In the June 2014 Issue of Manufacturing & Logistics IT magazine, editor Ed Holden spoke with a number of leading vendors, analysts, systems integrators and distributors about current issues, developments and possible future trends in the world of auto-ID and mobile computing technology.
The world of auto-ID and mobile computing has changed considerably in recent times, not least with regard to the choice of operating system. Johan Hed, product manager at Handheld Group, has lately seen an increase of Android-based applications on the market. However, he maintains that for the immediate future, over the next year or two, Windows and Windows Mobile will still remain dominant. "As a result of Windows 8 and Android we can see a trend and desire to control computers in the same way as consumer products; that is, through capacitive touchscreen technology," he added. "Resistive touch technology will however remain an important technique in humid and rainy environments due to challenges offered by the combination of capacitive touch and water."
Tony Hampson, managing director at BEC (Systems Integration), agrees with Hed to the extent that one key area of change is Android's increasing prevalence in the auto-ID space. "Increasingly it is becoming the platform of choice for a lot of users within a mobile computing arena," he said. "If you look at it from a people perspective the younger generation is growing up with Android now, so increasingly for the workforce within the supply chain those types of devices are second nature to them.
We are seeing more of our customers enquiring whether we can provide support for Android platforms." Hampson believes an increasing number of people are more intuitively aligned to Android as opposed to Windows-type systems now, and he thinks the popularity of Android is forcing manufacturers to offer it as an alternative. "Three years ago there wasn't really on alternative, but there has been a big groundswell of popularity there now so certainly Android is driving change," he remarked.
Hampson is also seeing changes for NFC (near field communication). "Now it's not just traditional barcodes or RFID; NFC is coming into the frame little bit more now," he said. "There isn't an established application for it just yet in the warehousing environment but I think people are hedging their bets and looking at dual technologies from a future proofing point of view."
Additionally, Hampson has his finger on the pulse of the ongoing BYOD debate, although he doesn't consider it to be too big an issue within the manufacturing and warehousing arena. "A small number of our customers have talked about it, but we don't dwell on it too much because I think consumer-grade devices are normally just not durable enough in the manufacturing and warehouse environment; so we wouldn't recommend it in the industry sectors where we tend to operate," he said. "Rugged handhelds may be more expensive than consumer devices, but these days most providers of industrial-grade devices are offering three-year contracts, so our customers know the fixed prices from day one.
They buy their handheld computer and it comes with a support package that includes abuse cover; so your costs are fixed and you have no surprises for three years. Consumer-grade devices could have problems in the warehouse environment in terms of breakages and damage, so I can't see many employees wanting to use their own device in that kind of environment. It's not really an applicable technology for use inside the four walls."
Eric de Greef; product marketing manager Mobility EMEIA, Honeywell Scanning & Mobility, believes smartphones from the consumer space have been influencing the role of enterprise mobile devices. "Honeywell Scanning & Mobility has noticed that smartphone culture and 'Bring your own Device' (BYOD) has now influenced the development of devices in the AIDC industry," he said. "A few examples are full touch screen devices, no more physical keypads or Android operating systems entering our space."
Another evolution, according to de Greef, is 2D for reading barcodes with a dedicated imager rather than what he describes as the 'less user-friendly camera', also allowing capturing barcodes from smart phones. From the software side, de Greef has witnessed the growing interest and deployment of remote device management software.
In terms of what has driven these developments, de Greef's view is that the younger generation is so used to using smartphones that the market is clearly seeing a trend towards a device without a keypad, something which is pocketable, no longer 500 grams, but below 200 grams. "Some companies want something they can put in their pockets with more capacity in radio transmission, maybe also the ability to make a movie or colour pictures that can be sent back to base," he said. "Let's say the smartphone is entering into our world, into our traditional automatic identification and data capture world. We see a trend where customers want to have the smartphone-like user experience that is combined with rugged form factor and all the necessary pre-requisites such as long battery life, ability to connect with back-office platforms."
