Traditional rugged mobile computers and hand-held scanners no longer have a monopoly in warehouse operations. Android smartphones and tablets have already made inroads in the distribution center market. Zebra and other industrial manufacturers have rolled out rugged Android touch computers. And smartglasses are generating buzz, if not actual sales. By contrast, smartwatches are largely overlooked in the discussion of mobile computers for warehouse operations. But the latest generation of smartwatches have all the capabilities needed for use in voice picking and other warehouse and inventory management applications. And smartwatches are a fraction of the cost of industrial RF wearable computers and voice-only mobile computers that start at $2000 each.
Smartwatches for Voice Picking
In 2016 Lucas demonstrated the use of smartwatches with our voice-directed applications for warehouse management. We could only use those early smartwatches as display devices paired with an Android smartphone running the voice application. Smartwatches could not operate independent of the smartphone as they did not include support for wireless communications (WiFi), among other factors.
Today, there are a number of smartwatches that can run the complete Lucas mobile application. This eliminates the need for a separate Android smartphone or rugged mobile computing device. Many of the latest Android-based smartwatches have built-in WiFi for accessing wireless networks, Bluetooth for connecting to wireless headsets and barcode scanners , and battery lives of more than 10 hours between charges.
Smartwatches are a great alternative for companies using legacy voice-only devices. But there are reasons why DCs might hesitate to use a smartwatch. Similarly, many consumers are not replacing their iPhones with Apple Watches.
Comparison to Rugged Mobile Computers For Warehouse
Limited Screen Size
The smartwatch face is ideal for short, concise alerts and icons. It is not ideal for displaying more extensive information. For example, you wouldn’t want to use a watch as your only device for reading email. And a watch face is almost unusable as a keypad – consumers use speech to text to compose messages.
DC workers use device displays in a variety of ways in today’s multi-modal voice directed warehouse applications. For example, users log in to the mobile device using the on-screen keyboard or keypad, and the touch display is also used for initial training. Within picking, the device display may be used for displaying user tips, product images, lists (base items, for example), task information (orders, lines, customer, goal time, etc.), and for diagnostic information (WiFi signal, BT connections, battery life). All of this information can be displayed on a watch face. But the small size limits the amount of information that can be provided on a single screen. Getting to the information you want on a watch involves scrolling multiple screens and clicking through menus.
For DCs currently using voice applications on a voice-only device that has no visual user interface, a watch display is actually a step up in capability.
While a $400 smartwatch has a compelling price advantage over voice-only wearables, the advantage over a full-featured Android smartphone or lightweight industrial touch computer are far-less compelling. New industrial touch computers like the Zebra TC20 rugged mobile computer cost more than a watch but have other advantages. Those advantages – longer-term platform stability and multi-year service contracts – offset the initial cost advantages of smartwatches (and smartphones) over the lifetime of the device.
As noted, the smartwatch battery life is more than sufficient for use over a single shift, but not for multi-shift operations. Android smartphones and rugged touch computers offer longer battery life. Some offer swappable batteries or powered cases that enable them to be used over multiple shifts.
Choosing the Best Mobile Computer for Your Warehouse
You should consider a number of factors before selecting a mobile computing device for your distribution center – industrial mobile computer, rugged tablet, Android smartphone or smartwatch, or voice-only terminal:
- First and foremost, determine what functions you will need the mobile computer to perform – voice picking, receiving, cycle count, etc.
- Second, what device features are needed to best support that function: voice direction, speech recognition, barcode scanning, key/screen entry, visual display, etc.
- Third, how well does the mobile computer match your technology infrastructure and roadmap: OS standards (are you adopting Android in the warehouse?), mobile device management technology, software and/or hardware vendor support, etc.
For more information about choosing mobile computers for warehouse operations, read our previous blog: Three Things To Consider When Selecting Your Hardware.