Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with many of the leading Automatic Information & Data Capture solutions providers about the current big issues surrounding software and hardware, back-office system integration and the route ahead for further technological development.
The technology is on a fast evolutionary path and the benefits to end users within manufacturing, logistics and retail environment is compelling. This report investigates what many of the A-list AIDC/mobile computing solutions providers consider to be the most praiseworthy and effective recent hardware and software innovations. To kick-off, Simon Hagenbuch, managing director at Sandpiper, observes that application software for mobile applications is becoming far more sophisticated, with location-based features now being incorporated – including real-time stock enquiries at the nearest outlet, a mobile worker’s current location, nearest mobile worker for task allocation, navigation and loan-worker monitoring. “This leads to enterprises becoming ever more dependent on mobile applications to deliver operational benefits and fiscal efficiencies,” he said. “Therefore system availability is high on the list of priorities for organisations deploying and maintaining mobile applications.” The other significant progression in mobile applications, according to Hagenbuch, addresses these needs by providing device management capabilities right across a corporate or even global population of mobile users. “Functionality now offers not only fast, accurate staging and deployment, but also ongoing remote support and software maintenance; negating the need for mobile devices to be shipped around a territory for fault diagnosis/repair or software upgrades.”
Robert Hurt, senior director marketing, EMEA at Intermec, believes improved software tools and utilities are helping to create a better, quicker and more versatile platform for developers; in turn enabling new, more advanced, applications to be created. “At Intermec we provide a suite of tools and drivers which can be dropped into different applications by our diverse network of software development partners,” he said. “Among the key criteria that customers seek are seamless integration into existing systems, ease and willingness to customise a solution to fit their unique requirements and scalability. With capital investment in short supply, options are more limited and installation life cycles stretched. The more our AIDC technology can automate data collection tasks, the greater our customers’ operational and planning flexibility will be, and the higher they can drive their own levels of customer service. For example, our new electronic document management software (eMDI) can take a photograph of a document, square-up the image and extract or digitally transmit pertinent pieces of text or bar-coded data.” For Francesco Montanari, vice president and general manager at Datalogic Mobile, an interesting development for the future could come from open OS, like Android; while, on the application side, he expects interesting news from localisation systems (GPS-based) and the use of accelerometers.
Faster, lower-cost development
Bill Roeder, vice president business development & deputy general manager at LXE, points out that LXE has seen, and has been supporting, a trend towards full Windows Operating Systems on both mobile and portable devices. (Windows XP, WES, or Windows 7). “This is partially enabled by the Intel Atom processor. A full windows OS gives the development community and the end user support organisation several benefits over Windows CE or Windows Mobile. The development environment is much richer and more familiar to more people; very standard. The network interface and all the supporting network infrastructure SW and tools are the same as those used on desktops, and therefore very familiar to the support organisations. All the network management tools are the same. All this standardisation leads to faster, lower-cost development and less expensive support.”
Raymond Wolfert, sales & marketing manager at Unitech Europe, comments that, on one side, Unitech sees a continuous demand for Auto-ID applications in warehouses, retail stores and other traditional ‘inside-the-four-walls’ environments. In addition to these traditional applications, Wolfert points out that the company has seen a huge uptake in the healthcare sector; such as bedside care applications or in-house hospital supply chain applications for tracking medicines, tools and equipment. “Sometimes these types of application were driven by governmental initiatives, though many of them were started by the hospitals’ own initiatives to increase their efficiency of operations,” said Wolfert. “This gives us and our software partners the confidence that we are at the forefront of many new installations to come.” On the other side Wolfert sees ‘outside-the-four-walls’ applications starting to pick up again as step-by-step logistic and field sales and service applications are being renewed to optimise performances and to make organisations solid and strong for the upcoming economic recovery. “As a manufacturer of mobile computers with a strong back-ground in ‘in-field’ applications we’re currently working on our product roadmap to answer these application trends.”
James Hannay, senior VP for Zetes North Region, comments that traceability is one key area of development within the AIDC space. “Overall, a key market trend is the requirement for improved traceability right across the supply chain; especially for food & drink manufacturers – giving them full visibility of the movement of goods,” he said. “For this to be achieved, there is a need for data to be captured and managed across the entire supply chain, inside and outside the four walls of a distribution centre, across different suppliers, right to the end consumer. A variety of technologies are being integrated to enable this with the end goal of providing the manufacturer with meaningful data held in a single repository.” Hannay adds that openness is another notable area of development. “Customers increasingly want to avoid any permanent ties with a manufacturer and want software applications to enable them to connect multiple devices across many different manufacturers,” he remarked. “They look to suppliers such as Zetes to be hardware independent and offer the widest choice possible.”
