In the United States, where the Pew Research Center estimates more than half of all adults own a smartphone and a third own tablet computers, manipulating technology is second nature for many. Technology is quickly advancing, and products are becoming smaller, faster, more reliable, and more prevalent than ever before.
While many HVAC distributors have hopped on the high-tech bandwagon and are using mobile technology to organize their businesses, some still rely on the old pencil-and-paper method for picking, receiving, and managing warehouse inventory. This old-school approach to warehouse management is not only outdated — it can also be inaccurate and time-consuming.
Tough Products for Tough Jobs
To help distributors and wholesalers meet their customers’ needs, Panasonic makes durable tablets and notebooks to help manage warehouses and distribution centers. Within the last 18 months, the company released its latest line of rugged Toughpad tablets, which use both Android and Windows operating systems.
“A lot of people don’t realize we’ve been making these rugged products for 30 years,” said Thomas O’Connor, senior national business development manager for Panasonic. “They were certainly a lot more clunky and bulkier than they are now.”
Unlike most consumer tablets and laptops, the Toughpad and Toughbook are specifically designed to endure the harsh environments present inside many warehouses and distribution centers.
“If you hit it with a forklift, it may not survive,” said O’Connor. “But if you drop it, it should be fine.”
The Toughpad and Toughbook can also survive short falls, spills, exposure to vibration, snow, rain, and extreme temperatures.
“Distributors find themselves working outside, looking at a manifest, taking inventory with a barcode reader,” O’Connor explained, “You have to do business in the rain, snow, direct sunlight, and temperature extremes.”
He added that some of their Toughpads are pressure sensitive, allowing the user to operate the device while wearing gloves.
“It’s that versatility and durability that makes them so suitable for HVAC distributors looking for innovative ways to manage their operations and inventory,” said O’Connor. “If you’re sitting in your office all day, an iPad is great, but when you transition between harsh environments all day, that’s what our products are for.”
Over the years, major companies like Volvo North America, Harley-Davidson, Snap-On Diagnostic, and Labatt Food Service have used Panasonic Toughpads and Toughbooks to optimize their distribution and logistics. For Labatt, switching to Panasonic’s products translated to major savings soon after implementing the technology in 2011.
“We have already seen marked improvement in driver-to-dispatch and transportation-to-sales communication,” said Blair Labatt III, project lead at Labatt Food Service, which operates from distribution centers in San Antonio, Dallas, Lubbock, and Houston and serves customers in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and New Mexico.
“Since the system’s implementation, we’ve seen driver turnover get cut in half,” he continued. “Although turnover reduction is not entirely attributable to the new system, its estimated worth is just under a million dollars a year. Our next efforts will be to reduce annual expenses by approximately $2 million through route optimization. The solution we created is helping Labatt become a more streamlined and competitive company.”
At Volvo, technicians turned to the Toughbook to upload work orders, check parts inventories remotely, run diagnostic tests on vehicles, and even perform preventive maintenance.
“The Toughbook is a nice, smaller laptop that we can just carry around with us and bring it to wherever the car is,” Volvo service technician Ralph Antinori said. “It gives us a lot more mobility than the past system.”
For HVAC distributors, the Toughpad and Toughbook can help bring warehouses into the 21st century. For those who already employ some sort of mobile technology, upgrading to the water- and dust-resistant, shock-absorbing technology can help eliminate issues caused by broken hardware.
“In the arena of harsh environments, where people tend to drop things, that’s where we come in,” O’Connor said. “In environments like warehouses, the loss time that can be incurred by machine failures directly impacts the bottom line, since you have a worker, a station, and a job that needs to stop to fix the technology.”
Adapting to Technology
Though some HVAC distributors may be hesitant to ditch their trusted pencil for a stylus, O’Connor said younger employees generally have no problem adapting to the technology.
“We’re finding, and our customers are finding, that there’s a generational split in the workforce,” he said. “The new employees coming in have grown up with smartphones and iPads, and they’re anxious to have that technology available to them because they’re used to it. So there’s this cultural clash with the pencil-and-paper generation.”
Panasonic offers individualized training on its products — from an hour-long overview to a two-day intensive course.
“We’ll work with the end user to see how they’re going to use it, and then we’ll work with them on training their employees in how to use it,” O’Connor said. “We’ve found if they arbitrarily introduce new technology, it’s not always accepted, but if we go in and spend a couple days showing them how to use it, we find the acceptance rate by the workforce is greater.”
O’Connor said that while implementing any new technology will have an upfront cost, the cost is usually quickly defrayed.
“There’s an initial upfront investment both in equipment and training, but the customer recovers that very, very quickly,” he said. “We’ve certainly shown them that by automating that process and including the pick lists on a small computer they can carry around, we’ve certainly streamlined a lot of distribution centers.”
To learn more about Panasonic’s Toughpad and Toughbook technology, visit www.panasonic.com/toughbook.