In terms of mobile network, de Greef makes the point that full 3G is now the minimum for communication in order to allow fast and accurate data transfer and voice communication. He added that even LTE or 4G is now considered allowing even video streaming. "The open platforms allow end users to access Google Mobile Services and download eventually some useful applications," he said.
Richa Gupta, senior analyst, AutoID & Data Capture at VDC Research, makes the point that there is a marked shift in scanning technology adoption in the barcode scanner marketplace – from laser scanners to camera-based imaging solutions. "The value imaging solutions offer, beyond just reading barcodes, particularly seems to resonate with enterprises that have customer-facing applications and those that need to scan different types of codes," she said.
Within manufacturing today, in addition to discussing social media, mobility, Big Data and the Cloud, Daniel Dombach, director of the EIA industry solutions group at Motorola Solutions, observes there is a clear trend towards embracing Industry 4.0; a high-tech strategy that promotes the computerisation of the industry. "The goal is to have better visibility of every tool and mobile device and every element in every machine used within the factory or warehouse environment," he explained, adding: "This sounds like a great concept, but so far we have yet to see any large scale implementations.
When we talk to manufacturers one of the key areas they feel they should invest in is asset management in order to better understand their tools, machines and vehicles – to know where and what state they are in at any given time. Of course, unplanned downtime can be extremely costly in the manufacturing environment. If a company has better visibility of its assets it can better safeguard itself against unpredicted events."
In terms of warehousing, Dombach believes there is a desire for many companies to make a transition, as warehousing becomes a cost factor. However, he explains that making intelligent use of your warehouse through mobility helps create an opportunity to differentiate yourself in the market and delivers a competitive advantage. "By using mobility solutions in an effective way you can move your warehouse away from being a cost centre to becoming a more positive and profitable business centre for the business," said Dombach.
Mobility is on the agenda of every CIO, plant and logistics manager. Dombach points out that the expectation is to have better visibility of what is going on in the manufacturing/warehouse environment.
In his view, the questions to ask are; do I really know my inventory in real time? Do I really understand what is happening on my production lines at any given moment? Do I really know where the workers are and what they are doing? "We believe the objective of mobile technology is to help solve these questions," he said, adding: "Do I know my inventory? Do I know what is coming into the warehouse? Do I know where things are in the warehouse? There is a clear need to capture information related to items coming into the warehouse using technology such as 1-D and 2-D barcode data capture devices. We currently see quite a steep adoption curve of RFID, though not so much at item level and not on lower cost goods."
Dombach adds that capturing information through the use of cameras on mobile devices is also important in order to maintain a visual record of the condition of a product. "For example, certain goods might be damaged when they are delivered to site. You can take a picture with a mobile computer to document the damage and create a report. All these solutions provide an opportunity to fill in forms with additional data providing better overall quality of information."
Mike Pullon, CEO of distributor Varlink, reflects that here are things current happening in the AIDC space that many observers didn't necessarily see coming a few years ago. "Proprietary operating systems or a proprietary approach to terminal programming was definitely on the wane, and open systems – particularly in the form of Windows – meant that everybody was now moving towards the same core skills and you saw a common approach from manufacturers.
So I wouldn't say all products are the same but essentially you could move from one platform to another. However what I think we're seeing now is almost a three-way bet taking place. Microsoft is clearly the incumbent, Apple to some degree is the thing that people aspire to have and Android has been very quietly building up a massive user base. So if you look at hardware instead of that consolidation around core principles and core ideas what we now have is manufacturers having to have a three-way approach to product development."
And Pullon doesn't think that is any clearer in the world of mobile printing and companion scanning. "Instead of being able to consolidate we now see some of the core manufacturers having to work hard on having SDKs developed, available, robust and working to enable people to hook up printers to an operating system platform of their choice," he said. "And scanner manufacturers have to become quite inventive and creative in producing companion scanners which deliver the same sort of productivity gains that traditional barcode scanners plugged into a terminal would give, but aimed at a completely different customer base whether it's in retail, distribution, manufacturing or any sort of automation environment.
