The future; six years on

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Belgravium is a highly regarded UK-based manufacturer of a wide range of mobile computing and wireless hardware. In 1998, Iestyn Armstrong-Smith interviewed Mark Hardy the companys MD. The theme of the interview was: What does the future hold for mobile computing in the logistics sector? Given the turbulent times that the IT sector has endured in the intervening period, its pleasing to report that Hardy remains the head of a thriving organisation. It seemed a pertinent and interesting exercise to reprise the original interview, in order to discover whether his talents as a budding oracle had any validity!

Q: In our original interview you saw the retail sector very much as the pioneering force within the mobile computing market, stating: In the UK, the earliest adopters of bar code technology were the large supermarket operations. In turn, this forced their suppliers to either invest in the emerging technology or wave goodbye to lucrative contracts. The pressure to invest in technology to secure supply chain efficiencies is still ever present and the Retail sector, with its tight margins, will continue to be the first to embrace emerging technologies and standards. Do you still hold this view?

A: To a large extent the answer has to be yes. Were all acutely aware that the hottest topic for keen debate within the supply chain sector at present is the adoption of RFID (radio frequency identification). Walmart has done exactly what other supermarket chains did with bar coding. The company decided that this was a technology that was going to bring tangible operational and cost benefits to its supply chain and so it took a mandatory stance with regard to its adoption by its suppliers. We know also that almost every major supermarket chain, at least as far as the UK is concerned, is trialling RFID. We are all waiting with baited breath to discover whether or not initial limited trials will lead to the explosive roll-out that some industry pundits are predicting.

Q: Whats your principal concern? Why wouldnt the roll-out happen?

A: In the struggle to retain a competitive edge, the biggest danger is the temptation to dabble with revolutionary technologies that are fine in theory but in practice are still being technically refined. We saw this four or five years ago with voice recognition technology, which struggled to make a real impact. Now that some of the technical glitches have been ironed out it is being successfully adopted and re-marketed, albeit not on a large-scale compared to conventional data capture technologies. To be fair, RFID has been around much longer than most people realise. Mario Cardullo originally filed his patent application for the RFID tag in 1970 and the US Patent Office issued the patent in 1973. RFID is already used for hundreds, if not thousands, of applications such as preventing car theft, collecting tolls without stopping, managing traffic, gaining entrance to buildings, automating parking, airport baggage handling, dispensing goods, providing ski-lift access, tracking library books, etc, etc. So, the growing opportunity to track assets in supply chain management shouldnt present too many new technical challenges. Currently, the biggest barrier to adoption is still the cost of RFID tags, relative to a standard bar code. The challenge is in ensuring a valid cost-benefit argument before considering wholesale adoption.

Q: So what are the strategic implications for a manufacturer like Belgravium?

A: Well, for once, we have a relatively easy time of it! Of course, we now have to ensure that all current and future data capture units are fully RFID compliant. We already offer a range of terminals that can read and write to RFID tags and a number of them also combine tag reading with bar code reading, for those environments where the two mediums are to be used in tandem. Weve also aligned ourselves closely to leading RFID technology developers, such as SIRIT, in order to keep a watchful eye on emerging reader products and standards. To be completely candid, the integration of RFID readers into our range isnt what we consider to be a complex development exercise. In most cases, weve managed it very easily and so RFID is a relatively low-risk opportunity for us. Were RFID ready and if customers want to experiment with the technology on a small scale well even supply a specially priced development kit. I think the business case for RFID may never materialize at item-level but theres plenty of scope for adoption within the supply chain at pallet level and, of course, continued use within the applications Ive already mentioned. I think the medium-term prospects for RFID are good and were ready to capitalize upon the opportunity.

Q: OK, so RFID is an obvious technology to highlight, but what else is dominating your thoughts as a manufacturer? In our 1998 session you stated that: the biggest gains will actually be secured by the continued adoption of proven mass market technologies such as Windows/Windows CE, the Internet and the convergence of multi-media and telemetry technologies. Emerging standards such as IEEE 802.11 will ensure that previously specialist technologies such as radio frequency data capture will rapidly become mass market. Again, do you think your comments have been vindicated?

A: Are you kidding! Belgravium has a clear strategic mission to focus on business-to-business sales and marketing that encourages adoption of real-time technologies within the industrial and commercial sectors. Thats not to say that I havent cast an envious eye at the adoption of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other wireless technologies for more consumer-focused applications. Weve largely ignored the commercial potential of consumer markets but we couldnt afford to ignore the impact and influence of the prevailing technologies, which are clearly migrating across into the industrial sector. Windows is the most obvious of these influences. We now offer a range of Windows and Windows CE terminals that offer browser-based functionality. The demise of legacy software systems and text-based data transmission isnt going to happen quite as quickly as some consultants predict but theres no doubt that having a Windows front-end is becoming a de facto requirement.

