Handheld barcode scanners are so commonplace now they’re even attached to automated checkout kiosks to quickly scan that 30-lb. bag of dog food in the shopping cart and go on to the next errand. They’re amazing productivity drivers, saving a few seconds at a time. Fifteen years ago, they were not so well known, even to the delivery drivers who had to account for a lot more than a bag of kibble at each drop-off.
Back then, explains, Clay Holmes, chief information officer of Cardinal Logistics Management Corp., which ranks No. 41 on the 2019 Fleet Owner For-Hire 500 list, a driver would manually match each piece to the bill of lading. Even if they were speed readers with eagle eyes, it was a “cumbersome way to make a delivery,” as each stop may have 300 pieces. And this fulfillment process could repeat another nine times a day.
To the third-party logistics provider (3PL) contracted to deliver goods for major retailers, these mysterious laser-shooting logistical gadgets conjuring all sorts of time efficiencies might as well have been sorcery.
“Scanning was like magic,” Holmes said. “We didn't even know what a barcode was or how it worked, but within six months we were scanning product.”
That was in 2004 when Cardinal started using the Symbol MC9000 Series, a rugged pistol-grip scanner that promised no more fumbling with a pen and paper on a cold, windy day, no more wondering if that’s a five or worn-down eight. Just shoot the sequence of black lines and you have everything you need.
Cardinal, founded in 1997 and based in Concord, N.C., has grown into a major 3PL player since then, with about 4,000 units spread across 127 sites. Its last-mile drivers wear the polos of big box stores and industrial giants, hauling cold stores, construction material and whatever else the client needs. And each driver is still armed with a trusty scanner, though now it looks like an ordinary smartphone.
Called the TC57, this Android-based mobile computer made by Zebra Technologies (which acquired Symbol’s IP in 2014) is anything but ordinary. The smart tool facilitates improvements in nearly every aspect of the job, from navigation to ELD to filing HAZMAT forms. It automates paperwork and consolidates applications and workflows, all in the name of subtracting the minutiae and adding stops per day.
Zebra Technologies TC57 Mobile Computer Specifications
- Size: 6.1 x 2.9 x 0.73 in.
- Weight: 8.8.oz.
- Display: 5 in. (Corning Gorilla Glass that works with gloves and in rain)
- Connectivity: WLAN, Bluetooth, USB 2.0, WWAN
- CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 octa-core
- Op. Temp: -4 F to 122 F
- Drop: 4 ft.
- Scan Range: 20 Mil: 1.8 to 32 in., 3 Mil: 3.1 to 5.6 in.
- Camera: 5 MP Front/ 13 MP rear
Additional features such as SimulScan allow for up to 100 barcodes to be scanned at once, as well as documents, phone numbers, text fields and signatures. Add-ons include the VisibilityIQ Foresight data intelligence platform to enhance asset visibility and ensure the TC57 is running smoothly. This Mobile Device Management program aggregates big data and makes it easily understandable on one dashboard, leveraging machine learning to create new insights and predict problems before they happen.
Zebra also provides device data and protection with its OneCare service to cover accidental damage and normal wear-and-tear. Zebra's LifeGuard for Android solution, which provides cybersecurity updates, also runs through the OneCare contract. Fleet owners can choose from three levels, with the premium tier for the fastest resolution.
“As long as we can see the serial numbers on it will either repair it or replace it, depending upon what your service contract is,” said Mike Maris, director of transportation & logistics for North America at Zebra. “So the longevity on these devices is really where companies get their ROI.”
He said the program can send daily battery health reports, and can even predict when a battery begins to diminish, so a driver can get a replacement well in advance of failure. The cloud-based health app also knows how many times the device has been dropped and when it should be brought in for maintenance. With the rubber case guard, a TC57 can survive 1,000 to 2,000 tumbles, Maris said.
Maris also adds that Zebra’s system engineers prefer the TC57 over a consumer smartphone as their everyday device, due to its capacities and computing power that rivals a PC’s.
Zebra offers the solution in voice/data or data-only plans. With the data only, you can still communicate with dispatchers or managers with a push-to-talk function. Managers can also set up rules to keep the phone mode from working on the road, to ensure compliance with the DOT rule prohibiting commercial vehicle drivers from talking on phones while in transit. Companies such as Cardinal has chosen to rely solely on the TC57, using it to send data from a cab’s Omnitracs XRS electronic logging device. Using the StageNow app, IT administrators can quickly configure thousands of devices by creating one barcode. When a device scans it, they are configured.
Data is great, but for any piece of new tech to be used, the driver has to love it. For a fleet with a constantly changing set of requirements and clients who demand different data based on their specific business, the TC57 has been the magic bullet.
Holmes said at first drivers were wary to even touch the devices, and now won’t even leave the yard without them, relying on them for route navigation and to manage their daily checklist. And because these run on the intuitive Android OS, there’s no longer a need to retrain drivers every six months when there’s a new software update.
Each client may ask for or require different apps, which can be developed internally or may already exist and be easily downloaded from the Google Play store. Cardinal runs about six to eight apps, on average.
“The Zebra device has made my life easier by just streamlining everything,” said Cardinal driver J.C. Mullinax. “I don’t have to worry about writing lines on paper anymore. If I get dispatched to a different truck or trailer, I just put the number in and go.”
The TC57 also keeps track of the data.
“We do so many different types of deliveries that the data collection piece of that is a little daunting if you don't have the ability to change your driver instructions pretty quickly,” Holmes said. “The handheld tells [the driver] how to pick up and deliver that order even if he's never dealt with that type of load before.”
One example is transporting milk for a leading butter manufacturer. Previously, when drivers would pick up the milk from the vat at the dairy, they were mandated by the FDA to log temperature and time on paper forms later sent to the agency. Holmes says now they can simply zap the barcode on the vat to get the necessary info (grabbed from the cloud) which auto-fills onto an electronic form, and then printed later and sent to the FDA.
It’s easier and removes the potential for misreporting.
“The driver is much less likely to make an error whenever he's scanning and putting stuff into the handheld than he is if he scribbles it down on a piece of paper on his leg in the middle of a warehouse,” Holmes said.
Like any smartphone, the TC57 has two cameras, allowing for a driver to take a picture of a damaged box or a signed form. You can also program the system to keep track of exceptions and alert key customer service positions by text or email to let them know if an item is running late and to contact the customer, turning a negative into an opportunity.
“A lot of times in transportation something unexpected is going to go wrong, but as long as you're on top of it, you're going to keep that client probably,” Holmes said.