Harnessing the power of connected data

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Special Technology Report on Mobile Computing /Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC)

Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with leading spokespeople within the vendor and analyst community about current trends and developments within the automatic identification & data capture (AIDC)/mobile computing solutions space, including those related to modern supply chain challenges and omnichannel.

Currently, there are several exciting innovations in the mobile computing and advanced data capture space, augmenting front-line workers and automating processes. According to John Wyer, senior manager, enterprise mobile computing, EMEA, Zebra Technologies, this trend is creating a mixed approach that means people and processes benefit from the right sort of technology and collaboration, with better experiences for front-line workers and improved efficiencies and productivity for businesses. Wyer highlights things such as Wi-Fi 6 and 5G in the enterprise mobile computing space, and explains that Zebra Technologies recently launched a new rugged tablet with Wi-Fi 6 and 5G capabilities which increase bandwidth and capacity, allowing for greater throughput speeds and quicker response time, even when multiple devices are being used on the same network. 

In terms of the warehousing and logistics space, Wyer comments that mobile parcel dimensioning is proving a rising star, thanks to its ability to capture accurate parcel dimensions to streamline operations, improve load and space planning. “In Zebra Technologies’ recent Global Warehousing Vision Study, 90% of warehousing decision-makers plan to implement mobile dimensioning by 2027,” he explains. Continuing the theme of warehousing, Wyer adds that Zebra also launched the WS50 – what the company claims to be the world’s smallest enterprise-class wearable Android mobile computer, geared towards front-line worker ergonomic comfort and helping them work in ways that are faster and feel natural and seamless. Wyer also makes the point that there are new advances in scanning that mean a single barcode scanner can deliver near and far scanning – scanning something that’s 20 ft away or in your hand. 

Additionally, Wyer believes machine vision and fixed industrial scanning are becoming incredibly important. “Whether we are looking at the manufacturing of automotive parts or the packaging for pharmaceuticals, the labels on food and beverage products, or the barcodes on pallets and boxes, machine vision and fixed industrial scanning are creating simple, fast, and accurate compliance and accuracy checking that means front-line workers do not have to spend lots of time manually checking items on a conveyor belt. A solution that allows a warehouse or manufacturing operator to switch between scanning and machine vision on the same device using a single software platform, like Zebra’s Aurora software platform, is a game-changer. The platform also comes with valuable Deep Learning features for image augmentation, and ‘no code’ graphical interfaces that are opening up bespoke solutions for the non-specialist thanks to a simple drag and drop approach.” 

Wyer maintains there are several key drivers for change. First, technology R&D investment is creating new and enhanced solutions that meet the needs of today’s customers and helps them progress on their technology journey. Customers want the most appropriate technology solutions for their front-line workers and business needs, so everything must be geared towards this. 

Worker challenge

Other important drivers, according to Wyer, include the labour shortages experienced across regions and industries, meaning operators face a challenge to recruit, train, and retain workers. “Modern devices can act as a pull factor for new talent,” he says. “Our latest global Warehousing Vision Study asked the views of front-line workers, with 83% saying they would be more likely to work for an employer who gave them modern devices versus older or no devices, and 92% say technology advancement will make the warehousing environment more attractive to workers. Technology is also being used to address the labour gap, by automating more processes.” 

The rise of e-commerce 

Wyer highlight another driver as the rise of e-commerce. “It was a growing trend that accelerated when COVID-19 lockdowns arrived and drove even more people to shop online,” he says. “There are now even more orders to process and deliver, with fast and super-fast delivery, to multiple locations including business offices, homes, stores, and lockers. Some 80% of retailers say they are under pressure to offer a variety of delivery options and speeds, while shipping volumes have increased more than 20% on average, for both B2B and B2C orders since 2019, according to Zebra’s warehousing study.” 

In terms of the relationship between AIDC/mobile computer/RFID systems and back-office systems, Wyer believes there is a hunger for more and better streamlining and integration of processes and systems, which help create better workflows and more visibility. “It is important that warehouse management system (WMS) solutions include an industry-standard application programming interface (API) which is a software intermediary that allows two applications to talk to each other,” he says. “Operators should ensure that gaps can be filled between the transport management system (TMS) and the WMS to minimise the risk of business system and data silos.