I'm not sure that prior to the advent of the iPad and prior to the proliferation of installations involving Android devices I don't think we were particularly seeing that trend. So that's been a kind of sea change and one that we have to adapt to in terms of the number of items we keep in stock."
Pullon adds that the core ideas behind the Internet of things (IOT) have been talked about for several years, but he now believes it has actually become mainstream. "If you look at Twitter every day there's a constant stream of messaging from vendors on the IOT and what it's going to do; from control of assets to maximisation of uptime for all sorts of productivity gains," he said. Are we seeing massive adoption of IOT? "The interesting thing is I don't think we know for sure," considered Pullon. "This is because once the machine is on the network and gets an IP address, and if someone wants to harness that power it's there.
Yes there are some configuration tools that some companies have been selling for network control for some years that we didn't see a massive uptake on, but IOT doesn't even require a manufacturer's involvement with the tools necessarily. A good systems engineer in a company with a focus on uptime could be implementing an IOT strategy without necessarily the manufacturers, distributors or even the resellers being aware of it. And it's going to be interesting to see how vendors and their partners can add value to their solutions sale when actually a lot of the power is now in the hands of the end user."
Dombach explains that another important thing is to have connectivity to a back-office system. In the warehouse it will likely be the warehouse management system (WMS), and on the manufacturing shop floor it will likely be the manufacturing execution system (MES) or ERP system. "This necessitates a network infrastructure to which the devices connect via wireless LAN," he pointed out. "The important thing is that you have connectivity and visibility. If you are scanning items that come from trucks into the warehouse you must ensure, ideally in real-time, that you can send that information into the WMS.
What is in the warehouse needs to be recorded in the WMS and what is recorded in the WMS must be in the warehouse. You need to be able to find it. If you have a broken link, then you could have dead inventory, which is costly because you will not be able to sell it. Because the key phrase here is real-time, the connectivity of the mobile device to the backend system is critical."
With regard to customer relationship management (CRM), Dombach explains that service technicians dealing with customers out in the field need to be able to quickly check whether a customer has an order history with the company, or a maintenance history for the device being repaired. "Technicians might be picking up a job started by the service engineer the previous day, so they will need to know what tasks have already been performed," he said. "Are there frequently recurring errors in the field, or a quality problem on the production line which needs to be rectified? Connectivity can really help complete such jobs better and faster, which helps to meet and improve profit margins."
Hampson considers there is now a lot more focus on management reporting or KPIs (key performance indicators). "Being able to access that sort of information remotely is where the changes are," he said. "If you look at the basic transactions that take place in the warehouse – goods receiving, put-away, goods receiving, picking etc. – that hasn't really changed because there is a limited number of ways you can move product around through the supply chain.
However, what is changing is the emphasis on presenting this information in the form of management reporting dashboards, and being able to remotely monitor that whilst you may not be actually in the warehouse. Today, the warehouse manager can review the dashboards and statistics anywhere in the world and know exactly what's going on within the four walls, even though he's not there himself. Technology is enabling that through 3G and 4G providing much faster connections."
Hampson added that, in the past, KPI information was there but it was less visible and only a small number of people had access to it. "However, these KPIs are now instantly available to a much wider community; with display boards and technology throughout the warehouse," he pointed out. "We're seeing more and more big screen display TVs in the warehouse environment, with the dashboards that anyone can see rather than being the preserve of an individual or a privileged group of people. From the operator's point of view, there is nothing to hide behind; your statistics are on the screen for everyone to see along with the statistics of your co-workers. Basically, this technology provides greater visibility and, as a result, can provide a company with competitive edge as well."
