AML Blog - The Scan

Why Consumer Devices Won’t Work for Inventory Management in the Warehouse

The Perceived Benefits of Consumer-grade Devices

Although tablets and smartphones are generally considered consumer devices for personal use, some companies have been tempted to embrace these devices in commercial applications, turning to this technology to take advantage of perceived lower investment costs. The rapid rise in the adoption of consumer devices in retail stores and healthcare facilities has inevitably piqued the interest of IT and Operations personnel in warehouse and manufacturing operations. However, warehouse personnel should beware. In a recent study, 90 percent of respondents considered ruggedness and durability to be highly important in considering the use of consumer devices in warehouses, but only 36 percent said that they were highly satisfied with the performance of these devices in their warehouses.

Evaluating the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) of Mobile Devices

These devices may seem cost-effective at first, but the total cost of ownership is much higher than ruggedized devices in the long run.   Smartphones and tablets will fail much more often, with damage that is far more catastrophic than what mobile computers with an ultra-rugged design will sustain.  Consumer devices will have to be replaced more frequently, reaching the threshold of “not economical to repair” much sooner.  And the investment cost gap between smartphones and industrial mobile computers is closing.  The Android Authority reported that in 2023 the average smartphone cost $790, and that’s the average, taking into consideration phones with minimal features.  To buy a smartphone that will run ERP and WMS apps efficiently, and then add protection in the form of cases and “sleds”, it is very easy to approach or exceed the $1,000 mark for a single device.

Comparable rugged mobile computers are available anywhere from $1,200 to $1,800 depending on how they are equipped.  They come with higher-capacity batteries that can be hot-swapped (replaced without turning the device off).  Most rugged handhelds are also available with pistol-grip handles and long-range barcode scanners.  These built-for-purpose devices are designed specifically for the common tasks found in warehouses, and for the abuse and punishment they will endure.  While they are not indestructible, they will survive much longer and are more easily serviced, than consumer devices.

Product Life of Rugged Handhelds vs Consumer Devices

Components used in electronic devices, specifically semiconductors, are classified for either consumer use or industrial use.  There are two primary differences in these classifications.  One is how long the component will be produced and available.  Consumer devices evolve and change rapidly, constantly adding enhancements and features.  Components for these devices are typically around for 5 years or less.  Components designed for industrial devices will have a much longer product life, 10 years or better typically.  The other big difference between the two classifications is the temperature rating.  No surprise, components intended for consumer devices have a much narrower and less tolerant temperature range in which they can operate.  Consumer devices aren’t designed to be used inside coolers or in sweltering warehouses.  Industrial-rated components, on the other hand, have to withstand a much broader range of operating temperatures, generally as low as -4° F to at least 120° F. (-20°C to 50°C).  Rugged mobile computers produced with industrial components will always outperform consumer devices in extreme temperatures.

It is equally important to note that consumer-grade devices are not designed to be used all day, every day.  They are designed for intermittent use and therefore have minimal thermal management.  Internal heat generated by prolonged usage further exasperates the problems of components with a limited range of operating temperatures.  Simply put, they will simply burn themselves out sooner. This is why mobile computers such as the Striker Mobile Computer are built with rugged design features and industrial-grade components for the most challenging environments.

Scalability and Longevity of a Rugged Handheld Computer

Rugged handheld computers will stay in production longer than consumer devices.   When it’s time to add more mobile computers and accessories to the fleet, there’s a good chance that the models you bought a few years ago are still in production.   New smartphone and tablet models are introduced every year.  There will always be a newer version of the operating system and sometimes changes in the hardware.  Will your current WMS app run on the new version of OS?  And of course, audio jacks and charging ports have changed over the years which may require accessory changes.

The warehouse management team needs mobile devices that are scalable and able to grow with their business. For that reason, industry-specific rugged handhelds are specifically designed for long-term deployments, often allowing them to be repeatedly reconfigured.

The Ergonomics of Consumer and Rugged Handheld Devices

Consumer devices like tablets and smartphones are not ergonomically suited for the mobile workforce in warehouse operations.  Tablets are large and unwieldy, difficult to hold.  To complete inventory management tasks, barcode scans must be done with the built-in camera, which is awkward to manipulate, or with a Bluetooth device paired to the tablet, which requires the tablet to be held in one hand and the scanner in the other, occupying both hands.

Smartphones aren’t much better.  Using the camera as a barcode scanner is not ideal.  Aiming is difficult at best and even with the most skilled operators, they can’t scan nearly as fast or accurate as someone with a mobile computer equipped with an integrated barcode scanner and a pistol-grip handle with a trigger.  Some companies will try to overcome these challenges by installing the smartphone in a special case or “sled” that has an integrated barcode scanner and maybe even a supplemental battery.  But that sled is not inexpensive, and it is still not as ergonomic as a rugged handheld computer…and who knows if next year’s smartphone will fit in last year’s sled?

Why Touchscreen Devices May Be More Error-prone

Consumer devices also use touchscreen keyboards, as opposed to the full alpha-numeric keypads included on most rugged handheld models.  Touchscreens are problematic because there is no tactile feel to ensure a key has been pressed. Anyone who has ever used a calculator on a smartphone has likely experienced the frustration of trying to complete a calculation with no typing mistakes.  Consumer devices have “auto-correct” software that attempts to correct typographical errors, based on assumptions the software is making about what is being typed.  It uses a limited library to draw correct spellings from.  However auto-correct software can’t correct unique data such as part numbers, quantities, and locations, and getting this data entered properly is crucial.  The fact that auto-correct software even exists is a testament to the inherent weakness of touchscreen-only keypads.

Avoid a Costly Mistake When Choosing Mobile Devices

While at first consumer devices may seem like a solid, cost-effective investment, each of the issues and risks we’ve discussed significantly increase their total cost of ownership over time. Lower ownership costs, longer life span, as well as better scalability, ergonomics, and security are what make rugged mobile computers the most versatile and popular choice for today’s warehouses.

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