We are also increasingly seeing technologies such as real-time location solutions (RTLS) and radio frequency identification (RFID) being implemented to complement the WMS and TMS and automate larger and more complex operations. The bigger picture is that more data is being created at the edge. One estimate says by 2025, 80% of data will be generated and processed at the edge, and only 20% in the cloud, so investing in data capture and devices at the edge is increasingly important.” 

Wyer adds that front-line workers, assets, and data need to be more connected, for an accurate, real-time view of what is happening in terms of inventory, warehouse and manufacturing operations and across the supply chain. He believes healthcare, food & beverage and pharmaceutical manufacturing are just three industries where traceability is particularly important. 

Benefit improvements for the user 

In Wyer’s view’ the benefits for users come down to more efficient and automated workflows and increased throughput thanks to fixed industrial scanners, machine vision cameras and the software platform they both run on. “Greater visibility of assets in the warehouse and across the supply chain is secured, thanks to asset tracking and locationing, and a reduction in costs and device loss thanks to device management applications,” he says. “Productivity, automation, cost efficiency, and worker comfort are top of mind for decision-makers and technology solutions are helping them get there.” Wyer adds that for front-line workers, the benefits are around worker comfort and ergonomics with wearable computers and scanners, and a greater sense of autonomy and insight over their workloads, thanks to mobile computers, task management software and walkie talkie functionality to keep them connected and up to date in real time. 

Enhanced protection around sensitive data 

Wyer believes enterprise scanning devices and mobile computers pose minimal security risk, but operators and their IT staff need the option of enhanced protection around sensitive data. “Look for devices that enable users to control how, when and where security updates take place,” he says. “It is essential to feel confident that that your devices, data capture and connected networks are always well-protected.” 

Convergence 

Wyer highlights the fact that we are hearing more about the orchestration of different technologies, “a bit like a symphony that brings together different types of instruments in a coordinated, harmonious way”. He adds that convergence seen between different types of systems thanks to APIs, and the sharing and processing of data at the edge and centrally is increasingly joined-up via cloud-based platforms. “At the device level, a mobile computer can bring together a range of features to augment front-line workers – task management, scanning, parcel dimensioning, text messages, voice calls and walkie-talkie, touch screen, Bluetooth, and can operate with point-of-sale cradles and RFID sleds.” 

Wyer makes the point that fixed industrial scanners and machine vision cameras are a good example of hardware and software converging to create a fast, accurate, automated workflow via a single software platform. “It is about breaking down data silos, and connecting front-line workers, data, and assets for more visible and streamlined workflows,” he says. Wyer is also seeing convergence at the level of thinking and practice between augmentation of front-line workers and automation. “It is not either/or, it is both/and,” he says. “Automating processes that people do not want or need to do frees up time for other tasks. Those other tasks done by people can also be done faster and more comfortably, by augmenting front-line workers with mobile computers that can perform several functions built into the device or via software apps. Zebra’s Warehouse Maturity Model demonstrates the gains customers can get through moving from single device use to more of a solution focus.” 

The power of Android

Philip Jarrett, commercial director, Dakota Integrated Solutions, makes the point that the form factors of today’s leading handheld data capture devices used in retail, warehousing, transportation, manufacturing and healthcare are now more ruggedised, lightweight and feature-rich than ever before. Additionally, in terms of operating system, he considers that Android has really made a major mark over the past few years. “This is understandable, as Android offers a host of benefits including impressively quick processing, a high level of security, substantial memory storage, high accuracy levels and increased productivity,” he says. “However, it is important to ensure that your solutions provider is proven to offer high levels of customer service and is there to support your needs whenever required. With this in mind, Dakota can assist companies in migrating to Android seamlessly and quickly.” 

In the world of retail, the growing e-commerce trend continues apace, with increasingly greater levels of individual parcels being delivered to the customer’s front door. “This is a quite different delivery model to the traditional method whereby pallets of bulk items would be delivered to the brick-and-mortar retail outlet where consumers would do most of their shopping,” reflects Jarrett. “The e-commerce trend has become even more powerful over the past couple of years due to COVID. So, there now exists an omnichannel delivery model, whereby warehouses need to be agile enough to deliver in bulk to store as well as delivering individual items directly to consumers. Therefore, the functionality of mobile data capture devices used in warehouses and DCs needs to be more agile than ever, with data from the back-office systems being transferred to the mobile devices quickly and seamlessly as order priorities change.”