Gupta considers that consumerisation of IT is the biggest driver for growing imaging technology adoption in support of data capture applications. "The need for enterprises to future-proof their technology investments, capture images, decode the wealth of information locked in different barcode symbologies today and facilitate a broad range of applications beyond traditional track-and-trace are driving VDC's predictions for continued interest and investments in these multi-faceted solutions," she said.
Pullon makes the point that seamless communication with back office systems has been desirable for many years. "It was something that was clearly an identified need where there were a number of standalone mobile solutions that could be integrated but required somebody with a specialist skill to do the integration," he said. "I know of a number of resellers that had tremendous opportunities but didn't have those integration skills within their own businesses and therefore had to go out and forge alliances and allegiances to get the job done. If you look at some of the early starters of mobile solutions they recognised really early on that that integration was necessary and I think there are certainly a number of largish organisations that are going through their second wave of investment who could now offer a fully integrated solution on a pay per month tariff that probably meets the needs of most end-users.
I think the people that still need help from external sources would tend to be those who have an occasional opportunity to sell that type of technology. And because they might have an opportunity to sell it over many different application areas they haven't seen enough business in one particular area to create a solution that they are really comfortable integrating themselves. But I think that's always going to be the case in a business that is populated by a large number of start-ups and entrepreneurial companies."
Pullon adds that there are quite a few start-ups in the previously used or second user market. "A lot of companies start by offering servicing, refreshing and equipment rental. Then they start selling new equipment and then have the opportunity to sell some systems but need to put together an alliance to do that. After a while they realise there's a rich vein of business that they have become involved in. The next thing is they need those integration skills and maybe look to get their application ready to go to the Cloud. So I think some of the early difficulties have worked their way through as the opportunities become more mature, and there are a large number of integrators out there that are joining up the mobile solution to the internal system seamlessly. I'm not sure it's an issue any more as long as you choose your reseller and integrator carefully."
In de Greef's view, the industry may continue to be talking about the Cloud, but this is still in terms of a project-based status. "Of course, the industrial end user still needs the strong connection with back-office platforms and the above mentioned software tools will stay around and supported by global and major players," he said.
Are there any notable remaining concerns regarding the use of AIDC/Mobile Computing/RFID systems? Gupta believes the overarching concern with investments in, and use of, traditional data capture devices is potential obsolescence; particularly with many viable consumer-grade device alternatives flooding the marketplace. She adds that a growing number of enterprises, across tier levels, are today considering investments in consumer devices for everyday operations.
Dombach reflects that there was a time recently when bring your own device (BYOD) was a big story, and there remains an ongoing debate as to whether non-ruggedised consumer-grade devices could be effectively used in the industrial environment. "Some people will say the initial cost of purchase of a consumer-grade device is cheaper," he said. "However industrial companies would not normally purchase devices to operate for a year or 18 months; the usual life-cycle is three to five or more years. If you add up all the 'soft costs,' such as insurance, the replacement costs and then compare consumer grade devices and ruggedised devices, ruggedised devices offer a much better total cost of ownership over a three to five year lifespan."
Motorola Solutions also sees that there is currently a strong growth in demand for mobile devices with an Android operating system. "Users are used to dealing with these devices – they have their own mobile phones at home and there is a strong desire from the end-user to work with technology that they are familiar with," said Dombach. "So the switch in the enterprise environment from a Windows Mobile or Windows CE environment to an Android environment is a big discussion point at the moment."
What do our commentators think about the trend for technology 'Convergence' within the AIDC/Mobile Computing marketplace at the moment? Gupta reflects that, from a mobile computing perspective, convergence is a key trend that is very beneficial for the end user community, although perhaps not so much for technology vendors. "This helps organisations focus their technology budgets on specific devices that serve their application requirements as opposed to having to invest in disparate technologies that need to then be made to communicate with each other via Bluetooth or other wireless connectivity options, snowballing into an integration nightmare in a lot of cases," she said.
"At the very least," continued Gupta, "ensuring that the more 'basic' app requirements are addressed by a single device makes a seamless enterprise-wide communication experience entirely possible."
