Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with some of the leading solutions providers within the Automatic Identification & Data Capture/Mobile Computing arena about recent and possible future developments within this vibrant and fast-changing technology space.
There can be few technology areas that continuously push the envelope as much as the Automatic Identification & Data Capture (AIDC)/Mobile Computing marketplace. And, as well as keeping up with the current state of the art, it is tempting to pause from time to time and consider where things might be in the next year or two – one thing’s for sure, it won’t have stood still on anybody’s watch. With this in mind, we asked a number of key players within the AIDC/Mobile Computing sector about current trends, a few concerns and what might lie around the corner in terms of future innovations and enhancements.
To begin, Khalid Kidari, director of product management and marketing at DAP Technologies, points out that one fundamental development in AIDC/Mobile Computing and mobile computing is the widespread availability of wireless LAN and wireless broadband. This, he explains, facilitates real-time data collection and management so that information can be shared immediately across multiple users and devices. He adds that it also allows for browser-based applications that don’t require a software download and can be accessed through a simple URL.
And, according to Kidari, “while there has been much hype about Android and other operating systems, the safest environment for enterprise is still Windows and many companies perceive a leap to something different a risk”. This, says Kidari, is one of the reasons why Windows 8 – which is both designed for touch navigation and includes app-based functionality – is so highly anticipated. In Kidari’s view, another key development is a transition in the market from 1D to 1D/2D barcodes. “The multiple symbologies in 2D barcodes allow more data to be captured,” he said, adding: “In addition to the SKU, the 2D barcode can capture expiration dates, manufacturing dates, lot numbers and more.” Kidari also comments that there is a trend towards allowing vehicle-mounted and tablet-docked computers to connect directly to the vehicle to capture diagnostic information about the vehicle. “That means, for example, that a single tablet used in a truck could replace the truck’s black box, serve as the Electronic On-Board Recorder (EOBR), communicate with dispatch, manage inventory and more,” he said.
‘Cell phone effect’
Freddy Trompet. EMEA product manager (Supply Chain Products) at Honeywell, believes the key issue today that has captured the attention of both AIDC consumers and providers is what is referred to as ‘the cell phone effect’. “The big question is whether any or all mobility applications across the supply chain and other use cases can be fully satisfied with a cell phone,” he said. “While functionality and ergonomics are discussion points as well, the price point of a phone is what has everyone questioning it.
Clearly some vertical applications have already adopted cell phones as the tool of the trade while other verticals appear to be comfortable with the rugged devices they have been using for years. With that said, we believe even these die-hard rugged device applications will have an ‘era of experimentation’ with cell phones. In other words we fully expect mobile software application providers to offer cell phone version of their mobility software even if they don’t think cell phones will survive the environment in the end analysis. The obvious benefit to the end user is hardware cost savings.”
Nigel Owens, senior VP of worldwide sales and GM of EMEA at Motion Computing, makes the point that as Motion specialises in rugged tablets for field-based workforces, it is seeing a lot of interest in the possibilities afforded by mobile computing in manufacturing and logistics.
These, he says, generally relate to one of three key issues and set of benefits:
Complexity: manufacturers and logistics companies alike are facing unprecedented levels of complexity – in the market(s) they serve, the processes that comprise operations and the established IT infrastructure. Tablets are a key technology for simplifying this, especially within operations.
Speed: the need for faster turnarounds, quicker production and rapid access to information (regardless of location) is also pushing interest in tablets. Businesses now realise that speed is a key differentiator as well as a means to improving productivity.
Service: delivering increased levels of service to customers, wherever they are, is critical. And in some verticals within manufacturing and logistics, service is outranking new product development as a source of revenue. Tablets help businesses enhance service, which is driving uptake.