Use of device management services is another area worthy of attention, according to Hannay. “As this technology has matured, so the numbers of devices in operation has grown exponentially. Customers now frequently have to manage an estate of mobile devices which is in the thousands, and need remote management solutions to cost-effectively manage and control the devices in operation.” Hannay observes that, surprisingly, many organisations have very limited knowledge of what devices are within their estate. “To meet this need, Zetes now offers a full device management service, which includes the roll out of all types of mobile devices; from brown box to a fully operational state, remote control and updates and asset management,” he pointed out. As regards image capture technology, Hannay comments that many vendors have for some time embraced the benefits of using image capture to verify and identify goods, but now the first wave of solutions will begin to enter the market. “Zetes was quick to spot this opportunity and launched Visidot, which uses image ID technology to scan and verify hundreds of barcodes simultaneously; giving users 100 per cent accuracy,” he said.
Jorma Lalla, CEO at Nordic ID, comments that in food processing and transportation one growing area appears to be the integration of quality control to auto-ID. “Temperature-logging RFID tags enable efficient systems that not only identify containers, but also ensure that the container has been handled properly,” he said. “With Nordic ID’s mobile computer it is possible to collect temperature data of transportation while tracking the movements of a container. Being able to use the same device and same systems for both purposes decreases the cost of investment.”
And where are the current hot spots within the AIDC/mobile computer hardware debate? Mike Turner, group marketing manager at Belgravium Technologies, believes the past two years have seen a greater influx of new manufacturers of AIDC equipment into the European market. “There is so much choice of hardware for the end user that the selection process can almost be bewildering,” he said. “The core specifications of these products are, to a great extent, locked-in to the innovation of the component suppliers. This is particularly true of operating systems, where Microsoft will produce successive versions of Windows CE and Windows Mobile and where manufacturers have to, out of necessity, keep pace. The manufacturer’s own innovation is often centred around smaller feature enhancements that, nevertheless, can have a significant operational impact. For example, we introduced an accelerometer in to our current generation handheld terminals, which can indicate whether a unit has received an unexpected jolt. The warehouse manager can be instantly alerted to this and it has genuinely led to a reduction in product abuse.”
Turner believes the ultimate innovation can really be found in the development of bespoke hardware. “Belgravium manufactures generic product that meets the needs of a wide range of market sectors,” he said. “However, if a finite customer requirement can only be addressed through physical changes in existing hardware, or the creation of entirely new hardware, then we endeavour to do this. An increasing number of clients are approaching us as a result of their own innovative ‘blue sky’ thinking.” As an example of such a company, Turner cites Palletline, a leading player in the pallet distribution sector. “Palletline maintains its status through a programme of continual innovation, particularly with regard to IT. A recent systems review highlighted, among other initiatives, that it required a mobile computer with a specification that simply didn’t exist in the current marketplace. Belgravium responded by producing a working prototype within two months and a production-ready unit a few months thereafter. Of course there has to be commercial justification for this type of innovation project.”
Designed from the foundations up
Hurt reflects that many manufacturing and logistics companies have tried using smartphones for data collection and communication, as functionality has increased and prices have fallen. “However, we are now seeing older AIDC customers return and new customers adopt our more rugged mobile solutions, because they offer significantly longer life cycles and a better Total Cost of Ownership model, with less downtime and lower support costs,” he remarked. Hurt adds that technology miniaturisation enables reduced weight and size for devices, which leads to increased durability and reliability, and hence lower operating and maintenance costs. “There is an imperative to keep the weight and size of any mobile technology as small as possible, without losing any functionality or rugged capabilities. For this reason, Intermec has put a lot of effort into re-developing its solutions from the foundations up, so as to make all possible reductions in size and weight for the greatest efficiency and economy. As an example, we have customers in the transport & logistics, industrial, field service, CPG and retail markets who are continually asking for more technology and additional features to be embedded into the hardware. To do this, faster processor and more memory was required, as well as creating more power-efficient and faster communications to be built into the mobile devices. The result was that over the years, all this generally caused a physical increase in the size of the components that needed to be in the unit.” Hurt explained that the latest Intermec mobile product lines have reversed that trend; offering in, for example the CN50, a very small rugged device for the AIDC environment.
