Supply Chain & Logistics

Improving Mobile Device Performance in the Cold Chain

October 8, 2013

It’s no secret that the supply chain for frozen foods is a very demanding landscape. From walk-in freezers to trucks, boats, docks and trains, everything in the Mark Wheeler Motorolaend-to-end cold chain is driven around food safety as the No. 1 priority. Regulations and standards such as FSMA and GS1 help drive this priority. Cold chain compliance is more critical than ever. But, just keeping the freezers at the right temperature isn’t enough to reach the level of compliance needed to still drive revenue.

The perishable nature and limited shelf life of these goods presents a major challenge in food safety and securing the bottom line. Velocity and accuracy through a warehouse for inventory is critical. If frozen foods are shipped incorrectly and result in overage, shortage or damage (OS&D), those goods typically cannot be returned like consumer packaged goods or an item of clothing. The cost of errors and lack of flawless fulfillment in the cold chain is significantly higher than in other markets. Some companies operate both dry goods and cold chain operations concurrently in a single warehouse or across their broader distribution network. This can cause problems in tracking and maintaining the frozen food items.

Mobile technology has helped transform the ambient supply chain by increasing efficiency, reducing cost and improving customer service. Devices such as handheld computers, barcode scanners, RFID equipment, wireless networks and two-way radios are being used today across multiple segments in the dry chain globally. These same devices and concepts are available to the cold chain to help alleviate the aforementioned issues and drive accuracy, efficiency and ultimately, food safety.

However, freezers and the end-to-end cold chain present some of the most extreme and unforgiving environments for equipment. A device not designed for a cold chain environment can cause more issues and actually decrease efficiency and accuracy. From condensation in the device to buttons that are too small for workers with gloves, there are many issues to consider.

Here’s a list of some for the most common issues that operators face when using mobile devices not designed for the cold chain.

Fogging of the scan window. When cold temperatures and wide temperature swings cause internal condensation, the scan window fogs up. As a result, the scanner can no longer “see” the barcode, preventing scanning.

Fogging of the display. When internal condensation fogs the display, workers can no longer easily read the screen. This prevents them from checking what the device is scanning or what the user has input into the device.

Reduced display refresh rate. Regardless of whether the display fogs or not, cold temperatures will reduce the screen refresh rate. When screens refresh slowly, users are forced to spend time waiting instead of completing their tasks.

Ice buildup on the keyboard. As condensation forms or melting ice drips down into the keyboard area when users leave the freezer, keys can freeze when users return to the freezer, making it impossible to enter or retrieve needed data.

Headset damage. Both the microphone and the earpiece of voice-directed headsets are vulnerable to condensation that can compromise performance or even damage the headset. Productivity takes a hit when voice recognition rates decrease or the headset fails altogether.

Reduced battery cycles. Cold temperatures significantly impact battery cycle times. Standard batteries will need to be swapped more frequently during a single shift, impacting productivity and capital costs. Users are forced to spend time managing batteries that could be better spent on tasks, while enterprises are forced to purchase, manage and maintain larger battery pools.

Internal condensation. While the above conditions will be felt by users immediately, internal condensation that forms and remains present will cause major damage over time, resulting in increased repair requirements.

These are serious issues that have potential to disrupt the cold chain, resulting in errors and higher costs as food may not be properly stored or delivered. Your employees may spend more time waiting for their devices to work than performing their primary responsibilities—not to mention the cost of replacing parts or devices with greater frequency than anticipated. And, these issues come from expected use of the device—the operator is moving from one environment to another and the device needs to keep up.

How to select devices for the cold chain
When selecting devices for use in your cold chain, the first thing you need to ensure is the temperature range of the device is similar to the one in which you operate. If the number is right on the border or doesn’t even go low enough, look for another device.

You also need to review the IP rating of the device sealing. These ratings, from the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), help users identify the level of protection from foreign objects, water and the access to hazardous parts inside the device.

Wireless networking devices are also subject to the harsh conditions of extreme temperature indoor environments like freezers. Some of the challenges that these devices encounter include continually residing within the cold chain, as opposed to mobile devices, which move in and out. Retrofitting existing devices can be costly and not as reliable. Having the right devices with the appropriate plenum ratings, you can keep your network up and running and keep data moving in real-time, as opposed to in batch mode.

Whether on the refrigerated line or at an ice cold dock, better data means fewer errors and lower costs. Access to real-time communications is vital for those in the business of moving refrigerated goods. With specially designed mobile solutions, workers can continue tracking inventory in real-time as they enter and leave the warehouse.

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