Efficiency: The one word that runs through all of the above points is efficiency. Efficiency brings simplicity, speed and better service, and that is what Motion hears most from customers, according to Owens. “They want a solution that will make them more efficient,” he said. When it comes to specific examples of benefits, Owens points out that Motion has tablets in use in manufacturing and logistics companies to:
- Track materials movement and access reports on production status throughout every stage of production process.
- Ensure thorough quality control and inspection processes through menu-driven applications.
- Achieve higher quality output due to more accuracy in parts ordering & allocation.
- Improve staff productivity and reduce errors due to centralised data management.
- Enable efficient warehouse management by accessing real-time order requests and confirmation of dispatch of goods.
- Accelerate the speed at which materials and finished goods are available, due to real-time tracking & reporting.
Gerrit-Jan Steenbergen, VP Innovation Centre at Zetes, comments that Zetes is observing three trends influencing the way AIDC is being implemented now and also in the future.
1) Imaging technology is taking over from laser scanning
“There are a couple of reasons for this trend,” states Steenbergen. “First, imaging works better in challenging environments. For instance, where goods to be identified are damp, image scanners have a larger field of view, throughput is much faster and they can be used in automated, unmanned environments. Compare this with traditional scanners, which are more likely to have issues and specially designed scanners, which are more expensive.
Secondly, image scanners perform better reading 2D barcodes, which are now in more widespread use.” Overall, believes Steenbergen, rising use of imaging is allowing users to implement AIDC into areas of their supply chain where it would previously have been prohibitively expensive. e.g. Seachill is a Grimsby fish processor that uses Zetes’ image scanning solution Visidot for verifying shipments of fish delivered to Tesco. “Their fish factory is a wet and cold environment so RFID would not be feasible,” said Steenbergen. “Prior to using imaging, Seachill used ordinary manual scanners.
Now, as well as confirming the accuracy of shipments, Seachill also complies with Tesco’s ASN (advance shipping notification) requirements whereby they have details of exactly what goods are coming into their warehouse – serial and batch numbers of products - in advance of each shipment arriving.”
2) Android or Windows Mobile as the primary operating system?
Steenbergen points out that Zetes is now seeing the first mobility devices developed for Android being adopted, whereas previously virtually all customers were using Windows Mobile. “This change brings its own set of challenges because Android is an open source platform and comes in many different ‘versions’,” he remarked. “Zetes are therefore anticipating a market shift with hardware manufacturers also starting to offer ‘integration kits’ to make their Android devices more easy to integrate and therefore more appealing.
Whether Android or Windows Mobile will be the primary operating system no one can be sure, but integrators like Zetes will continue to offer multiple device integration toolkits, to ensure customers can have as much flexibility as possible over their choice of hardware devices.” Steenbergen added that as HTML5 becomes more widespread, it will offer a number of advantages for business users; for example, the ability to deploy a single solution across multiple platforms.
This, comments Steenbergen, means lower cost of ownership and better mobile access to business intelligence in the future. This, he says, is because all devices with an HTML5-compatible browser will have the same ability to collect, collate and use data, which is much more efficient than requiring all staff to use the same device or developing a different app for each device type.
3) Cloud based services will continue to gather interest
As data capture devices start to become slimmer and sleeker, like consumer devices, Steenbergen maintains that they will have less localised processing power and more of the application will need to reside server side. Combined with this, states Steenbergen, companies will be looking for AIDC hardware and applications provided via the Cloud, on a pay-as-you-go basis, frequently as a fully managed service including hardware, applications and ongoing support and training. “Working this way is much more cost-effective because the expenditure is covered as ongoing operating expenditure rather than a one off ‘capex’ cost,” he added.
4) Application interfaces are evolving to mirror consumer style applications
Steenbergen considers that Apple has done a lot to influence the future of industrial applications. He adds that the next generation of logistics and operations managers expect to see same ‘wysiwig’ interface they see on their own devices at home in the workplace. “Software products are adapting to become more intuitive and touch screen-based,” he said.
