Special Technology Report – AIDC/Mobile Computing


The data factor

Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke to a number of experts from the vendor and analyst communities about recent developments in the world of automatic identification & data capture and mobile computing technologies – including those concerning integration, security and technology convergence.

The contributors also reflect on some of the key drivers for these developments, and consider what AIDC/mobile computer solution users can likely look forward to in the not too distant future.

To kick-off this in-depth discussion regarding some of the current key talking points and/or innovations/developments related to AIDC/mobile computing, Richa Gupta, director, autoID & data capture, VDC Research, observes that the explosion in e-commerce sales volumes has retailers and service providers scrambling to get their technology infrastructure up to date in order to enable greater supply chain visibility and seamless communication across a broad array of connected devices. She cites several factors that are impacting warehouse operations and subsequent investments in AutoID solutions, including:

  1. Omni-channel retailing pressures.
  2. E-commerce sales spike and the need for item level fulfilment.
  3. Escalating labour costs.
  4. Migration from laser scanners to camera-based imagers for barcode data capture and QA/QC.
  5. Growing interest in wearables for hands-free operation.

"Big Data – defined simply as extremely large datasets that can be analysed to reveal patterns, trends, and associations – is a topic generating significant interest among AIDC industry veterans," said Gupta. "It is gaining significance in the modern connected world as the collection of 'non-traditional' data increases; information vital to accurate business decision-making can be found not only in transactional data collection methods but even more so via scanners, imagers, machine vision systems, and disparate sensing technologies.

AutoID solutions represent the front end supporting many Big Data initiatives. From managing stock levels and tracking customer behaviour in retail to monitoring supply chain wellness in perishable item distribution and identifying patterns to enhance manufacturing efficiencies and yield, leveraging AIDC technologies enables workers to undertake sophisticated statistical analysis and data assessments."

Expanded use

Tim Zimmerman, research VP, Gartner, reflects that, in today's environment, gathering location or access information about key personnel, crucial physical assets or inventory counts is critical to making business decisions across many organisations. "We have historically seen RFID deployed in the supply chain for inventory tracking; however, IT organisations are expanding the uses of RFID for access to buildings, as well as to track crucial assets in the data centre, hospitals and libraries," he said.

Although there is no horizontal hardware vendor for all RFID technologies, Zimmerman points out that some of the most successful organisation-wide RFID deployments, particularly in aerospace and healthcare, consist of multiple frequencies. Zimmerman explains that to operate properly, RFID solutions may also require one or multiple readers, where the information from the tag is communicated to the reader via one or more antennas, then communicated upstream across the network infrastructure to an application.

Jon Hall, chief operating officer, TouchStar, believes the most exciting concept that has been introduced recently has to be the 'Wide Area Warehouse'. "It has the potential to take the 'Elastic Warehouse' idea – whereby a warehouse operation can rapidly grow or shrink according to demand – and apply it to the entire supply chain," he explained. "It always surprises me when so much effort is put into monitoring what is inside the four walls of a warehouse; that visibility is all but lost once a product leaves for the next stage of the chain. Visibility is such a key aspect of the supply chain that I often think of the delivery vehicle as a location that must be managed as a warehouse would be."

Hall added that understanding stock levels as well as movement increases the ability to maximise an operation. "The Wide Area Warehouse idea will undoubtedly help organisations to stay lean, competitive and better meet customer expectation," he said.

On a smaller scale – but no less important in terms of its impact – Hall maintains that advancements in imager technology are shaking up the industry. "The latest breed of imager devices are able to compete directly with laser scanners in terms of speed and accuracy, but also offer the benefit of being able to read 2D barcodes," he explained. "This is a key development, as 2D barcodes have to conform to worldwide standards, so imager devices are becoming an enabler of greater collaboration and the sharing of data."

Hall continued: "We all know that trying to link the databases of contrasting systems can be time consuming and costly. Imager devices offer an alternative as shipment data can be stored locally but then updated throughout its journey to its destination. The ability to update databases on the move has also been improved. For example, HTML 5 has been developed to perform many functions usually taken by native applications running on a mobile terminal. Users can now work offline, safe in the knowledge that data will be synchronised when a connection is re-established."