Q: So youre seeing wide adoption of Windows technology within your core market of warehousing and distribution?

A: Well thats not exactly what Im saying. We anticipated that Windows would dominate within all sectors but ironically, given that it was perhaps the earliest adopter of radio frequency technology, the warehouse sector seems to have been slower to latch on to Windows than others. We launched our Atlanta Windows CE unit a year or so ago and weve sold a large number of units into the warehouse sector but many of these clients arent operating within a true Windows environment. They buy the unit because they like its size and overall design, and the idea of longer term future-proofing, but they currently tend to run their communications infrastructure using standard terminal emulation software.

Q: That must be incredibly frustrating? Do you feel that youve wasted your development effort?

A: No, not at all. Like I said, many customers have large investments in their existing legacy systems and theyre not simply going to scrap them. They will probably inevitably migrate to Windows at some point but, if their existing software is serving them well, theres no need to make an immediate switch. In any case, although Belgraviums core market has principally been the warehousing and distribution sector, in recent years our operations have broadened to encompass other markets such as field service and proof-of-delivery. In these sectors, Windows-based technologies and back-end systems tend to already dominate.

Q: OK, if I bring you back to the warehouse sector for a moment. To quote you again, you previously stated: In the warehousing sector, the market is likely to be dominated by the well-proven narrow-band and spread-spectrum radio technologies combined with bar coding and RF tagging, for some time to come. Hardware manufacturers will continue to add new functionality to their units but the already achievable sub-second response times of radio frequency systems is unlikely to be vastly improved upon. Do you regard it as personally disappointing that this is largely still the case, six years later? Arent manufacturers disappointing us by their relative lack of innovative product development?

A: Its still true that the underlying technologies remain broadly the same but its a bit like asking shouldnt we have invented an alternative to the car by now? If the wheel isnt broken then why try to fix it? Industrial computing products are generally developed in response to a given business requirement or problem. So if you take a criteria like the need to receive and transmit data in real-time, then theres no longer a problem. We can provide effective real-time transmission within almost every working environment there is.

Q: So there are no longer any real challenges for manufacturers?

A: Yes, of course there are. As we move towards a Windows-dominated environment and the Windows developers themselves add more and more functionality to this platform, then we have to keep pace. The trick is to ensure that that real-time transmission that I mentioned is preserved, even when there are hefty demands on the terminals processor. The same is true for other criteria like battery life. Were always looking at new ways of extending the time-between-charge use of our terminals. In general terms, the dominance of the IEEE standard now sees a greater mix of data capture products, from a broader range of manufacturers, within both single site and multi-site organisations. This is both a threat and an opportunity, as the adoption of wireless mobile computers is more of a commodity sale than its ever been in the past. Users can often, but not always, integrate the technology into their existing systems infrastructure with limited assistance from the hardware manufacturer. So, the choice of hardware often centres on the features of the terminal itself rather than any wider consultancy or integration skills that the manufacturer can offer. So, our challenge is still to produce hardware that the end-user will regard as the most innovative and fit-for-purpose in the marketand of course I think its a challenge we succeed in meeting.

Q: We concluded our 1998 article with the following quote from you:
Technologies such as touch screen, head-up displays and voice recognition will enjoy ever-wider adoption but will offer only minor operational improvements. We are still frequently confronted with blue chip organisations who regard the use of radio frequency technology in the warehouse as an emerging concept! Whilst this scenario continues, the pressure to pour huge development resources into a search for a new ground-breaking technology is not particularly great. That said, all the manufacturers in the data capture arena will be looking for a leading edge in the new millennium and this stimulus may yet provide the impetus towards something truly revolutionary. So its pretty much a similar conclusion now?

A: To a degree. What I was trying to stress thenand its still applicable nowis that neither Belgravium or indeed its competitors can rest on their laurels. There are a number of technologies that are currently under evaluation by our technical team and some of these have materialised from within the consumer communications sector. Whether they find their way into products that we are developing for the supply chain and other industrial applications, remains to be seen. Were running a seminar next April called Optimising the use of IT within the Supply Chain, during which Belgravium and its partners will attempt to outline the latest technical developments in logistics technology. Id love you to come as, who knows, by then everything may have changed. Six months can be an awfully long time in the World of IT product development.

Note: The Belgravium Seminar is open to all, is entirely free, and takes place on 20 April 2005. The venue is the National Motorcycle Museum, Birmingham. Visit www.belgravium.com to discover more and register on-line. It should be an interesting day and may well be worth a visitif only to discover whether the oracles predictions continue to ring true.



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