Jonathan Orme. sales operations & marketing manager at Exel Computer Systems, believes that advances in wireless/cellular networks, data security and the improvements in handheld devices (both tablets and phone-sized devices) means the utilisation of business software solutions can now move out of the shop-floor and the company offices into the wider world. For example, providing sales staff access to the system from a customer/prospect site enabling access to CRM, documentation, sales history etc; service engineers viewing and updating the back-office system in real time during service calls ensuring access to accurate up to date information; senior managers and directors accessing key company metrics from their iPhones and Android phones allowing visibility of operations.
This, says Orme, is having a major impact on the use and usefulness of software within companies. “Only a few years ago the vast majority of a system’s users were office-based staff, leaving remote staff having to liaise with an office based colleague by phone or email in order to interrogate or update the business system,” he said. “This is no longer the case, and this change alters the relationship between the company and their IT solution, whilst also altering the relationship between a company and their clients/prospects, all for the better.” And in terms of the main drivers for the changes he cites, Orme comments that these are mainly related to advances in technology. “With slow data networks and unreliable hardware this change was not possible,” he said. “Also browser-based software solutions are well placed to take advantage of the technology that puts the Internet in everybody’s pocket.”
And in terms of the relationship between AIDC systems and back-office systems, Orme makes the point that, previously, companies had to link standalone mobile workforce management systems to their ERP system, leading to all of the well-known issues inherent in integrating disparate systems. “There are now systems available (like EFACS from Exel Computer Systems) that provide a single, fully integrated solution covering all of a company’s requirements, i.e. ERP, CRM, Field Service, Mobile Salesforce etc,,” he said. “This provides substantial peace of mind in knowing that an upgrade to an element will not affect the integration between all other elements, also having a single supplier responsible for, and with expertise in the solution as a whole.”
Consumerisation of IT
Andy McBain, EMEA regional product manager at Motorola Solutions, considers that arguably the biggest trend in AIDC that the manufacturing sector is seeing is the continued development of different operating systems (OS) and development environments for handheld devices and PDAs. “Only a few years ago, developers tended to live off the Microsoft Win CE,” he said. “But with the strong consumerisation of IT the market is seeing wider adoption of devices that run Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS platform.
While this development is creating greater choice for the end user organisation this is causing application developers to examine whether they can sustainably increase their development teams and time to supply end users’ changing AIDC needs.” McBain adds that application portability between different OS – maximising flexibility and reducing deployment and cost of ownership – is becoming the key question for end users and developers alike. This, he points out, is what prompted Motorola Solutions’ development of RhoElements – a framework for creating OS-agnostic applications – helping to ensure freedom for end users and application developers. “The RhoElements framework supports the development of HTML 5 applications, which allow the development of rich GUIs that are still capable of being delivered via the cloud to virtually any device,” explained McBain.
Another specific trend related to the consumerisation of IT, according to McBain, is the impact on end user employees’ expectations of how they want to access and share information. “Operatives have become used to the easy-to-use interfaces of Facebook or iPhones and want the same experience in their work applications,” he commented. “There is in effect a ‘blurring’ of social media interfaces as they become adopted for business use; particularly for manufacturing, retail, and logistics specific operational needs. Some of the long established OS providers have had to rethink the type and feel of applications to keep up with these new entrants. Microsoft is pinning much of its hopes on Windows 8 to boost its position in application development and user friendly interfaces.”
John McMeeking, UK managing director at Psion, considers that, thus far, 2012 has been an interesting year for the AIDC/mobile segment. He reflects that there have been debates around operating systems, with some people calling for devices running on open source platforms. And, revisiting the consumerisation theme touched on above, he adds that Psion has seen a gradual creeping-in to its market of consumer-grade tablet devices, and the growth in the UK of the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend that started in the US. “Nobody can argue with the success of open source operating systems on consumer smartphones, or indeed the sales success of consumer-grade tablet computers, such as those you can currently buy on the high Street,” he said.