Adam Boyce, manager of IT strategy, Panorama Consulting, points out that the barcode remains popular for tracking and resource management such as inventory position and manufacturing progression. OCR (optical character recognition) is increasing as the recognition technology improves," he said. "Early adoption was tough as the accuracy was not always the best at identifying characters.

Boyce added that RFID deployment is also increasing, especially for areas where general proximity is preferred, or line of sight scanning is not feasible. Boyce also explained that biometrics such as fingerprinting and facial recognition tend to be employed for security usually as an additional layer. "There are still questions around the legitimacy of some these systems and if they can be 'fooled'," he said. "Smart cards can also be deployed for security such as in government areas where users are able to store their credentials in multiple formats on a single card."

Rugged advantage

Justine Clark, industry marketing manager – transport and logistics Europe, Honeywell Sensing and Productivity Solutions, pointed out that, while some companies are testing smartphones and other commercial-grade devices, they are proving to lack the ruggedness to consistently perform optimally in the field environment. In addition, she maintains that whilst appearing initially to be a lower capital investment, they fail to deliver key attributes that an enterprise requires; such as stability of operating system version, advanced security, an extensive range of accessories and battery management.

Clark believes the best option for optimal performance and workflow efficiency and lowest total cost of ownership are still the rugged, purpose-built devices. She explains that these include both handheld and vehicle-mounted mobile computers, wearables utilising mobile computers and Bluetooth ring scanners, wearables utilising Voice technology and sleds that enhance commercial devices to perform more like rugged devices.

Clark adds that the appeal of the smartphone in terms of ease of use and reduced training time for the end user, due to a familiar user interface, is influencing the design of new rugged devices, however. She continued: "There is a trend towards lighter devices with larger touchscreens, as well as an increasing adoption of Android as an alternative to Windows operating system. Increasingly, these devices are being used for more than just traditional barcode scanning. With advances in scan engine technology, enterprises are able to extend their use to scan not just the barcode, but the document around it, and use capabilities such as OCR to capture more data. This also allows companies to explore new revenue opportunities, such as parcel delivery companies also performing meter readings; as the Internet of Things (IoT) expands, this trend will grow exponentially."

Daniel Dombach, EMEA director for industry solutions, Zebra Technologies, believes we are in the midst of a new technology revolution that was initially described in Germany as Industry 4.0. He explains that the name points to the potential offered by a range of converging technologies to transform the way we collect, analyse and share data to provide real-time visibility into every corner of an organisation. Dombach believes this Enterprise Asset Intelligence (EAI) promises to improve a huge range of operations – from enhancing the way production lines are planned, monitored and run, to transforming the performance of vehicle fleets, to making a major leap forward in the efficiency and productivity of warehouses.

Dombach continues: "While many technologies play a lead role in Industry 4.0, the Internet of Things and mobile computing are key components:

  • "The Internet of Things: Smart sensors and tags, such as RFID and barcode labels, can be attached to objects – from machines, to people, to vehicles, to parcels, to pallets and many, many more. The tags give items a digital voice that streams data over the Internet to provide informative dialogue about the day-to-day operations of the business. For example, a logistics company can use smart sensors to continually determine the temperature, status and health of the assets it's carrying. The intelligence collected from operations can be used in three ways. First to sense what's going on in a business; second to analyse that data; and third, to act upon it. Critically, with faster and ubiquitous Wi-Fi and 4G networks, on-tap computing power in the Cloud and improved data analytics, the time between data being captured and presented in useful ways for people – or machines – to make decisions on it is closing. In fact, in many instances, it happens in real time, allowing organisations to move faster, become more agile and take better decisions. What's more, with Big Data systems continually crunching real-time data, the analysis will uncover new ways to continually improve performance.