As well as the traditional handheld devices used for this purpose, Jarrett makes the point that the market has seen major growth in the use of voice-directed picking and replenishment technology. He adds that the pandemic has also spurred greater cashless payments being made in the retail and hospitality space. “Therefore, there is now a greater demand for the types of mobile devices that make cashless payments as speedy, safe and seamless as possible,” he says. “For example, mobile POS systems are now far more commonplace within retail and hospitality; systems that can take orders at the dining table rather than at the traditional paying counter.” 

In the view of David Craggs, growth product manager, Newland, one current hot topic and trend is the combination of wearable computers and Bluetooth peripherals to capture barcodes while keeping the workforce as ‘hands-free’ as possible. “The early wave of wearable technology consisted mainly of high-cost and rather bulky wearable computers,” he explains. “Often, they still included keypads for the manual input. The common scanning solutions were mounted on the finger – sometimes two fingers – but the size and position of the scanning element remained awkward and only partially solved the problem of enabling the workforce to remain hands-free.” 

Craggs adds that when it came to manipulating scanned items, the ring part wasn’t ideal. “The amount of knocks and bumps it sustained over the life cycle made return rate and repair costs high while keeping the return-on-investment low,” he says. “Relatively few companies went in that direction, choosing to spend less and use PDAs or workstations instead. Now, however, with light, full-screen mobile computers, companies can add arm/wrist-mounted solutions to get a wearable personal computer at a fraction of the cost of former PDA models.”

The price factor

In the meantime, Craggs points out, smartwatch solutions have perforated into the public and demonstrated the power a personal device can give a consumer. “We now see the wearable personal computer make a comeback by creating additional screen real-estate in a watch type aesthetic,” he says. “The current price point for this technology makes a choice to go in that direction more palatable even to the companies and industries that previously shied away. The scanning technology was already getting smaller and had migrated from the fingers to the back of the hand. From there a low slimline profile of the scanner can completely free up the hands, while maintaining articulation in the fingers, to truly go hands-free in many more suitable applications.” 

In terms of drivers for change, Craggs considers that the changes were driven first by the increased demand for picking applications for home delivery, which carried some pressure on delivery times from customers and, as a result, increased the intensity of scanning in-store. “Logistically speaking, delivering items to end-users means that bulk-packed items are replaced by individual packages, often smaller, and packed closer to each other,” he says. “The size of the wearable solution then becomes a factor to handle smaller items after they have been scanned.” 

Another reason for these changes, according to Craggs, is a move to full touch screen devices and advancements in applications, including Terminal Emulation software, that allows interacting with SAP software. “Physical keyboards were removed and therefore the size of the wearable computer became smaller and lighter without losing its functionality,” he says. 

Bryan Ball, vice president, principal analyst supply chain management, Aberdeen Strategy & Research, makes the point that as far back as three years ago at the National Retail Federation (NRF) was the showcasing of drones circulating in the warehouse. “These drones can read and scan barcodes and cover virtually the whole warehouse, identifying items almost instantaneously,” he says. “Also, automated retrieval systems in warehouses are now quite commonplace, where the system can automatically pick products from the rack. However, there's no doubt that that mobile usage and adoption are current hot topics and usage levels continue to increase.”

Augmented efficiencies 

Within the world of warehousing, Ball maintains that mobile devices, together with the data they receive from the warehouse management system, continue to augment efficiencies in terms of picking and packing orders. “The mobile devices people use in warehouses can receive directions as to where to put things away and retrieve things. Also, their mobile devices can provide users with constantly updated schedules. What their schedule looked like half an hour ago may now be changed as new priorities come into play. So, that real-time information aspect is important in modern warehousing fulfilment in the age of omnichannel.” 

Ball reflects that warehouse operations and delivery-to-store operations had become largely well integrated, but then came the need for omnichannel delivery involving shipments to thousands of individual customers’ front door. “Whereas picking waves might traditionally have run every two or three hours, now it's about the ability to interleave new individual orders as they occur in order to make next-day or same-day delivery. Getting goods on the floor quickly and sending them to the consumer is now a priority.” 