However, he adds that what can be argued is the suitability of consumer-grade products in the markets that companies such as Psion serve. “While they can at first seem an attractive option versus purpose-built rugged devices, when all the numbers are run, the benefits are far outweighed by the costs and time disadvantages,” he commented. “For example, every time a device is broken, that worker has to return to base (because he/she can no longer be given work), and get a replacement. The company then has to either have a supply of back-up devices on standby or, worse, keep the worker waiting while a new device is configured with the company’s business software.”
McMeeking explains that one of Psion’s customers in the private housing sector presented at a recent Psion event. “They told us that they rejected smartphones because they knew they would not survive regular use by engineers, builders, surveyors and the like,” he said. “Today, we sell through distribution and resellers so we are in constant communication with them about what they are seeing ‘at the coalface’ in terms of latest trends.” McMeeking added that very recently Psion spoke with a reseller that told it of a real horror story about a company that had tried to install smartphones into their organisation. “Even with retrofitted outer rugged cases these devices typically needed to be replaced five times as often as a functionally equivalent rugged device, such as the products we manufacture,” he remarked. “The AIDC business needs tools and devices that are designed for the purpose and can cope with the kinds of environments.
These devices might be installed and expected to run for as long as five to seven years. That requires a stable hardware and indeed, operating software platform. The last thing any company should have to worry about is the stability of the operating system running on their technology platforms. That is why companies like Psion made a conscious choice to go with Microsoft platforms rather than participate in the ever-changing and uncertain world of open source operating systems. In the world of consumer mobile devices, regular operating system upgrades are a benefit, but in our world where device reliability and predictability are key, they are still not a sensible choice for many of the customers we serve.”
McMeeking then focused his thoughts on tablet PCs. “One of the noteworthy things about the tablets has been their entry to the enterprise market,” he said. “Initially, this happened in professional sectors, such as medicine, and now they are being issued in more industrial and commercial sectors as well. Our concern about tablets is that unless the devices are heavily ruggedised and designed for harsh environments, such large screens are really a significant cause for concern.
Unlike a smartphone with a touch screen and keyboard, if a true tablet’s screen is damaged, that device is generally rendered completely useless. And as we know, tablets in the main cost more than smartphones, so they are not as cost efficient at the outset while still causing the same problems in the kinds of uses where are products are typically seen. So in my view, it is better to choose devices that are designed for the purpose, than those that just look good yet fail badly and regularly in real use.”
The right balance
Are there any remaining concerns regarding the use of AIDC/Mobile Computing/RFID systems? In Kidari’s view, security is always a concern. “Hackers are constantly looking for ways to access business data, and devices containing customers’ personal data can be lost,” he points out. “Meanwhile, developers are getting savvier about protecting the data with monitoring and remote access. The ability to wipe data remotely has been a great benefit to enterprise, but with this ability come additional concerns about device tracking being an invasion of user privacy. That leaves IT managers with the task of balancing enterprise and security needs with user privacy.”
Owens also reflects that there has been a lot made of the intersection of security and mobile computing. “Certainly, from a hardware perspective, there has been a lot of development in this area to overcome concerns – ranging from the integration of biometrics to two-factor authentication,” he said. “Different operating systems provide varying levels of security.
Decision makers should keep this in mind as well as look for devices that come with integrated security features as well. There are also many software solutions for enhanced data protection, improved IT asset management and managed computer theft recovery. It’s important for businesses to have the ability to track, manage and secure sensitive data, whether or not the device is on or off the network.”
And, from a Cloud perspective, Steenbergen considers that the security of these types of services continues to be an issue, especially as companies start to consider Android devices for running enterprise applications. “This is why less data is held on the device itself and also why device management is important to ensure that any data held locally is effectively wiped as soon as the user logs out of the system,” he said.