  • "Powerful, intuitive devices: Mobile devices used in logistics and manufacturing are changing as the best innovations from the consumer space are adapted for the enterprise. A good example of an all-new device that offers a highly intuitive interface is Zebra's TC8000 mobile computer. It's built around a new form factor, moving away from the traditional gun design by placing a 4-inch high-resolution WVGA screen on top of the handle. The main benefit of this is that the user no longer needs to tilt the device to read the screen after each scan: they simply pull the trigger. And, with its consumer-style all-touch operation, many key applications that previously required multiple button presses need just one or two taps on the screen. Pilot customers, such as DHL Supply Chain, have seen productivity improve by up to 20 per cent per operative.

"The TC8000 is compatible with Zebra's All-Touch Terminal Emulation software. This uses the increased processing power on devices to replace the legacy green-screen, and its multiple menus and key presses, with a simple and easy-to-use graphical menu built around Android. Teams using Android devices require less training and they more readily embrace the technology as it helps them work in more natural and intuitive ways.

"Zebra is also investing heavily in wearables. We see this as one of the next big trends in end-user computing in manufacturing and logistics. Wearables promise to improve productivity and lower error rates by presenting information to operatives in more natural and easier-to-digest ways."

Andrew Briggs, technical director, BEC, also homed-in on the benefits of the new Zebra TC8000. "This innovative product is right in our sweet spot in terms of vertical alignment, i.e. warehousing & manufacturing, with its tough form factor and rugged, tilted screen etc.," he said. "There's also a lot of discussion around Android – this is bringing the price of devices down, as customers are not paying for a Windows licence on a mobile device so the purchase price is cheaper."

The importance of design

James Morley-Smith, director of user experience, Zebra Technologies, pointed to the importance of design: "Teams working on production floors or in the warehouse have very different requirements to the average iPhone user. The environment itself presents what we call Situational Disabilities that inhibit decision making. For instance, it's likely to be noisy, there will be a lot of movement – such as forklifts, people and in-coming vehicles – the light could be dim, and it may well be very cold. Operators may also be wearing bulky clothing and gloves. It's our responsibility to produce devices that thrive in this environment and that intuitively provide simple accessibility to smart and dedicated features to help users easily see, hear and share the critical information they need to get their jobs done."

Nandini Bhattacharya, senior research analyst – auto identification and data capture, Frost & Sullivan, believes there is greater visibility in retail, manufacturing, logistics, and healthcare. "Assets can be tracked and condition monitored round the clock; moreover, this happens at closer proximity, and located with high accuracy," she said. Bhattacharya added there are various emerging applications such as advertising in retail, studying customer behaviour, health monitoring of livestock, analysing the techniques and activities of athletes or sportspersons, remote patient monitoring, hand hygiene, and many more.

Bhattacharya also made the point that due to growth of Cloud computing and the increased use of smartphones, information is now available anytime anywhere for users. Additionally, Bhattacharya points to the growth of software as a service (SaaS) models for radio-frequency identification RFID software. "A lot more protocols and combination of multiple protocols are being used today apart from just active and passive RFID for real-time monitoring," she said. "For real-time location system (RTLS) solutions, Ultra-Wide Band, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is increasingly becoming popular for indoor location applications."

Tim Thompson, head of sales UK/Nordics & Benelux and strategic partner development Europe, Denso, points out that the traditional rugged AIDC market has been impacted by the consumer mobile devices market and the ability for enterprise businesses to utilise web-based applications. He explains that AIDC companies have therefore had to be more innovative in their design and usability of devices. In Thompson's view, key developments are:

  • "Devices are still rugged however the ergonomics are much more akin to smart phone devices and include full touch screens, integrated scanning and a full suite of communication capability – Wi-Fi, 4G, VOIP.

  • "Android is now becoming a popular operating system but security and challenges around system updates remains a concern.

  • "RFID reading capability is becoming more widespread as the need for greater efficiencies impacts businesses.

  • "Multifunction devices – e.g combined barcode scanning and NFC read capability – help reduced costs, improve performance and reduce device management challenges."