In terms of the direct-to-consumer model, the experience at the delivery end has also become ever more important,” explains Ball. “Largely because of the pandemic, more consumers have been ordering online from home and data shows that they have learned new buying habits as a result and are not about to give them up.” So, believes Ball, the rules of engagement have shifted and now data capture regarding the consumer’s shopping experience and even experience of, and future preferred choice of, delivery firm remains quite a complex process but will increasingly become more critical. “For example, if a consumer orders something online and the online company’s own truck delivers the correct item to the consumer’s front porch within the specified timeline, then the consumer is likely to be happy with the shopping experience and want the same type of experience the next time. If, on the other hand, another company delivers the item but leaves it by the garage in inclement weather risking damage to the packaging and possibly the product, then the consumer is likely not to be so happy.”

More nuanced consumer requirements 

If the consumer is of the habit of posting online reviews this could be quite damaging for the company concerned. So, says Ball, for online companies and their delivery partners this type of feedback regarding preferred modes of delivery – and even a preferred delivery firm –on the part of the consumer can be very valuable and can help to ensure the consumer’s criteria is met on a regular basis. This can help to secure return business and even result in positive online reviews. “I think being able to capture data related to an individual’s personal user experience, and for it to be visible throughout the order fulfilment process, fully integrated over different systems and mobile devices, is going to become increasingly important,” he says, adding that consumers have become more discerning not only in terms of how quickly they want an item delivered, but in many cases by whom and in terms of where they want products left if they are not at home to take delivery of goods at the door. “Things are becoming even more nuanced,” says Ball, who adds that, on the part of delivery personnel, mobile devices continue to ensure they are able to confirm delivery, taking pictures of the item dropped off and with a precise time log to match. 

The power of data 

Zhiwei Jiang, CEO, insights & data global business line, Capgemini, reflects that today’s business environment is both more competitive and more volatile. “Traditional enterprises are constantly challenged by digital natives who have perfected the art of leveraging data-powered insights at scale, using their agility and data-powered intelligence to outperform their more ponderous competitors,” he says. “At the same time, disruption, and systemic shocks – including environmental, societal, and global-health issues – are intensifying in our connected world. Organisations are forced to look towards data – along with sophisticated analytics and smart technologies such as AI – to fine-tune their strategic and tactical responses. However, many are still far from achieving data mastery.”

Jiang explains that in a previous Capgemini study on data-powered enterprises, the company assessed around 1000 organisations across 10 sectors on their ability to derive value from growing volumes of data. “We found that only a small minority (16%) could be classed as high-performers – which we call ‘data masters’,” he says. “These were organisations that possessed the right ‘data foundations’ – the tools and technologies to utilise data effectively – and the right ‘data behaviours’ – the people, processes, skills and culture. We further found that these data masters outperformed their peers significantly on financial metrics such as profitability. 

In new Capgemini research, the company wanted to pinpoint what sets these data masters apart. Capgemini spoke with more than 50 executives from this group: 

  • Technical leaders in areas ranging from information security to AI and analytics
  • Functional leaders from HR to supply chain. Capgemini also spoke to executives at big tech firms and digital natives recognised for extracting valuable insights from data. 

4 best practices 

Jiang points out that based on this research, Capgemini identified 4 best practices:

Strategise

Create a data-driven strategy driven by the overall business goals 

  • Align your data strategy with the business strategy
  • Have a forward-looking data collection strategy

Entrust

Bridge the data trust gap 

  • Invest in trusted data availability
  • Establish guidelines for trusted AI
  • Focus on data democratisation

Modernise

Revamp your data landscape 

  • Prioritise value streams Decommission legacy in phases
  • Migrate to cloud and integrate multi-cloud Customise data-discovery tools as initiatives scale
  • Accelerate innovation with DataOps

Activate

Drive data-powered decision making and actioning 

  • Create a streamlined data organisation
  • Facilitate data-powered innovation across the value chain
  • Foster a data-powered culture across all levels of management

“Organisations clearly grasp the value of data, but only a few are able to make data work for them,” says Jiang. "These fortunate few – our data-powered enterprises or the data masters – enjoy a significant business advantage.” He adds that organisations wanting to emulate that advantage need to take a number of concrete steps: 

  1. Data strategy – The data masters have long since realised that business ownership of data transformation is a must-have. They work hard to establish a data strategy that is business-driven and owned. With that in place, they are then able to capitalize by the opportunities offered by combining both internal and external data.

  2. Data trust – the data trust gap is marked, and data masters take concrete steps in reducing this trust deficit. They focus strong data management capabilities and data quality to build the base trust foundations in the veracity of data. They then focus on trusted AI systems and ethics as well as democratisation of data.