Trompet also focuses on security. “This will continue to be a concern as more consumer-based and open systems-based products find their way into these applications,” he said. “Cell phone manufacturers and OS providers are not thinking about AIDC issues because the volume for them is with the consumer that does not share the same concern as a field worker.”
Another concern noted by Trompet is that consumer devices go obsolete fast with no backward compatibility. “Even if the device is in the ‘throw away’ price range when you get forced to mix and match devices with your workforce there will be both procedural and compatibility issues,” he said. Trompet added that the next big concern will be remote device management. “It has already become impractical to physically put your hands on every mobile device under your watch,” he remarked, “and as devices are mixed and matched, there will be a greater demand to manage the software and configuration in those devices remotely – even going so far as to track the location of and ‘blanking’ a device that has been lost or stolen so your network and data is protected. There is low adoption for remote management today and that is a trend that will be changing.”
McMeeking returns to the theme of BYOD. He comments that he completely understands the uptake of this from a mobile phone perspective. However, if the business wants more from the devices, then in his view, this is where the real challenges start. “Companies need to seriously consider how they can fully support the software and devices they want the driver to use,” he said. “As an example, if the device is used for phone, email, calendar, satellite navigation for vehicle routing and optimisation and proof of delivery, then it could be a very challenging support proposition. Especially when you take into account trying to manage all the different manufacturer’s makes and models alongside varying operating systems, possibly on different builds and varying service providers. I am not saying these are not manageable but there are far easier ways to implement and support day to day activities.”
And what of the current trend for technology ‘convergence’ within the AIDC marketplace? Kidari considers that technology convergence is mostly a good thing. “Until recently, multiple devices were required for many applications,” he explained. “In the trucking industry, for example, a truck might be equipped with a fixed-mount computer, a black box and a PDA, each purchased and maintained separately. With technology convergence, those devices can be combined into a single tablet computer that can also serve as an EOBR, communicate with dispatch, scan barcodes for inventory, map routes, track speed, monitor for maintenance issues, and more. That makes for a more cost-effective solution and one that is typically more user friendly.”
Trompet’s view is that in some applications we are heading for a converged device ‘experiment’ faster than others. “I use the word ‘experiment’ because we believe end users are doing their own ergonomics testing at their expense,” he explained. “It used to be that AIDC device manufactures would perform extensive ergonomic studies with models and prototypes to come up with the best product design for end users to buy. Today end users are buying multiple devices and trying them to let their workers choose the best product from their workflow. This has happened for two reasons, 1) devices are less expensive and 2) devices from competing companies are similar enough that the some software can run on both with little or no effort.”
Trompet added that he recalls a cell phone manufacture who built a phone that was about the size of a person’s thumb. “It failed in the market because it was too small,” he said. “We believe many end users will experiment with consumer-like devices and uncover the hidden downsides of that approach in some rugged applications. We expect these end users to refresh their hardware solution faster than the typical three to five years and again return to more rugged and consistent devices that they can expect to purchase for multiple years instead of just a few months.” Trompet also believes the converged device is likely to expose a wireless bandwidth issue. “As more and more workers demand real-time voice, video, and data feeds, even small delays in the response will meet with the same annoying experience that plagued the classic warehouse and other AIDC systems of 20 years ago,” he said. “Will a mobile worker standing in front of a customer wait patiently for a file to download for one to two minutes like most of us experience on our phones any time we want to share pictures with family and friends?”
Owens’ view is that convergence will likely continue as more functionality is added to existing hardware. However, in manufacturing and logistics environments, Owens believes this can be better understood as features specifically required for the job - for example an RFID reader, BCS, MSR or camera. “These features have already found extensive uses in warehouses and across factory floors for efficient data collection and documentation,” he said, adding: “Portability demands that the designs continue to evolve towards a converged device, ergonomically designed for a given environment or role. It doesn’t make sense for users to carry around multiple devices or a device with different technologies hanging off the sides.”