2D imaging

Mike Doyle, country manager UK&I, Datalogic, points out that imaging is the main area where he is seeing continued evolution and great potential to help end users maximise productivity within the supply chain. "2D barcodes have been widely adopted in the retail sector, particularly with the rapid emergence of mobile couponing and to a certain extent this improved knowledge about the benefits of 2D imaging vs linear models is driving uptake deeper into the supply chain," he said.

"Devices that have a 2D imaging capability offer end users far more in terms of potential returns than linear scanners. 2D barcode symbologies such as data matrix, PDF417 and DPM codes can contain more data such as serial numbers, locations and date information to speed up production, improve traceability, reduce costs and enhance customer service throughout the supply chain."

As well as integrating 2D imaging capabilities into devices that can cope with near-far scanning, Doyle explained that Datalogic is also developing devices to read invisible, digitally watermarked barcodes and exploring advancements in image recognition technologies to see how these can be utilised within the supply chain for applications such as reverse logistics.


Doyle is also starting to see less focus on the amount of memory a device has or what its processor performance is, and more emphasis on the ergonomics and usability of the device. "By combining outstanding form, size and ergonomics together with a modular approach to device functionality, we are seeing even greater productivity and potential for return on investment," he explained.

In addition to ensuring that ergonomics are at the core of the design process, Doyle pointed out that Datalogic is also implementing technologies such as wireless charging, indoor positioning and MIMO Wi-Fi technology into its latest devices, which he explains will provide additional value and differentiation for end users.

Drivers for change

What has driven the above changes? Dombach believes a key driver behind the improvements to technology is the need to reduce costs while simultaneously doing more, and doing it more quickly. "Relentless improvement is a prerequisite for doing business in manufacturing and logistics," he said, adding that, of course, greater competition across sectors also plays a role in innovation while the end consumer, in the Internet age, has become much more demanding. "Take fashion retailers: they need to meet shoppers' demands for next-day and, increasingly, same-day delivery – flawlessly.

This expectation has seen organisations look at warehouses differently in recent years – rather than a cost centre, they're seen as a value centre that can help organisations secure business by the speed at which they fulfil orders. As part of this change, more warehouses are being built – to take depots closer to the consumer. Indeed, with 74 per cent of logistics firms planning to build more distribution centres and employ more staff, there will be a greater demand for intuitive mobile devices to help reduce the estimated 53.6 hours that it takes to train each operative [Reference: Building the Smarter Warehouse: Warehousing 2020, Zebra Technologies, 2016]."

Dombach observes a similar trend at play in manufacturing; with people expecting their goods to be made more quickly. "Not only that, they increasingly want them made to order," he said. "For example, the new Audi A3 offers so many options that customers can literally order a one of a kind car while even the largest commercial airliner available – Airbus' A380 comes in multiple configurations. Such complex, accelerated and customised levels of production would be unthinkable without the level of visibility provided by the Internet of Things, mobile devices, ubiquitous network connectivity and Big Data analytics."

According to Dombach, there is one other important thing to mention; firms in the manufacturing and logistics sector tend to invest in technology over the long term. "For example, we have over 2.5 million of our MC9000 series of mobile computers in service running a Microsoft OS. As organisations look to the future, and how to increase efficiency and productivity, many are talking to us about moving to a more intuitive and natural all-touch operating system. We anticipate that this will further fuel Android's push into the enterprise."

Boyce believes one of the main drivers for change is the demand for increased automation without sacrificing accuracy and security. "Organisations desire tools to improve performance reliability that can also drive down costs and improve quality," he said. "Rapidly improving technology at reduced costs as adoption arises means the systems won't be as restrictive to purchase or implement. It also allows investment into development that can further capabilities."

Another factor, according to Boyce, is the prevalence of these technologies on a personal level. "OCR, biometrics and mobile systems are a part of our everyday lives," he said. "Computers and smart devices such as phones allow for fingerprint and facial recognition. OCR can be found in mobile apps that convert words from an image or hand-written notes into digital text. Accessibility allows for expanded usage and subsequent improvement."