  3. Modernisation of data estate – to ensure that the IT systems are able to support the increasing demand for data and analytics, data masters take a number of steps, including decommissioning legacy systems, migrating to multi-cloud environments, leveraging DataOps and developing customisable data-discovery tools.

  4. Activation – this is the final but the critical step in becoming a data master. Data masters are successful in building a data organisation that focuses on business priorities and is business driven. A governance model that supports this data organisation – coupled with a culture focusing on data-powered innovation – helps organisations get ahead of their peers.

“With concerted and bold action in these 4 areas, organisations can join the data masters,” says Jiang. “And, by joining the ranks of the high performers, they will be better placed to drive growth, meet fast-changing customer needs, manage risk, and get ahead of shifts and volatility in their business environment. Data promises infinite possibilities. Now, more than ever, organisations need to activate its full potential. To become a Data Master, you must be at the helm, ready to harness data in critical dimensions, to outperform cohorts on financial performance and make crucial decisions from a qualitative base. A Data Master is a high-performer who is able to harness the full suite of data capabilities across its organisation and ecosystem – turning insights into actions, and beyond. 

“Data Masters significantly outperform their peers, generating +70% higher revenue per employee and up to 22% higher profitability and lead in top-line benefits increasing sales of traditional or new products and services. Moreover, front-runners who are participating in data ecosystems have the potential to gain financial benefits up to US$940 million or over 9% of annual revenue over the next five years. There’s an ocean of business opportunities to create new intelligent experiences, products and services leveraging data from your ecosystem.” 

Continued growth of RFID

In terms of current key talking points and developments in the world of AIDC/mobile computing, David Krebs, executive vice president, enterprise mobility & the connected worker, VDC Research, homes in on the continued growth of RFID as an opening gambit. In particular, he cites the diversification of RFID use cases beyond apparel inventory management. “Big announcements by Walmart and UPS supporting RFID and opportunities across automotive, pharmaceuticals and other sectors are driving outsized demand for these solutions,” he says, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic, subsequent supply chain challenges and change in shopping behaviour straining existing systems are very much the catalysts here. 

Another key trend cited by Krebs is the growing demand for scanning to support – for example – serialisation efforts in pharmaceuticals. “Increasing parcel volumes is creating strain on workflows and driving organisations to increase investments in automation and/or explore alternatives to existing line-of-sight solutions,” he adds.

Investment in mobile frontline worker solutions is another current focus highlighted by Krebs. “With ongoing labour scarcity and increasing cost of labour, organisations are prioritising investments to empower workers, improve onboarding/training and provide modern tools to support workflows,” he says, adding that there is a growing role of HR to support frontline worker IT investments. Krebs also considers that supply chain/component sourcing challenges will remain during 2022 and result in approximately 8 to 10% of unfulfilled demand for core AIDC/rugged mobile computing solutions. 

Benefits for the user

Regarding the key benefits of this type of technology for end users, Krebs cites increased speed of operations, improved visibility and the ability to better keep up with demand. “These have been, and continue to be, the leading drivers, with potential industry-specific nuances,” he says. “What is changing are the tolerances.” 

Krebs adds that, while not a new topic, the shift in shopping behaviour is drawing renewed attention to more sustainable supply chain operations, with greater visibility into not only in terms of the most profitable fulfilment channels but also in terms of the most ‘emissions friendly’ based on basket size, etc. 

How apps will impact the hybrid employee experience 

According to Tori Paulman, research analyst, Gartner’s Digital Workplace, the pandemic fundamentally changed the workplace. “Organisations, rightfully so, made significant investments in technology to support the remote workplace,” he says. “Here we are at the peak of inflated expectations for hybrid; employees expect a hospitality-like experience with personalised flexibility, and organisations want to maximise in-person interactions. Application vendors are riding the wave by adding new features or positioning their product as the app that solves the challenges of hybrid. But the reality is that much about humans, including the way we work, is unstructured and unpredictable.” 

Paulman adds that many employees are returning to the workplace to find there’s an app for literally everything – 6 or more just to get to their desk. “We have seen a 250% increase in investments in workplace applications such as workspace booking and the markets for workplace experience applications like badging, lockers, health attestation, parking, employee communications, and even lunch, is in a significant growth phase. Not only are these apps proliferating across employee mobile devices, but they’re often secured with a wide variety of methods leading to frustration.” 

