- Real world awareness. Mobile applications, handheld devices, bar coding, global positioning systems (GPS) and radio frequency identification (RFID) can all help obtain precise information about the movement of goods through the supply chain which helps cut time from order capture to fulfilment.
The concept of managing the supply chain with wireless technology is affecting the conventional understanding of Supply Chain Management. It offers geographical reach to support and enhance the association with logistics and delivery systems. Services can be requested at any location without the demand being initiated through static or fixed portals or devices into the company resources. This challenges and creates the need to manage dispersed resources and affects the need for review of organizational designs and hierarchies.
In mSCM, wireless technology coupled with software applications, such as a customer relationship management (CRM) system can be used to deliver personalized services to users in the supply chain and to customers, with the main purpose of developing long lasting and profitable customer relationships.
The considerations for ERP and MRP systems in the use of mobile devices and the associated benefits of wireless technology are not inherently different from those described for Supply Chain above. The main differences associated with the implementation of ERP is the often broader scope of the data and subsequent processes associated with the ERP system. Depending on where sensitive data is housed within systems, such as human resources and financial data, there may need to be more controls placed both in the server and client sides of the mobile applications to support the needs of the organization.
Fit, viability, and organizational acceptance
There have been several studies to determine the attributes that need to be taken into consideration when applying mobile devices to Supply Chain, ERP, MRP and related systems. Because of the need to have the devices fit the human aspect of the operations, technology must be properly measured. With regard to evaluating initiatives for the internet, the platform on which the systems with which we are concerned are increasingly being placed, A. K. Tjan in 2001 introduced the concepts of fit and viability. ‘Fit’ measures the extent to which the applications meet the core competence, structure, values and culture of the organization, while ‘viability’ measures the value added potential of new applications, their human resource requirements and, based on this, capital needs.
How this applies to mobile technology relates to the characteristics of the economic value of m-commerce and the delivery of the information from the systems under consideration. T. P. Liang published a chart to indicate those key factors that impact the reachability and mobility of m-commerce. These are based on…
- Product and service localization;
- Product personalization;
- Ubiquity enhancement;
- Instant connectivity;
Figure 1: factors that impact the reachability and mobility of m-commerce
Following a study of three different organizations, Bill Doolin, of Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand, and his associates, concluded that the decision made by the organizations to utilize mobile technology for Supply Chain applications was heavily influenced by attitudes towards IT and the history of IT use at each company. Leadership was the key and where the executives were not involved in every decision, the key was the support of the organization. They also found that there was a distinct difference between organizational readiness and user readiness.
Considerations for adapting to mobile user interfaces
With the variety of devices becoming available on the market today, developing single interfaces for each type of device can be a challenging task. It is desirable, yet not always possible, for companies to standardize devices used for business applications. However, where this is not possible, developers must be able to come up with software that is flexible and able to work with whatever mobile devices are available. Mobile network suppliers, hardware manufacturers, and technology consortiums are constantly working on increased stability, range, and speed in data transfer rates through their products and services.
Adapting applications to mobile devices can be broken down into client side, server side, and proxy based approaches. The formatting of content on the device may involve cascading style sheets; on the server side preparing the content for device delivery; proxy based approaches address an intermediate stage for facilitating the adaptation process. Several considerations for adaptation are appropriate for this discussion.
In reviewing the application to be displayed on the mobile device, eliminating unnecessary elements such as banners and images is an initial step in design and review. Often, the original application will have many extraneous boxes, lines, and tabs or other ‘bells and whistles’ that are not a fit for most mobile devices (it may be possible to keep some features for tablet devices). Regardless of the device, replacing banners and images with short textual descriptions assists in reducing the amount of data to be transmitted. If the original application has many extraneous fields that are not used or required by the mobile user, these should be considered for removal, whilst also bearing in mind any potential future use to reduce rework.
The flow of information can be adapted by splitting into smaller fragments and displaying it in multiple pages. This may be a challenge when the original application already has too many pages. Data may also be arranged to display more critical data first or according to a selected data criteria.