Refining consumer service

Clark believes e-commerce has had a huge effect. "Consumers are driving how their products are delivered and visibility of where, when and how they are delivered," she said. "Retailers and logistics companies need to continually refine and improve the service they provide their customers to remain competitive. Use of handhelds taking barcode data enables consumers to keep track of where their product is, from order received to delivery or if it's ready for collection."

According to Clark, changing market requirements also play a huge role; "for instance in transport and logistics or retail where the workforce is affected by peaks and the workforce is becoming younger, they require a familiar looking device that is easy to use so that they can be up and running as soon as possible."

Bhattacharya observes that smarter manufacturing and Industry 4.0 is changing the use of RFID in manufacturing and industrial applications. She adds that businesses across sectors are looking for information on the locations and condition of their assets to increase profitability. Bhattacharya also believes the growth of Cloud computing is changing the software business models and has helped with many emerging and new applications with smartphones and tablets. "Because of the constantly increasing use of smartphones, and tablets, and other mobile devices, it is possible to develop solutions that work on Bluetooth, or GPS, or geomagnetic technology," she said.

Thompson considers the main drivers for change to be:

  • The continued demands on business to use innovative technology to help drive at cost, improve productivity and gain competitive advantage.
  • Vendors have had to react to market demands for smaller, more durable, consumer-like devices with operating systems that are familiar to the demographic of the users.
  • Developers are creating applications in HTML, making the apps more OS agnostic and giving businesses the opportunity to choose from a wider range of devices – and even permit BYOD (bring your own device).

Doyle considers that, without a doubt, a lot of the drivers around form factor and usability are being driven by the consumer smartphone market. "Organisations are looking for devices that still retain the industrial and enterprise requirements of a rugged handheld device, but at the same time they are attracted to devices that have a similar look and feel to their consumer grade devices such as large displays and touchscreens in a sleek design," he said.

Doyle added that this is just as true from a software perspective. "As people have become more familiar with mobile technology in their personal lives, they have also become more comfortable using it in a work environment. This increased familiarity has huge advantages when it comes to user adoption and training requirements."

Briggs commented that, in terms of the Zebra TC8000 it is very different to the 'norm' in terms of design, so this must be attributed to the vendor taking into account and listening to what users in warehousing and manufacturing environments need from a mobile device. Briggs added that the scope of service and support contracts has also changed to cover abuse; e.g. if users drop it and break it, it is now covered as standard. Also, Briggs points out that the cost of contracts has dropped, and "users can get three years cover very cheap if they buy it on day one".

Improved benefits

What have been the subsequent benefit improvements for the user? According to Briggs, these include faster implementations with better middleware and less modifications (for example, BEC's eSmart Voice WMS solution) – giving a broader functionality to middleware etc. In terms of wireless communications, Dombach believes the standardisation of the technology through the Wi-Fi Alliance has paved the way for Wi-Fi to become an integral part of warehouse and factory operations. He also maintains that Wi-Fi has also benefited from the trend across the IT industry – seen for example in the availability of Cloud services – to reduce the complexity of IT.

"Our Wi-Fi systems provide carrier-grade ultra-reliable performance but are easily installed by a guided and largely self-provisioned process," said Dombach. "Designed for non-stop business, they include 'Smart RF' whereby access points can sense problems and automatically adjust performance to optimise services. Everything is built and managed with our WiNG operating system, which makes it simple to run, monitor and maintain the network from any location – on-premise or in the Cloud."

Moving away from Wi-Fi and to a more general point, Dombach comments that greater connectivity between sensors, devices, machines, people, the back office and more across the value chain brings many benefits. "The increasing number of data collection points allied to faster networks means that the time between the creation and the analysis of data is shrinking," he said. "And, as we move forward, this will increasingly happen in real time, presenting both humans and machines with immediate intelligence on which to not only base more effective decisions but to better predict what might happen and plan accordingly. The knock-on effect is that organisations can become even more agile and flexible, which is essential to cope with growing complexity and the demand for customised solutions."

