Food Forum: Going wireless

By increasing the number of tasks they can perform in the store and warehouse, mobile-powered workstations can save labor costs while still improving morale and versatility.

By Christine Wheeler

Thanks to wireless technology, mobile powered workstations (MPWs) are opening up new frontiers of efficiency and productivity. These workstations with integrated power supplies can maneuver computers, printers, scales, barcode scanners, etc., to wherever they are needed.  For some facilities, multiple MPWs can bring about a whole new way of doing business.

Here are three basic benefits these workstations can provide as they help grocers take full advantage of wireless technology to improve their businesses:

Time and labor savings

By significantly reducing foot travel and paperwork, an MPW can have a very favorable impact on your bottom line. Often, employees are merely keying in data they have previously written on paper at the work site.  Or worse, they just rely on their memory, which leads to mistakes. In contrast, an employee operating an MPW has continual, paperless, real-time access to information via warehouse management systems, enterprise resource planning or automated data collection software.

The opportunities to save time and labor through on-the-spot data entry, on-the-fly scanning, on-demand label printing and other tasks are numerous and impressive.
An MPW is ideal for inventory management, shelf and product labeling and line-busting to help ease congestion at the checkout.  MPWs can be used as mobile checkouts, enabling operators to check prices, process credit cards and print receipts and coupons.

Improved versatility

The more your workstation can do, the more your business can accomplish, in ways you might not yet envision.  That is why you will want your new MPW to be versatile.  Check the weight capacity of individual shelves and of the unit overall. The MPW you buy should definitely be powerful enough to run various devices simultaneously—look for one that can hold and power four devices for at least eight hours and can be recharged in five to eight hours.

It is important that the MPW manufacturer offers multiple options for the workstation’s power package, and choosing the best one for your business can be difficult on your own.

Last but not least, your MPW should be modular—designed to accept many different accessories for your specific application. Accessories include additional shelves and drawers, keyboard trays, laptop holders, flat-screen holders, and scanner holders.

Like your business, your MPW will be what you make of it.

Better employee morale

Mentally and physically, consciously and subconsciously, employees know when their precious time is being wasted. They feel better about their jobs (and their lives in general) when they instead know they are doing work that needs to be done, and doing it efficiently.  The efficiency gains provided by an MPW, as outlined above, are not only for management ledger sheets but also for employees’ direct, day-to-day experience—greater productivity benefits everyone.

Good MPWs provide specific ergonomic advantages.  For starters, the MPW you choose should have adjustable shelves and large, stable work surfaces. Some MPWs allow the shelves to be easily raised and lowered, and some do not.  A tall employee should be able to quickly raise a shelf to the most convenient height, and a shorter worker on the next shift should be able to lower it just as quickly.

Your workstation should also have a compact footprint and should be easy to push, with large, easy-to-grip handles and top-quality swivel casters.

Obviously, different needs require different MPW configurations, so shop around until you find the model that fits your facility.  Some basic attributes, such as sturdiness and durability, trump all other characteristics.

Because further technological advances will undoubtedly give us new gizmos that will once again require us to reorder our thinking as well as our equipment, versatility and ergonomics should also be at the forefront. Some careful research will lead you to a well-built yet reasonably priced model.

Grocers should expect to pay $1,500 to $3,000 for a good MPW, but when the potential for productivity improvement is factored in, it should pay for itself many times over. 

Christine Wheeler is marketing director for Newcastle Systems, a Middleton, Mass.-based provider of mobile-powered workstations and accessories. For more information, visit, email, or call 781-935-3450.

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