Distribution Technology is Changing – Are You?

The technologies distributors should be considering now, and the ones to watch for in the future.

From phones to drones, consumer technology has changed dramatically in the last decade. Business technology is picking up considerable pace as well. In the last few years, the development of systems and tools to drive business efficiency and optimization is no longer just happening in a handful of industries – it’s happening in every industry. Distribution in particular is one of the primary industries in which adopters are leveraging software solutions for disruptive growth.

Fifteen years ago, end-to-end operational platforms were reserved for the enterprise-sized business, costing millions of dollars and taking years to implement. That’s no longer the case. Market challengers and creative business leaders are finding ways to leverage the newest technology for visibility, efficiency, automation, growth, and an improved customer experience. As we at Velosio work with distributors and suppliers to improve their operations, we’re constantly looking at the latest technology to see where we can apply significant optimization. Many unique developments are taking shape. Here’s a look at the distribution solution technologies that have become common with market leaders, as well as what we see just around the corner.

Today’s Distribution Software Solutions – how many are you leveraging?

SaaS (software as a service)

Full, end-to-end business management platforms are more complete than ever before and are cost effective for small and medium-sized businesses. Cloud-based ERP (enterprise resource planning) platforms such as NetSuite and Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central give you the ability to manage your entire business – from marketing and sales to operations and your supply chain – with 360-degree, real-time visibility from your desktop, iPad, or mobile device. The process of managing quotes, purchases, inventory, rebates, project installation services, and online sales is no longer a laborious process using disconnected systems and manual spreadsheets. Instead, you can now have your entire team on a single platform looking at the same data and leveraging automation. Modern, cloud-based distribution software simplifies your system’s infrastructure and illuminates your path toward growth and efficiency.

RFID/NFC/barcode scanning

Inventory control is challenging and time consuming if done manually, especially when you have multiple locations and tens of thousands of SKUs. Knowing what you have on hand and being able to quickly locate what you need to accurately fulfill an order is key to lowering operational costs and providing customers a positive experience. Wireless, handheld technology is now affordable and makes receiving, fulfillment, and cycle counting much faster and accurate. Plus, these handhelds tie right into your ERP system, allowing your team to receive items directly into inventory or fulfill open sales orders from the handheld device.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) and near-field communications (NFC) are enabling more automation in warehouses for inventory management and on assembly lines for real-time tracking of assemblies. RFID and NFC “tags” are small, thin stickers with embedded electronics that can be applied to objects such as inventory. These tags can transmit data to a reader device; and, unlike barcodes, RFID doesn’t need a direct line of site to the reading device. Certain types of RFID tags can be read from as far as 1,500 feet. NFC is being used in creative ways in marketing and operations. Further, the costs of using RFID and NFC have come down drastically during the last few years.

Digital display panels

I’ve been in numerous business offices and seen many handwritten whiteboards containing  sales contests, financial results, and warehouse pick data. I’ve even seen handwritten chalkboards in retail showrooms to promote weekly specials and overstock or outdated models. Having digital displays in your warehouse, back office, and showroom can greatly improve the quality and relevancy of communications. What makes it most impactful is driving the data on these panels directly from your ERP. Imagine having real-time picking counts and data throughout your warehouse and knowing immediately when you’re ahead or behind. Or, think about the improved engagement you’d have if sales leaderboards were updated in real-time. You can even have pictures and videos of promotions and specials driven from your ERP to your showroom panel.

Electronic signature

Electronic signature products including DocuSign and Adobe Sign have made getting signatures on quotes, sales orders and contracts easier – especially given our challenges with COVID-19. Not only does it improve the experience for your customer, it saves your sales team time where every minute saved adds up. Further, embedding these tools into your ERP or distribution software enables your sales and finance teams to generate quotes and contracts with just a few clicks. It also ensures the current version of your template or agreement is used and that a signed copy of the document is automatically stored on the customer record or sales order in your ERP.

IoT

The Internet of Things (IoT) is making it easier to connect business devices for data measurement and communication. Common uses include predicting machine wear, tracking warehouse traffic, and transmitting vehicle data to track truck routes and mileage. IoT can also help automate lighting and other electronics throughout your facility.

Distribution technology on the way — are you considering these?

Advanced labeling

While QR codes, NFC, and RFID have been around for a decade or so, we’re only a few years away from product and shelf labels that include nanochips and atomic clocks. This will enable a new and inexpensive way to manage inventory and the movement of items through the entire supply chain. From raw materials through assembly, into the warehouse, and to installation, you’ll gain real-time visibility to pieces rather than only the finished product. Plus, unlike active RFID tags that require a very small battery, these advanced labels with atomic clocks will be powered by radio waves and provide the ability to read from much farther distances.

3-D printing

Think of all the plastic and metal parts you buy, inventory, sell, and service which require ordering, shipping, and warehouse/bin space. The technology to print just about any solid object both big and small is already here. Some service parts are being printed locally, right at the warehouse or showroom. The next generation of 3-D printing technology will provide better precision, faster printing, more advanced materials, and the ability to print larger objects. This will save you time and space, not to mention inventory cost.

Autonomous vehicles

As much as I look forward to the benefits of driverless vehicles, we’re still years away from the perfection needed from autonomous systems for consumers and government agencies to be comfortable. The grounding of Boeing’s 767 Max aircraft across the United and Southwest fleet is a clear reminder that the public is not going to allow for many imperfections. While the ability to “summon” your Tesla or enjoy “full self-driving” is here and is quite innovative, we’re just not there yet for mass, daily business use. It’s coming! When it gets here, your trucks and delivery vehicles can leverage autonomous driving.

Drones and robotics

For distributors with larger warehouses and multiple locations, drones and robotics are changing the way we think about inventory management, item picking, and movement through the warehouse. The combination of warehouse drones and passive RFID is becoming very feasible for more frequent and less costly cycle counting. As this software improves and the cost of entry drops, drones and robotics will help us with all types of distribution warehouse operations including security, inspection, and surveillance.

Mixed reality

When your customer wants to know what your products will look like in their environment, mixed reality technology will show them. You’ll be able to show a visual without leaving your desk. IKEA’s use of Apple’s ARKit technology is one early example of what’s possible and what is only going to get better.

Quantum technology and computing

This technology could have the most profound impact on how we process information and automate tasks. It’s the biggest shift in computing since the cloud – and possibly the emerging technology that’s most difficult to get your head around. An emerging field of physics and engineering, quantum technology is based on the principles of quantum physics. Generally, this is the ability for bits of information to exist in multiple states at the same time – what’s known as “superposition.” I know, this seems to break a basic law of physics. Yet, it has already been proven and well documented. Heavily funded by technology leaders and governments, this technology will usher in a whole new level of processing power, speed, and machine learning. We’ll have to wait and see how it will best apply to modern distribution.

I encourage you to be thinking about how you can apply these technologies to your distribution business to gain real-time visibility, increase operational efficiency and drive growth. Velosio has extensive experience in helping distribution companies modernize business software. Contact Velosio to learn more about modern, cloud-based ERP solutions such as NetSuite and Microsoft Dynamics 365.


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