According to Hurt, improved processors and batteries mean lighter devices with longer times between battery charges and lighter weight. “Incorporation of multi-processors improves efficiency by reducing the time taken to perform tasks, allowing them to be conducted in parallel. For example, no-one wants to wait while a long document is transmitted. Once ready to send, a document should be able to be transmitted transparently in the background, allowing the user to get on with his next task.” In Montanari’s view, professional mobile computers take advantage of all the developments arising in consumer products (PDAs, smartphones, tablet PCs, etc.), such as better displays, the use of accelerometers, GPS integration and Wireless Wide Area Network (WWAN). He adds, however, that higher battery capacities with reduced dimensions and weight are still lacking, as the technology in this field doesn’t seem to be evolving as fast as users require.
Roeder reflects that the hardware has to be available at a reasonable cost to support the transition to full Windows. “With the introduction of the Intel Atom processor, and the corresponding reduction of the cost of a basic PC compatible system, mobile and portable devices can be made cost-effective enough to be deployed in large rollouts where they may have been prohibitively expensive before,” he said. “The cost of a full Windows Atom-based, vehicle-mounted computer is now very close to the lowest cost ‘embedded’ units. And it’s not just the Atom; all components are coming down in cost, getting smaller and requiring lower power. Think of the features you get for the price of a typical Netbook computer. We will soon see vehicle and portable computers that allow this same price performance ratio in our market.”
Lalla observes that RFID is clearly in a tipping point in terms of technology. He has witnessed a variety of devices starting to come on to the market, including Nordic ID’s own mobile RFID reader ranging from mobile phone style Nordic ID Morphic to high-performance Nordic ID PL3000 Cross Dipole. For Westmoreland, the emergence of the tablet with the apple iPad is an interesting concept for the business environment. “As a form factor we have seen rugged laptops and PDAs fight for roughly the same space over time, and technology played a large part in who traditionally won,” he reflected. “Again, through technology enhancements, the ‘two-in-one’ concept is back with more capability than perhaps both a laptop and PDA. Part of the reliability issue for business around the tablet form factor has been screen reliability. This is because the weakest part of the screen is the centre and therefore the screen requires a degree of rugged design and engineering to allow the business community to embrace it as a reliable business tool.” Westmoreland added that Psion is looking at all form factors across the mobile spectrum with a view to providing a full range of equipment for businesses.
Better communications integration
From a hardware perspective, Hagenbuch believes rugged handheld computer manufacturers are clearly keeping apace with the latest in operating systems. However, he adds that these often have little or no bearing on a business mobile application that needs to be functional and robust. “New features or designs need to deliver real business return to the end user,” he said. “Recent features such as intelligent document scanning offer real cost-saving and data-accuracy benefits by removing a large portion of paperwork and its associated costs from field based tasks. Where field-based labelling is necessary mobile printing hardware is now enjoying better communications integration as well as faster more reliable output.”
Unitech is increasingly developing vertical market-specific devices that are fulfilling specific market requirements. Wolfert points out that this recently resulted in the company introducing a new mobile computer in a PDA form factor with a specifically designed healthcare housing that prevents the spread of germs and is resistant to healthcare cleaning fluids. Unitech has also introduced an ultra-rugged mobile computer that complies with MIL-810 standards, has IP68 protection and is capable of operation in temperatures down to -30 degrees C for use in particularly demanding environments. “We see the trend of developing vertical-specific devices continuing in the future and more exciting devices will come,” said Wolfert.
Hannay makes the point that data capture devices themselves are becoming commoditised and the level of differentiation between manufacturers is reducing all the time. However, Hannay observes that certain manufacturers have begun including unusual features in an attempt to differentiate their products. For example, digital compasses. “These are being used for navigation when people have to deliver goods in pedestrian areas – GPS cannot give them directions whilst a digital compass can,” he said. In terms of other useful recently introduced hardware components, Hannay points to the accelerometer, which informs the user how many times a particular device has been dropped, and a built-in battery tester to better manage device availability. He adds that security is becoming more salient as an issue and explains that manufacturers are responding with lockable storage cages to reduce loss rates of the devices.
