iPhone inventory management for your warehouse operators?

iPhone inventory management has been brought to my attention a dozen times over the last month, particularly since we wrote about one company using the iPad with a barcode scanner to operate their warehouse management system (WMS).

iPhone barcode scanner applications don’t cut it:  A number of inventory management providers that are currently trialling the use of an iPhone in the warehouse. They have achieved this by customising a barcode scanning application from RedLaser that is designed for the consumer market.

For warehouse inventory management, the iPhone barcode scanner needs to be capable of scanning rapidly and in poor light. To date, iPhone barcode scanner applications are sadly limited in their ability to do this.

Peoplevox iPhone inventory management solution:

Peoplevox's iPhone app use the video mode to capture the barcode at a higher speed than using a photo-driven barcode scanner app.

The system also enables the user to choose the items they are moving from a list so it is not always necessary to scan the barcode.

6ft drop test to concrete - Is an iPhone tough enough?

We recently demonstrated the ruggedness of the Motorola MC9090 mobile barcode scanner by throwing it out of a 2nd floor window. It is difficult to conceive an iPhone replacing the most rugged mobile barcode scanners in the warehouse, especially where warehouse operator goes 'man-up' (operator goes up high on the forklift) forklift trucks are used.

If an iPhone inventory management solution can be delivered in a semi-rugged format they may be feasible as they do not need to last as long if they are less than half the price. Some companies just keep some spares for when they break. This is where the software has to be easy to load again, preferably Web based, so they can be up and running immediately.

iPhone barcode scanner hardware

Using external barcode scanner hardware helps to overcome the challenge of making the iPhone both rugged and barcode scan efficiently.

The iPhone could be strapped to the warehouse operator’s belt or forklift truck and a Bluetooth scanner used to scan data to it. Bluetooth barcode scanners are available for about £200 / $300 for an average one.

A Chinese company Sumlung has developed barcode scanner attachments for smart phones. The challenge with these is that the smart phone remains active and damage prone. IT managers also find consumer devices a pain as they are constantly being updated, so supporting them is challenging with different versions. A complaint we heard from the CIO of Danish Post a few years ago when discussing rugged versus consumer devices, where they had 10,000 mobile workers.

Battery life

The iPhone battery is well known as being quite short and not replaceable to swap out during a shift, so much so that there are people giving iPhone users advice on how to conserve it better.

For iPhone inventory management, companies may look for ways to add additional battery life. One option may be to have the iPhone fixed in a holster on a forklift truck and permanently charging off the forklift.

What does Apple think?

Apple is in the process of upgrading the mobile payment terminals in their stores from Symbol Motorola devices, based on Windows CE to iPod Touch devices combined with a credit card reader and a barcode scanner. I have seen them in action and them look great.

The iPod Touch retails for less than £200 in the UK, which is around £800 less than a mobile barcode scanner from Symbol Motorola and more than half the price of an iPhone.

Click here to download our iPhone inventory app for free

iPod Touch inventory management

This cost difference leaves inventory management providers with plenty of pounds to play with when modifying an iPod or iPhone for warehouse inventory management.

Improving the battery life and attaching or linking a barcode scanner via Bluetooth is the minimum requirement – the concept is most definitely feasible. This year, 2011, will certainly see some rapid evolution in certain types of companies needing a quick fix with an iPhone inventory management solution, using their existing phones before investing into larger industrial devices.

Author: Oliver Rhodes