Paulman considers that technology has gone from the great enabler to the great inhibitor. His advice is not to worry too much about having an app for every foreseeable need. “Invest in key tactical applications you’ll need day 1, such as a method to ensure that workspaces are available on planned office days,” he says. “Then, spend the first 3 months of hybrid listening and measuring, how are employees using the space, what’s going well or not. Then prioritise the applications to make your hybrid great.” 

Make remote work more manageable, productive and engaging for employees and the organisation. In short:

Employees are now working remotely at least some of the time, and it’s imperative to evolve your workplace policies to accommodate this standard, according to Brian Kropp, distinguished vice president, research, Gartner. He believes there are ways to make the remote-work experience productive and engaging – for both employees and the organisation.

“At most organisations, scenario planning focuses on the necessary operational responses to ensure business continuity,” says Kropp. “Few of these plans address the ability or bandwidth of employees to focus on their work.” To provide employees with the support they need to navigate remote work and remain productive and engaged, Kropp suggests that companies start with these 9 prompts: 

No. 1: Look out for sign of distress in your employees

Use both direct conversations and indirect observations to get visibility into employees’ challenges and concerns. Use every opportunity to make clear to employees that you support and care for them. To facilitate regular conversations betweenmanagers and employees, provide managers with guidance on how best to broach sensitive subjects, including alternative work models, job security and prospects, impact on staffing and tension in the workplace.

No. 2: Equip teams with the right technology and tools

Make sure employees have the technology they need to be successful, which may be more than just a mobile phone and laptop. If you expect employees to attend virtual meetings, do they have adequate cameras? Even if you don’t have an extensive set of technology and collaboration tools available, you can equip employees to function effectively when remote. But don’t assume that people know how to operate with virtual communications – or are comfortable in that environment.

Acknowledge that virtual communications are different – and won’t be perfect – but should still be professional and respectful. Be mindful that they may be less comfortable and effective for some, and coach employees on when and how to escalate ineffective virtual exchanges. For example, if you haven’t settled an issue in six emails, the conversation may need to shift to a virtual meeting to get closure.

No. 3: Promote dialogue

Two-way dialogue between managers and employees ensures that communication efforts help, rather than hurt, engagement. Gartner research shows that employees’ understanding of organisations’ decisions and their implications during change is far more important for the success of a new initiative than employees ‘liking’ the change. Two-way communication provides employees with the information and perspective they need. It also enables them to express and process negative emotions and feel more in control. 

No. 4: Trust your employees

“The best thing you can do as a manager is to put utmost trust and confidence in your employees that they will do the right thing – which they will if employers provide a supportive structure,” says Kropp. Managers may be concerned and even frustrated about losing the constant visibility of their employees they once had, but don’t respond by micro-managing. That will only dis-engage and fatigue already stressed employees. Don’t fixate on perceived performance problems; lean on established performance management systems if need be.

No. 5: Reinforce organisational values

“Show employees that you plan to look out for them for the long haul,” says Kropp. Companies spend years building a set of values that describes how much they care about their employees, and how it's important for them to create great lives and experiences for them. Make sure to reinforce these values.

Also continue to model the right behaviours – and encourage employees to call out unethical conduct. During periods of uncertainty, employee misconduct increases by as much as 33%. Remind employees of the channels for reporting unacceptable behaviour and highlight punitive measures for noncompliance. This will promote work well-being – which has a huge impact on feelings of psychological safety.

No. 6: Use objectives to create clarity

Emphasise objectives over processes to create greater clarity for employees – and drive greater engagement levels. “One of the top engagement drivers for employees is seeing their work contribute to company goals,” comments Kropp. “Employees who feel confident about the importance of their job to the success of the organisation feel less anxious about their job security.”

No. 7: Focus on outputs, not processes

In the remote landscape, where many people are juggling work and family commitments in their own homes, enable employees to complete their work however is easiest and most productive for them. Your 9 a.m. team meeting may have to go or you may have to forgo a lengthy approval process. Schedule collaboration at a mutually agreeable time and lean on virtual tools wherever possible. Flexibility empowers teams to complete their assignments in their own way. “As a manager, you have to stop paying attention to the process and pay more attention to what things are getting done,” remarks Kropp. “Just talk to your team about what you want them to accomplish.” 