According to Steenbergen, the trend of convergence is operating at multiple levels. “There is convergence between the three technologies – goods ID people ID and auto ID – to develop applications integrating the three different visions into one application,” he commented. “For instance Zetes is developing converged solutions whereby the user ID is verified, a parcel is scanned as delivered and secure payment is taken using a single device. The combination of delivery services with secure mobile payment is particularly interesting as companies are looking to find ways to do secure transaction processing outside the four walls. There is also convergence occurring whereby siloed applications are being brought together on a single device – like the ecoPOD example for fulfilment and logistics service providers.”
McBain maintains that, generally speaking, the market has passed ‘one device does everything’ thinking. “Retailer and logistics providers will tend to manage different aspects of workloads with different devices,” he said. “Given the advances in OS, applications and devices, organisations are able to bring in new devices/applications from providers to manage specific or new workplace requirements.” McMeeking’s view is that, whereas multi-function devices used to mean compromise, the industry has moved a long way to make all the different functions work in a beneficial way. As an example, McMeeking points out that in Psion’s most recent devices, it has installed a number of sensors that allow users to operate the device “in ingenious new ways”. For instance, using the gyroscope, McMeeking explains that Psion has introduced a ‘man down’ alert facility, which helps to safeguard workers when they find themselves alone and in harm’s way. Another example of how Psion is using the latest sensor technology, according to McMeeking, is its work with application partners. “They have developed a driver behavior monitoring application to help educate drivers improve their driving techniques thus reducing fuel costs,” he explained.
Heading our way
And what might be the next major developments within the world of AIDC/Mobile Computing? Kidari believes the next innovations in data collection will likely be in Voice. “Apple’s recent success with Siri, as well as successful use of Voice in picking and packing functions, are a nod to the future,” he commented. “To use Voice, you don’t need any level of training. It is ‘natural’.” Trompet considers that battery technology will improve, RFID antennas will shrink, 2D barcodes will be in colours, and systems will be purchased based on transaction-based pricing versus pay for everything up front. Also, he believes a new generation of wearable computers will probably follow the ‘Google glasses’ effect.
Owens believes that as mobile computing becomes more pervasive, the need to manage tablets, applications and the infrastructure behind them will become more important. “This will encompass risk and security management and will likely shape the tablet landscape for a wide variety of workers,” he said. And from a management point of view, enterprise mobility and enterprise IT will very quickly become one and the same, according to Owens. “Balancing the IT department’s desire for a simple, seamless solution with employee need and workflow requirements will be challenging for some,” he said, “but as long as businesses examine their environments and select devices that fit their workflows, it will be a painless process. Whether it’s a business integration priority ensuring that through a common OS mobile employees and office employees can better collaborate, or rugged designs that protect against harsh environments, enterprise buyers will continuously have to weigh their top priorities when selecting the right tablet.”
Steenbergen foresees the launch of a new breed of infrastructure platforms, which will make it very easy for companies to add new applications and integrate different legacy systems with minimal investment. “In the future, it will be the norm for all logistics workers to be equipped with a single device through which they will manage all their work operations, in the same way as an office worker has a PC or a laptop for all their work,” he said. Orme believes that advances in wireless/cellular networks, data security and the improvements in handheld devices etc. will continue and gather pace. “Those companies that do not take advantage of these technological advances will be left further and further behind and will be unable to compete with the companies that have embraced these technological advances,” he said. “Improvements in data networks (both speed and coverage) will result in an increasing reliance on these devices, and so companies will have real-time, accurate information on the whereabouts and activities of their staff wherever they may be.”
In conclusion, Orme added that the pace of advancement/change, as well as the plethora of hardware options available, might leave some in fear of compatibility issues, reduced choice and difficulty in upgrading both hardware & software in the future. “Software providers that offer a solution compatible with the broad spectrum of manufacturers, device types and operating systems afford the greatest peace of mind to businesses that prefer to have all the options available to them, without fear that the solution will be incompatible with the next generation of devices.”