Move towards multimodal
As regards multi-purpose devices, Hannay observes recent years have seen a move towards using multimodal devices, such as handheld terminals with telephony capabilities and an image capture function. He also highlights the fact that there is now a much wider range of products available for different applications. “For instance there are very sleek PDA-type devices aimed at the retail sector for customer-facing applications; such as stock checking, mobile payments, as well as the more traditional ruggedised devices used for warehouse operations.” According to Hannay, cost of ownership is increasingly a concern for customers and a key decision making factor. “Customers are looking for devices which will have the longest possible lifespan and which support future technology upgrades,” he said. “When providing a solution for clients, Zetes evaluates the total cost of ownership and ensures the investment is going to service customers well into the future if, for instance, they decide to integrate RFID, payment, Voice or image capture technology at a later date. Total cost of ownership is a significant issue as, for many devices, there are hidden costs, i.e. batteries not being included and no extended warranty.”
Ease of integration is another key talking point, in Hannay’s view. “The difficult economic climate has meant more companies opting to continue using existing legacy assets, so they are looking for solutions that enable easy integration,” he said. “Where a company has decided to invest in new hardware, the business case is very tightly scrutinised and authority to proceed is given much higher up an organisation than was previously the case. The solutions Zetes implements always deliver a fast return and are typically approved, but the processes involved are much more stringent. For example Zetes recently introduced a new goods receipting system into Dunelm Mill, and as part of this integrated legacy handheld terminals with their SAP retail system. This gave the customer a real-time data capture solution that can be upgraded very quickly as and when it purchases new hardware.” Hannay added that extending the use of devices is becoming increasingly common as the economic climate has required much smarter ways of working for all businesses. For example, he pointed out that snap-on devices are now widely used to collect electronic payments for field service applications.
Openness is the key
With reference to the relationship between AIDC/mobile computers and back-office systems, openness is the key, according to Hannay. “Using technology such as MCL from Zetes allows companies to standardise on their Auto ID solutions without the need to standardise on their ERP or WMS systems,” he said. “It means that a customer can have a single process for data capture at the front end, but this feeds into a variety of back-end systems, which is frequently the case – especially where a company is trying to maximise the use of legacy systems. The customer is able to benefit from full visibility of data without having to implement an entirely new WMS/ERP system. The devices within the mobile estate can then be managed collectively, delivering significant economies of scale for the user.” Hannay also comments that the advent of the demand-driven supply chain has made this technology invaluable because people want to capture information and have visibility right across the supply chain, not just in to and out of the warehouse. This means having to capture information at many more points.
Hurt believes customers seek interoperability between solutions, “and this could become more important if acquisitions increase as we come out of recession”, he said. Hurt also maintains outsourcing is becoming more important as companies focus on their key business strengths. “Provision of Software as a Service (SaaS) converts capital expenditure into operating expenditure and leads software providers, such as WMS suppliers, to evolve new pricing models,” he remarked, adding: “There is a strong desire for seamless communication at the lowest possible cost based upon the infrastructure available in any particular location.” For Montanari, Java-based applications and, in general, web-based applications, hold the key to easier integration with back-office systems, which can also guarantee easier portability on different hardware.
According to Roeder, LXE continues to see very large end users adopting the WMS modules of their ERP systems as opposed to using a third-party WMS package. “The features are becoming competitive to the leading WMS application providers. End users feel that the totally integrated solution from one vendor provides for seamless data integration and lower overall support costs. These solutions are typically web-based and use a browser as the client interface rather than a terminal emulator. This gives a richer user experience, but places a lot more processing demand on the client device.” Lalla reflects there haven’t been recent major changes that would affect the whole industry. “Customers prefer open systems, and this has helped the growth of web-based interfaces,” he said. “But at the same time customers also require tailoring, which usually means traditional client applications being used as a mobile interface.”
Paul Westmoreland, managing director at Psion Teklogix UK, points out that the world of mobility remains diverse and challenging as customers look for a variety of solutions to meet their ever changing and, in some cases, very sophisticated needs. Psion has responded to this trend by launching its Open Source Mobility strategy promoted by its Ingenuity Working community site www.ingenuityworking.com .
Innovation is not just about product but a much wider concept designed to enhance our partner community and allow our partners to grow their respective businesses using Psion Teklogix business methodology,” said Westmoreland. He believes communication drives Psion’s ability to provide a platform that can be used for a variety of purposes and almost anywhere. “The ability to technically provide multiple radios, operating simultaneously and in one device is challenging, but it provides a greater capability from such a device in application terms,” he said. Returning to hardware, Wolfert observes some organisations asking for the latest versions of Microsoft operating systems to be implemented on mobile computers, even though it is not always required for applications they want to install. He added that Unitech offers the right balance between implementing the newest operating system and ensuring suitability for the required applications.