No. 8: Increase recognition

“During periods of disruption, employees' desire for recognition of their contribution increases by about 30%,” says Kropp. “Effective recognition motivates the recipient and serves as a strong signal to other employees of behaviours they should emulate. It doesn’t need to be monetary; consider public acknowledgment, tokens of appreciation, development opportunities and low-cost perks. Take this opportunity to provide development opportunities to employees who normally do not have capacity. 

“Given the lack of visibility in a remote environment, improve your monitoring techniques and relationships with direct reports. Use simple pulse surveys to ask specific questions or track output to collect data and find areas for recognition. By meeting with employees virtually and asking what barriers they have overcome or how their peers have helped them, you can identify elements to recognise and thank and share the accomplishments of teams and individuals.” 

No. 9: Encourage innovation

Innovation and risk-taking are important for employee engagement and organisational success, believes Kropp. “Even when an organisation has constraints on new investments, managers can emphasise the need and provide opportunities for incremental innovationor process improvements. Provide opportunities to share successes and safety for potential failures. Make an effort to highlight the value of employees’ continuing to scale their activities and ensure that any risks are worthwhile.” 

The market momentum in RFID

Dr Yu-Han Chang, technology analyst, IDTechEx, reflects that more than two years after the COVID-19 outbreak began, the world is still in the tunnel. However, despite the negative impact the pandemic has caused, Chang believes there are some positive sides. For example, she maintains it accelerates digitalisation. “Businesses are pushed to adopt technologies quicker to improve production as well as management efficiency,” says Chang.

A particular industry that has proved itself to be resilient during COVID-19 is RFID – the wireless technology that is used in a variety of businesses, from personnel identification, contactless card transactions, to tracking goods from retail apparel to manufacturing parts, etc. Chang points out that according to the IDTechEx market research report ‘RFID Forecasts, Players and Opportunities 2022-2032’, COVID-19 impacted the whole RFID business in 2020 – especially those that required physical on-site work. However, the market has rebounded very well since 2021, she explains.

Chang adds that for UHF RFID business in retail apparel and footwear tagging – the largest UHF RFID market by tag volume as well as market value – the market rebounded in the second half of 2020 and it has continued to grow strongly since. Several leading UHF RFID tag suppliers told IDTechEx that they expect this trend to continue for the foreseeable future, as more businesses will be in need to improve their inventory accuracy and business processes. 

“UHF RFID in the retail apparel and footwear tagging business proves itself to be very successful, and leading players are looking into bringing this success to other business sectors,” says Chang. Retail beyond apparel and footwear, food (ex: quick-service restaurant business), and supply chain & logistics are the three industries named most frequently by the companies IDTechEx interviewed. IDTechEx expects to see the retail sector in the UHF market continue to grow and dominate, with the retail apparel and footwear sector being the most dominant growth driver. Other industries, such as supply chain and logistics, are expected to expand in the coming years, says Chang. 

For HF/NFC business, contactless payment is still the dominant sector and will continue to be so in the mid-long term, according to the IDTechEx findings. In the long run, the largest market in the HF/NFC sector identified by IDTechEx is the NFC applications beyond payments using flexible ICs. “Currently, even though the HF/NFC beyond the payments sector is expanding, most applications in this sector are still relatively low volume deployments across numerous projects, such as Bluetooth pairing, gaming, information posters, and so on,” says Chang. 

Smart packaging is thought to be the application with the highest volume opportunity in this sector. However, explains Chang, the high cost of rigid ICs and lack of unique business cases are the two bottlenecks that hinder the strong growth. “New technologies, such as flexible integrated circuits may help to drive the price down in the longer term,” adds Chang. “IDTechEx continues to monitor the R&D development as well as the scaling opportunities of the company PragmatIC that is developing this technology.” 

Despite the RFID industry returning to growth since 2021, IDTechEx forecasts that the worldwide chip shortage challenge will persist during 2022 and possibly into 2023. Initially, the chip shortage crisis had little effect on the RFID industry. Many companies had stockpiled in anticipation of this crisis, which has aided larger RFID companies in meeting consumer demands. “However, as of Q4 2021, what the companies have experienced in some cases is that supply can fall short, and they have had to adjust their pricing to reflect this,” says Chang. 

UHF Tag Volume and Market Value by application in 2021. Source: IDTechEx – RFID Forecasts, Players and Opportunities 2022-2032.

