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Midland Medical Supply Resuscitates Its Receiving Process With Mobile Technology

IT Administrator Ben Dinger found an inexpensive mobile solution that’s dramatically reduced the time it takes for his company to log inventory. Photography by Malone & Co.

Pretty Clever

As a result, Midland Medical began looking at how it could make this process simpler and more streamlined. The obvious answer was bar code readers, especially since, according to Dinger, “95 percent of everything we receive has a bar code on it, and we already had those bar codes loaded in the Power Systems server and DB2.” But the company’s first forays into this involved expensive and software-challenged solutions that actually didn’t do much to ameliorate the receiving issues.

That’s when Midland Medical returned to m-Power, which it had used to such great effect in the past. “mrc made this quick little application for us that would allow receivers to enter in a product or PO number. That data would then be sent to the Power Systems server. We first attempted this with Windows* Mobile, but it didn’t work very well. So we found some Samsung Galaxy S smartphones running Android, hooked them up to Wi-Fi and, well, it worked much better,” Dinger recalls.

But even this solution—as inexpensive and commoditized as it was—still required that warehousing employees type in the packing-list information as they received items. Although they wouldn’t have to go to a PC to do so, and the information was almost immediately updated on the Power Systems server, it was still too time consuming. So Dinger decided that if he could combine the Samsung devices with Bluetooth bar code scanners, the company would further reduce manual effort.

“I’ve been in Apple stores before where they use bar code scanners attached to iPod Touches and thought, ‘Well, that’s pretty clever.’ So I started looking around for devices like that and found them for around $100,” Dinger says. “We tried one out with a Galaxy and it worked wonderfully. Now the warehousing staff just enters a purchase order number into the Galaxy and then begins scanning each box in a particular shipment.”

“This is really a testament to finding good partners and using products that are flexible.”
—Ben Dinger, IT administrator, Midland Medical Supply

For help with the bar code scanners, Midland Medical chose to work with Serialio.com after trying out several different vendors. Not only did it provide the scanner, but when it became clear some work would be needed for the scanner to work properly with the m-Power app, Serialio.com also came through with several custom Android apps that layered on top of the m-Power app.

“This is really a testament to finding good partners and using products that are flexible. We did incur some very minor development costs for the Android app that layers the m-Power Web app, but it was a tiny fraction of what even a full custom Android or iOS app would have cost us,” Dinger says, attributing this to the extremely flexible nature of the m-Power app and the “phenomenal” support offered by both mrc and Serialio.com. In the past, Midland Medical’s receiving process might have taken anywhere from 45 minutes to multiple hours to check in all of the items in an order. And now? “Almost no time,” Dinger says. Staff members simply pick up the devices and scan away. The Galaxy phones are located in armbands, reading the scans and transmitting data wirelessly to the Power Systems server. This immediacy gives customer service representatives and salespeople up-to-date information regarding what’s been received and what’s in stock. “Items go directly into inventory,” Dinger says. “Before, we’d have to go through the entire check-in process and read the entry once it had been entered into the PC. This meant it might take an hour for an item to appear, which when you’re on a call or in a meeting with a customer, is a long time. Now, as soon as an order hits the Power Systems server, we know about it. And when I say immediately, when it comes to this, I mean literally immediately. This really speeds things up on our end.”

These m-Power-driven devices will even indicate if there’s an error with an order as items are scanned, which has resulted in some users calling them uh-oh machines, Dinger says. In fact, audible “uh-oh” audio feedback is given if, for example, someone tries to scan an item that isn’t on a purchase order. Previously, it may have taken several hours to discover such an error. Now it’s instantaneous, and users don’t have to look at their Galaxy phones to know when something went wrong. That simple “uh-oh” does all the work for them.

Users can snap a photo with the Galaxy phone’s built-in camera to take pictures of damaged goods or boxes as they come in the door. Users can then email the evidence of the damage to the purchasing department, which may contact the manufacturer, or to a supervisor, who might contact the shipper, depending on the cause of the damaged product or crushed box. “Before, I would have to go home to get a digital camera,” Dinger adds.

Although the phones themselves haven’t been activated for use on a cellular network, users can load apps such as Pandora to listen to music as they work. Dinger says this makes for a happier workforce, citing the case of one employee who likes to listen to classic rock as he scans items. Additional apps can be loaded on the Galaxy phones if deemed worthwhile by Midland Medical’s IT department, which includes Dinger and his father, Dennis Dinger, Midland Medical’s primary application developer.


A Couple of Keystrokes

The solution has proved so successful that the company began deploying it in other aspects of the business. Dinger, for example, uses it to track the IT assets in his data center, scanning them as they enter and leave that environment. “I keep track of everything anyway, but this saves me a couple of keystrokes,” he says.

Midland Medical is also considering offering a similar tool for salespeople, who can use a simple Web app created by m-Power to check on inventory when they’re on the road, either using their smartphones—iPhones included—or tablets. And because everything is now tied together, from item receipt to warehousing, inventory information will always be up-to-date.

A $150 smartphone, $100 bar code scanner and an mrc m-Power development tool have helped Midland Medical’s receiving process go from hours to mere minutes.

More importantly, though, the company will also be rolling out this scanning technology to its shipping department. This, too, will cut down on the manual paperwork, with users scanning items as they’re picked and pulled. This will immediately take items out of inventory, giving other employees yet more transparency as to the items the company has on hand. “We’ll be able to instantly provide feedback to our customers as to their order statuses and reduce any possible errors. This will also free up the person who’s verifying each order manually in order to move orders out faster,” Dinger says.


Quick, Reliable and Inexpensive

This combination of small Web apps and small devices has already made a dramatic impact on how Midland Medical operates, and as further support is offered, the impact will grow. But one of the more telling indicators of its success is how little the combined cost is for the m-Power apps, the Galaxy devices and the bar code readers.

The company buys the Galaxy phones for about $150 and the bar code scanners for only $300. If these devices somehow break during operation, Midland Medical won’t have to break the bank to replace them, as it might with other dedicated devices. And because the company has so much experience with m-Power, and because that development tool is so easy to use, Dinger can whip up new applications in seemingly no time, as he’s done with reports, creating them in 20 minutes instead of hours.

“This product really helps us develop applications quickly and reliably, and we can scale them up as we need to. I haven’t seen anything like it in the industry, where you can whip something up in short order and make it functional just as quickly,” Dinger says. “In some cases, you can just accept the default settings and blaze through the development process or, alternately, you can use complex algorithms to make something even more amazing. In our case, I think we did the latter—and it hasn’t cost us an arm and a leg to do so.”

Jim Utsler, IBM Systems Magazine senior writer, has been covering the technology field for more than a decade. Jim can be reached at jjutsler@provide.net.

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