Reduced cost

Hall makes the point that in recent years the cost of the hardware has dramatically reduced while functionality has dramatically increased. "Technology has become much more intuitive and familiarity with smartphones has increased," he said. "All this goes towards making mobile devices much more accessible. The extra familiarity means lengthy training periods for new or temporary staff are often not necessary. This is a huge bonus for those considering the Elastic or Wide Area Warehouse concepts, and who will depend on the ability to bring in temporary staff and have them quickly up to speed."

From a user perspective, Clark reflects that the freedom of choice regarding operating systems has driven greater ease of use, as solutions become more familiar in terms of user interface. "Workers want a device that is easy to learn and intuitive, which is why Honeywell places a strong focus on user design for its technology," she said.

Clark added that another significant trend in user workflows is toward hands-free technologies – such as wearables and Voice solutions – to drive greater productivity and accuracy while promoting safety, ergonomics and employee morale. "Users who feel safer, are more productive and can do their job easier, tend to have much higher job satisfaction," she remarked.

Thompson explains that improvements in wireless performance standards – greater capacity, faster and more secure and resilient – together with improvements in 4G data networks have meant the data captured can be delivered more reliably and the operating range of devices is extended through the business. This, says Thompson, helps information to be processed and acted on more quickly.

Doyle reiterates that the move to business versions of operating systems like Android give end users devices and applications that they are familiar with, and the knock-on effects of this create a number of benefits that shouldn't be underestimated. "This is particularly noticeable during roll out and training phases and by reducing the learning curve for using technology organisations have the potential to start seeing measurable business benefits much more quickly," he said.

Back-office systems

In terms of the relationship between AIDC/mobile computer systems and back-office solutions, what have been some of the key recent changes? In manufacturing, Dombach has witnessed major producers focus a lot of effort on better connecting their entire production processes. "A particular focus has been on improving Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) – the interface between the machine itself, which produces the goods, and the ERP systems that govern the order, planning and production process," he explained. "The goal is to enhance visibility by improving information flow."

Dombach added that mobile computers are also being increasingly used across production processes, and the digitisation of standard operating procedures is now making it much easier to not only change these procedures but to provide engaging guidance for users through mobile devices using Voice, Video and 3D models. On a broader level, Dombach pointed out that the industrial browser has become more common, with major ERP, WMS and CRM apps available via web browsers. "This means that organisations don't have to match devices to particular operating systems, providing the freedom to select the best device for teams," he said.

Looking at devices, technology made for the enterprise must be different, according to Dombach. "As well as being robust and reliable, it must be easy to deploy, operate and run," he said. With this in mind, Dombach explained that Zebra provides a suite of supporting technology: Mobility DNA. "This includes end-user apps, robust admin utilities and effortless development tools to make it easier for customers to get the most value from their mobile devices. We also build smart software into our devices, such as 123Scan that connects our scanners to the back office. It streamlines staging, makes it easy to remotely oversee devices and protects key features – such as the battery by continuously monitoring battery life and charging patterns and sharing this data with the back office."

Hall observes that rapid advancements in mobile computing, plus the availability of high-speed and affordable mobile networks, has been the driver of the changes we have recently been a part of. "With this platform in place, we have seen end-users embrace Cloud technology, as the ability to access data from any location with a connection is extremely valuable," he said. "Knowing exactly where stock is at every stage in the supply cycle is crucial for the Wide Area Warehouse concept too. It offers greater visibility, awareness and flexibility as data is quickly analysed and efficiency gains can be identified."

Hall adds that one only has to look at Microsoft Azure to see the power of this combination of new technology. "Azure runs on a worldwide network of Microsoft-managed data centres across 22 regions and is expanding its footprint rapidly. The proliferation of data centres means that data can be held local to where you need it, ensuring fast delivery of real-time data to a mobile workforce wherever they are operating."