Back-office dynamic

In terms of the relationship between AIDC/mobile computer systems and back-office systems, Jarrett considers that today’s leading back-office systems such as WMS, ERP etc are now much more compatible with mobile solutions and many are fully mobile enabled ‘out of the box.’ “This means that company personnel can now run their operations from almost any location globally by using the browser on their mobile device that is integrated to the back-office system,” he says. 2Of course, the constraints of legacy systems still exist within companies that fail to see the benefits of progression or aren’t willing to commit to the initial financial outlay. However, this is becoming less and less the case as more companies recognise the value of investing in modern mobile-compatible back-office systems. That said, Dakota can still provide new Android mobile equipment that can be used with old green screen technology if required.” 

Craggs maintains that, without a doubt, the most noticeable change is the evolution of Terminal Emulation software, like Velocity by Ivanti. “It allowed utilising full touchscreen mobile computers to have the same functionality previously only available to a device with an extensive physical keypad,” he says. Another change observed by Craggs is the advancement of barcode peripherals, which now have the functions to program the scan trigger to send different commands to the devices above and beyond the primary task of scanning a barcode.

Krebs is seeing more native mobile (Android) capabilities designed into leading enterprise applications – in particular WMS. For label printing, however, he is seeing more enterprise applications ‘default’ to leading label SW applications as opposed to native labelling capabilities. 

HF Tag Volume and Market Value by application in 2021. Source: IDTechEx – RFID Forecasts, Players and Opportunities 2022-2032.

The near future 

What of the next innovations or developments to look out for over the next year or two regarding the AIDC/mobile computing/RFID sphere? Krebs cites advances in vision systems and image recognition technology powered by ML which he maintains are challenging the self-checkout experience in many scenarios/applications. He adds that the next step of wireless evolution will be towards private LTE/5G and adoption of WiFi 6e. “We’re only beginning to see 5G traction/penetration with rugged mobile computing solutions, and the majority of existing applications can be satisfied with LTE,” he says. 

Ball believes the value of mobile devices in the field and within the warehouse etc will continue to flourish alongside automated retrieval systems and drone technology. With specific regard to drones, be believes they may play an increasingly important role not just within the warehouse but also potentially in terms of how goods are delivered to store or directly to the consumer. Drones, he believes, could deliver a package to a general repository or mini warehouse within a store where it is kept ready for collection by the consumer. 

Wyer thinks if we understand the market – Zebra’s latest Warehousing Vision study being a good example - and keep listening to our customers and partners, we will see that operators are going to innovate and mature their technology posture via adoption of the right technology solutions to automate processes and augment workers in the coming months and years. “That is where we will see development and innovation,” he says. “I think the labour shortage challenge, the demands of e-commerce, and the ongoing need for better productivity and worker satisfaction will continue to be key drivers of these developments.” 

Are there any remaining concerns regarding the use of AIDC/Mobile Computing solutions? Craggs makes the point that the overall cost of scanning equipment in the wearable sphere can still be averagely high compared with standard scanning with PDAs. “Companies like Newland have started redefining this,” he says. “We can see that the cost of ownership between traditional handheld PDAs and wearable solutions is beginning to equalise. This means that the choice of using a wearable scanning solution will soon have the cost as a determining factor.” 

Jarrett considers that with the emergence of voice technology platforms that are fully compatible with both iOS and Android, the future landscape for voice will become an even broader spectrum of use cases and applications that will no doubt deliver even further benefits and ROIs as we see currently within traditional supply chain applications. 

In terms of technology, Craggs believes the haptic responses in wearables can evolve not only to include feedback to the user but also so the user’s hand movements can be tracked and used by the device to send commands back to the applications on the mobile computers running them. As an example, Craggs points out that a hand swipe to the left or right could move the application to the next screen or field within a program. Another possible development highlighted by Craggs is due to the evolving expectations of IT equipment having a shorter life cycle, which means that HaaS (Hardware as a Service) is fast becoming a topic among vendors. 

Craggs adds that, in his view, the current advancements in AIDC technology are largely dictated by the decision-makers within the organisation. “They, in turn, are being influenced heavily by their own personal relationship with IT technology, which is applied to their choices of new devices or updates in current devices in their companies,” he says. “The way it influences the style, feel and aesthetics of technology is a good thing for companies producing AIDC devices. However, I think, that the expectations and acceptance for new technology to have a shorter life span are not good for the AIDC manufacturers. It rolls back to the emerging trend of switching the business model from traditional manufacturing & distribution to the HaaS model instead.” 

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