Ultimately, the goal is for the user to not have to type in much data. So, predefined lists, drop-downs, radio buttons, check boxes and the like can be utilized. Menus must be intuitive and reduce the amount of browsing time needed. Arranging data in a tree structure also facilitates improved navigation for user interfaces and the amount of text actually presented on the screen must be small to avoid too much vertical and horizontal scrolling. Furthermore, voice activated commands, where possible, allow users to keep their hands off keyboards and focus on the work.
Automating data entry for ERP systems can produce major returns for those companies spending millions of dollars on systems that are only as good as the data that feeds them. In the supply chain, advances that allow for such things as using mobile devices to deliver a variety of applications from scanning documents during receiving, to picking by voice command and utilization of RFID at receiving docks, results in reduced labor costs.
Business process impact
Obviously, the implementation of mobile devices will impact processes; not only from the location of where processes are performed but in the timing and flow of processes currently in place and to what processes will be in place in the future.
Since most legacy and back office systems are at various stages of maturity and have various database and platform dependencies, a significant amount of time and expense may be required to get the applications ready for mobile technology. And, there may be additional technology initiatives within the company that must also be coordinated with any implementation to ensure that all plans move forward in line with corporate strategy.
One matter that causes significant concern for businesses considering using mobile devices is the possible threat to the security of the company’s internal systems, data and resources. The use of biometrics or USB tokens in the implementation of mobile technology or even using the device itself as a token can provide a number of benefits for the company. Since people tend to value their mobile devices above other personal belongings there is a likelihood they would not share the device and would be more likely to report it as missing. However, the company must have the ability to remotely monitor the device and shut it down when necessary. In a similar manner to how banks can tell when someone is using a credit card in unusual locations and can take steps immediately, the same can be applied to mobile device tracking.
Bandwidth and Connectivity
The ultimate goal of any systems, particularly those using mobile and wireless connectivity is to provide the greatest speeds and best connectivity, resulting in greater confidence in the availability and reliability of data on which to base correct and timely decisions. In the realm of Supply Chain and ERP related systems applications, this concept applies to the ability to provide not only users with this goal but also customers and suppliers dependent on real-time information to support and react to the information that users and business relationships require.
Costs not only include hardware but the expense of programmers, internal or external, and developing a support network for the implementation. In planning for the device implementation, the following things must be considered:
- The costs of modification to applications;
- The costs of on-going support;
- The costs of on-going partner relationships;
- The costs of specific handheld devices;
- The costs of technology infrastructure.
Any organization considering implementation of hand held or mobile devices will need to conduct a thorough evaluation of the costs against the benefits of the implementation. Of course the very nature of Supply Chain Management necessitates the need for timely, accessible information, often at customers’ and off-site locations. It will be necessary to identify and record what information is needed, distinguishing between ‘required’ and ‘like to have’ considerations. That will need to be followed by analysis and design and all the normal components of a systems development life cycle (SDLC) even though the same exercises may have occurred for the original business applications themselves.
Many different types of devices have been used over the last half century with Supply Chain Management and ERP related systems. As most of the modern world itself has become increasingly mobile so have the needs of supporting services. This, in turn, has been influenced by recent economic turmoil that on the one hand looks for cost cutting but on the other hand must consider how the use of wireless or mobile technology can provide future cost reductions.
It is not readily apparent that there have been full implementations of Supply Chain, MRP, MRO, or ERP related systems fully utilizing mobile and hand-held devices, although there has been a great deal of thought as to how this might be achieved. As some of the examples in this paper indicate, there are a few limited implementations of ERP on mobile platforms, mainly in reporting tools. There are also some industry specific, limited implementations on mobile devices such as in-cockpit capture of data to feed airline systems as well as on-truck and delivery components in supply and sales force related implementations. Vendors offer the promise of more fully fledged opportunities but often look for partners in the development efforts to support the cost and specific pursuits of the desired end results.
A multi-faceted approach is needed in examining any solution offering movement to handheld or mobile devices. There must be a realization that the hardware or devices are not the specific ends in themsleves, but rather the entire effect of all things needed to support the delivery of applications and data, and the timeliness of delivery to the mobile solutions.