The right protocols

Boyce makes the point that AIDC/etc. systems are typically viewed as extensions or tools that work in tandem with back-office business solutions such as ERP. "Having a standalone AIDC limits the capabilities and visibility to data that more companies are seeking," he said. "In an integrated environment it's key that the right protocols exist so that the devices and technologies play nice together and do not excessively overlap. These solutions tend to come with their own hardware and software that need to be evaluated to ensure they are complimentary with back-office systems."

Clark comments that e-commerce and omni-channel selling has also had a large impact regarding the back-office system relationship. "This has greatly increased the complexity for the retailer of tracking where inventory is in the supply chain," she said. "As options expand to buy in store, collect from store, have delivered from store or warehouse, or transfer from one store to another, visibility of inventory and maintaining accurate data has never been more important, nor more difficult. This is just one example of the continued need for businesses to improve efficiencies and processes, whilst also reducing costs."

Clark added that Cloud platforms offer a range of opportunities to better collect, share and analyse data. "Businesses with a distributed workforce need software solutions that can be rapidly developed, are massively scalable and that make their mobile teams better connected. Honeywell recently acquired Movilizer, which offers customers the ability to seamlessly collect, transmit and analyse data from their workers on their existing IT systems. This enables businesses to harness the power of their workforce from anywhere to best serve the needs of their end customers."

In addition, Clark points out that logistics providers want the freedom to choose their technology platforms, including their operating systems and want the flexibility to upgrade or change over time. "This is why Honeywell offers future-proof solutions and supports all operating systems – iOS, Android and Windows," she explained.

Bhattacharya states that the latest middleware and software suites are advanced enough to allow seamless integration between the ERP and RFID. "The RFID software available now can support multiple technologies together and make them function smoothly with high accuracy," she said. "The advanced software platforms available can be hosted on servers, and on Clouds. These software solutions are capable of supporting smart phones and tablets making it easier for the end users. The software development kit (SDKs) made available by the software companies can be easily integrated by the end users into their systems."

According to Thompson, the key changes regarding the relationship between AIDC/mobile computer systems and back-office solutions have been the capability to capture and deliver data more efficiently through improved functionality in devices and improved communicability – faster Wi-Fi and WAN connectivity.

Closer integration

Doyle comments that closer integration of mobile devices with back-office systems is being enabled by advancements in mobile device management and terminal emulation. "Terminal Emulation has been a conduit for transferring data between devices and back-office systems for many years, offering a very fast a reliable connection for workers," he said. "We have seen a trend to browser technology but recommend that clients considering this option carry out thorough testing before implementing as a huge increase in data traffic could slow down response times."

From a mobile device management perspective, Doyle considers that there are now lots of options available to end users to remotely manage devices and ensure that integration with enterprise systems remains streamlined. In addition, he observes that there continues to be changes and uncertainty in the OS market, which are naturally having an impact on the relationship between devices and the respective back office system. "We are seeing many developers explore Android as a platform and this is particularly prevalent in outside the four walls for applications like electronic proof of delivery where consumer applications are having a strong influence on how the market is evolving. Where in-house applications, such as warehouse management systems, are concerned Microsoft CE and Compact 7 are still dominant. For these applications, the additional features and benefits of Android are unlikely to outweigh the additional effort required to maintain security."

With regard to RFID technology, Zimmerman explains that organisations must assure that the following three areas are addressed regarding application:

  • Integration into back-end systems that will process RFID tag or reader data, and whether middleware is needed to convert or filter the data or provide additional reporting capabilities based on the additional information available on the tag. It is critical that implementers understand the ability of any middleware or back-end application to scale as the number of tags is increased.

  • Applications must be able to incorporate the data from the different tag/reader technologies that make up a total solution.

  • Applications must be able to collect data from multiple locations. For example, supply chain applications may have multiple warehouses where inventory can be moved or located.

"Organisations need to be clear about the scope of their RFID strategies, and must carefully evaluate not only the tags and readers, but also the capability of relevant RFID middleware platforms and applications to support their aspirations," said Zimmerman.