From the industrial scanning perspective, Gupta considers that data capture solutions (including industrial barcode scanners and machine vision systems) are increasingly being integrated with the broader factory and logistics automation infrastructure. "These serve a specific function as part of the larger solution set. This helps users eliminate operational redundancies while also enhancing overall efficiencies," she said.
de Greef reiterated that smartphone culture and the BYOD trend has now influenced the development of devices in the AIDC industry. However, he adds that the market needs to be careful about going too far down the BYOD path. In his view, with possible security issues and open access to applications, BYOD could become an issue for the IT-department. Additionally, de Greef stressed the importance for mobile workers of using devices that offer long battery life and rugged form factor, something that, again, the BYOD model can fail to deliver.
Eye on the future
And what might be the next key developments to look out for over the next year or two within the AIDC/Mobile Computing/RFID marketplace? Hed sees a trend towards more connected devices, and not only in terms of UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, the third generation mobile cellular system for networks based on the GSM standard) but also the LTE (Long-Term Evolution, commonly marketed as 4G LTE) mobile phone standard. These, he believes, will be standard for products in the nearest future. Additionally Hed considers we will see more power-efficient devices, which means longer operating time alternatively lighter devices while maintaining uptime.
Gupta points out that VDC expects growing convergence between the AIDC and factory automation worlds in the coming future, particularly with regards to camera-based solutions. "With fixed-position imager use almost mimicking the application capabilities of traditional machine vision systems, expect manufacturing enterprises to leverage these technologies for quality assurance and control, surface inspection, and defect elimination in the production line," she said, adding: "Continued innovation and application development centred on camera-based imaging technology will make one-for-all imagers a popular investment option."
Hampson believes that in the area of barcode scanning there is definitely a move towards 2D scan technologies. "That's definitely happening now," he said. "We sell a lot more image-based hardware than traditional laser-based solutions."
In terms of mobile devices, Pullon thinks there is now recognition among the established manufacturers of handheld terminals that they will need to be even more innovative and more cost-effective than perhaps they have been in the past. "It isn't enough any more to say commercial devices are robust," he said. "The ongoing discussions are now very much to do with the balance of power in that handheld space – does it reside with some of the consumer-grade device manufacturers or is there a way that the power balance within the commercial sectors could reside with the specialists we deal with that offer industrial-grade devices? So we're seeing ongoing developments in form factors and ergonomics etc. in a way that has been absent for some time to try and get the reseller community really galvanised. This process will continue for some time."
Dombach reiterates that Industry 4.0 remains the big topic for the moment. "From there you have a very short step to the Internet of Things," he said. "So we will continue to see development there not super-fast, but we are starting to see retail, especially fashion retail, picking up on this."
In manufacturing and warehousing, Dombach believes there will be noticeable improvements in the level of automation in warehouses. "Over the next two or three years the warehouse environment will see the adoption of visual aids to help workers perform certain tasks," he said. "For example, prototypes of computer glasses are running in various countries. With these it becomes possible to share more information with the worker in more convenient ways, saving even more time while improving picking accuracy. However, alongside this, the level of Voice-directed picking deployments will continue to rise."
Dombach believes we will also see more automation in terms of robotics in warehouses where applicable. He adds that workforce management in manufacturing will grow as well, as more companies try to optimise production by moving away from producing out of inventory and moving more towards actual demand. "It is really important to optimise your workforce and have technology in place that enables you to know the capabilities of particular workers and how they could be best utilised at any given time," he said, adding that this also takes us into the area of Six Sigma.
"When looking at waste we usually talk about the seven wastes that make up unprofitable activity within a company: defects; overproduction; waiting; inventory; motion and processing and transportation," he said. "But we now need to add another waste to this list, based around capturing all the data from all the manufacturing machines and RFID chips in a way that ensures the most effective type of Business Intelligence and Analytics functionality is used to provide people with the right amount and type of data needed to derive valuable benefit."
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