Can a Tablet Computer Replace a Forklift Computer?

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Forklift in warehouseTablet computers are everywhere.  Nooks, ipads, and Kindle Fires are the “in” gadgets to have these days and are selling fast.  But can a tablet computer actually replace a forklift computer or terminal within a warehouse distribution center?  Since tablets have larger screens, can run windows operating systems, and can be taken off the forklift to use on the floor, some businesses are taking a closer look at this possibility – But I’ll let you decide.  For starters, here is a list of the major differences between tablets and forklifts that must be considered:

  • Power options
  • Compatability with scanners, keyboards, printers, warehouse managment systems (WMS), voice and RFID
  • Environmental and lighting conditions
  • Design and mounting requirements
  • Total cost of ownership

Ok, so first of all, what power options are available?  Forklift-mounted computers are usually run from the vehicle’s DC battery supply, whereas tablets run from their own batteries.  Most warehouse transaction volumes include a significant amount of scanning and wireless communication that can devour battery power.  This would require the tablet to be recharged multiple times throughout each shift.  In order to eliminate multiple recharges, it would be necessary to power the tablet via the forklift DC power supply.  This would require a converter box and cables that could withstand the elements within a distribution center.  Mounting brackets would be crucial, as well, to ensure that the box and cables were out of the operator’s way.

Next, it is time to figure out if existing data input devices, such as scanners and printers, are compatible?  These types of devices may require serial, USB, Bluetooth and other interface ports.  Once again, there is the possibility of a port adapter converter box with additional cables.  Many warehouse management systems are still being run on legacy systems and may require access via terminal emulation.  Many new tablets don’t yet support terminal emulation, and if they do, screen reformatting may be required.  This additional software, configuration, and follow on support should be taken into account.

After figuring out if converter boxes and cables are needed, it is time to take operating temperatures and screen viewing capabilities into account.  Lower operating temperatures may require an internal heater and heated display to prevent condensation as the operator moves in and out of cold storage areas.  This will, again, require more power than tablet batteries can currently provide.

Design and mounting requirements are based on shock-resistance and IP rating (dust and moisture resistance).  MIL-STD is the most widely used measure of ruggedness, indicating how successful the device has resisted shock and vibration in testing.  MIL-STD 810G is a standard for composite wheeled vehicles.  In fact, several forklift mounted computers test their products to exceed this standard.  The vehicle mount must not only mitigate the vibration and shock, but ensure the protection of the device, as well.  If the tablet is to be removed frequently, the mounting brackets should be designed to allow the device to be removed and reconnected without undue risk of damage to the connectors over the long-term.

Alright, lastly, but perhaps most importantly for many business owners is the cost factor.  The lower list price of tablets over forklift terminals may drive more companies to look into this option for their distribution centers.  It is important to evaluate the total cost of ownership, however.  Additional cost components such as accessories for power, data input ports, and mounting brackets may increase the initially attractive price, as well as deployment time.  In addition, further software and configuration support may be necessary.  Lastly, the expected failure rates, associated downtimes and device life cycles should all be taken into account to ensure a true total cost of ownership.

My guess is that the increasing popularity of tablets will most likely find a niche in the distribution center.  While these devices may look similar to the existing forklift-mounted computers, I don’t think they should be considered replacement devices.  Organizations should closely evaluate the workflow process to see where a tablet might improve productivity or where the worker may not be taking full advantage of the forklift terminal already  in place.  A consideration of the total cost of ownership versus improvements in productivity is key to the evaluation.  If you’d like assistance from myself or a colleague to evaluate your warehouse needs, we would love to hear from you.

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