In terms of future direction, Hagenbuch anticipates the market will see an effort by the manufactures to maximise the number of common parts or sub assemblies across a range of products. “A modular or common platform approach inevitably helps reduce build costs and manufacturing lead times; both key to the growing acceptance of rugged devices by systems integrators and end users keen to maximise the return of deploying mobile applications.” Hagenbuch also thinks the mobile computing arena will increasingly benefit from more location-based solutions; field-based applications capable of directing a remote worker to the nearest source of spare parts, and in-premise Real Time Location Systems (RTLS) bringing major efficiencies to manufacturing and distribution operations by automatically locating assets within an operation. For Montanari’s part, he would like to see more reliable, smaller, lighter and higher capacity batteries. “We develop mobile technology and, therefore, batteries are the key to our success,” he said.
Demand for smartphones in the enterprise
Hurt’s view is that the market will see another step in terms of miniaturisation and technology integration; with power-efficient and faster communication using different radio networks around the globe. “As an example, enterprise applications supported via smartphones have expanded far beyond email and personal information management software (PIMS), so there has been a higher demand for smartphones in the enterprise – including, for example, public safety officials looking to access databases while outside their vehicles.” That said, Hurt maintains there is a growing number of customers and partners who, coming from the smartphone business, are now considering entering into the rugged device environment to reap the benefits of higher ROI and reduced total cost of ownership for their business customers. “In this context, the manufacturers will be encouraged to supply a number of advanced tools and utilities to partners in order to assist them in the development of their own software offerings,” he said. “The value-add of the different integrators and partners in various applications will be in their ability to supply differentiated turnkey solutions, such as evidence management and document tracking.” Examples of Intermec’s advanced software application components include Smart Signature Capture as well as its enhanced mobile document imaging (eMDI) software, which can take an image of a document and extract data for digital transmission. “The next step will be auto-population and error-checking of the forms in the first place,” said Hurt. “If you work for a delivery company, just think about how much time is wasted and money spent on incorrect addressing and undeliverable packages. There are big savings to be made in this area.”
Roeder believes some vendors will attempt to create a ‘competitive discontinuity’ in the market by introducing very price-competitive devices based on the latest operating systems now available in the consumer cell phone industry. Wolfert, on the other hand, reflects that besides the ‘operating system’ trend, which will drive new application features into the market, he sees a further specialisation in vertical-specific devices and offer the right balanced feature set for these applications. Hannay observes the adoption of RFID continues to grow, but mostly in apparel and the returnable assets sector. Zetes predicts a rapid rise in the use of alternatives such as image capture – with the Visidot solution. Hannay also predicts that as the adoption of track & trace systems continues to rise, companies will seek further enhancements such as temperature monitoring. In his view, there will also be increased interest in solutions that offer serialised traceability. Westmoreland believes that operating system advancements and the challenge of potentially new operating systems being available to the business community in the future is one to watch. “Cloud applications are also leveraged off the ability to be able to communicate reliably, coupled with realistic data over the network charging,” he said. “Users are always looking to push the benefits of their internal ‘within the four walls’ solutions in to the field, and for the first time part of that 1990s ‘blue-sky’ thinking is now emerging as a reality.”
Zetes has developed a coding, marking and on-line verification (reject) solution for the pharmaceutical industry that enables manufacturers to comply with existing (French coding CIP13) and future regulation. This is a high speed marking solution that can cope with volumes of up to 500 units per minute as they leave the production line and works in 3 stages. First, it assigns the product unit with a randomly generated, serialised number. Secondly this number is printed directly onto the packaging as a Datamatrix barcode and a tamper-evident seal is applied. Finally, the system uses a camera to verify that the number generated matches that printed onto the barcode. This information is then transferred directly to the manufacturer’s central IT systems, enabling the individual item to be tracked and verified for authenticity at any stage in the supply chain. “As interest in premium foods continues to grow, and the problems associated with counterfeiting rise, this is likely to generate considerable interest amongst food manufacturers looking to authenticate their products and ensure full traceability,” said Hannay. In addition, he anticipates Cloud computing moving into AIDC as a mobile computing industrial solution. “Watch this space,” he concludes.