Remaining issues

Are there any remaining concerns regarding the use of AIDC/mobile computing systems? Dombach believes security is, of course, a constant concern for the enterprise. "With this in mind, our Wi-Fi networks are protected by the AirDefense Services Platform (ADSP) that leads the industry in terms of intrusion protection and supports the powerful forensic capabilities necessary for PCI and HIPAA standards," he said.

When it comes to operating systems, Dombach comments that Android has been subject to concerns over security. "The latest focuses on the KingRoot app that, when installed on a mobile device, can reveal a Wi-Fi's network security keys," he said. "Our Mobility Extensions (Mx) solution would prevent this as all keys are always encrypted. Mx adds a layer of features missing in standard Android to include enterprise-class security features, application access and control, and mobile device management tools." Dombach added that there is one other issue to mention: Bluetooth. "Some manufacturers are worried that Bluetooth-enabled devices might interfere with their Wi-Fi networks. Our mobile devices intelligently channel hop to avoid Wi-Fi signals so cause no issue with existing systems."

Hall considers that there are challenges with respect to developing software applications that will work on all operating systems and hardware if we are truly going to embrace BYOD. "To achieve this, developers are employing cross-platform deployment tools, which will allow developers to create applications once and deploy them to multiple operating systems," he explained.

Clark said that with increased enterprise deployment of mobile devices, the primary operating systems – Android, iOS and Windows – have become a target for exploits and malware attacks. "Since mobile devices are connected wirelessly to a company's server databases, they can become a gateway for malicious software," she pointed out. "With connected workers becoming more mobile and geographically dispersed, their devices can easily fall into the wrong hands, giving access to corporate systems and assets." Clark added that many enterprise customers opt to prevent users from accidentally downloading malware by 'locking down' mobile devices using a Mobile Device Management (MDM) agent or an app such as Honeywell's Enterprise Launcher. "There is no perfectly secure operating system, and software providers and end users should always keep security at the forefront," said Clark.

Pivotal role

Briggs makes the point that BYOD is potentially open to devices being misused or stolen, with the subsequent potential for security breaches etc. "This is why we supply mobile device management software to allow them to be remotely locked down & wiped," he explained. Doyle believes mobile computing and AIDC will continue to play a pivotal role in the supply chain process. "For some there are concerns about security but we are confident that these anxieties will be addressed by enterprise OS versions and additional security software, something that we are ensuring is implemented on all our mobile terminals," he said.

Thompson believes data security will always be a concern. "The adoption of Android still makes some companies nervous and it is essential that device manufacturers ensure devices released to meet market demands provide adequate enterprise class security and functionality," he remarked.

With regard to RFID, Zimmerman says organisations need to realise that the technology can be used for successful asset tracking solutions, but that there are many 'moving parts' regarding the best tags, business processes and types of readers needed to implement each solution. "Although the organisation may want to use RFID to track a number of asset management projects, one size usually does not fit all," he said. "In more than 50 per cent of Gartner inquiries on RFID, implementers find that a single tag does not provide a complete solution for all business usage scenarios within the scope of the RFID project. For example, HF RFID requires presentation of the tag to within 6 inches to 12 inches of a reader such as for building security applications, while a UHF RFID reader can detect a UHF tag on an asset from up to 30 feet away."

To assure that an RFID solution does not violate the organisation's security policy, Zimmerman explains that data security needs to be assessed upfront across the entire RFID deployment. He points out that there are two aspects that must be considered:

  • Readers, which may be considered IoT devices, must be connected to the network. This means that they need to be authenticated as headless devices (without keyboards or displays) to the network. While most vendors allow the input of configuration parameters through external keyboards or telneting into a reader, it's still necessary to determine the ability of the reader to adhere to the organisation's pre-existing security policy. For example, if the policy states that only devices using an 802.1X certificate with a strong Extensible Authentication Protocol type (which is commonly defined as WPA2), then the reader needs the processing power and associated memory to meet these requirements.
  • 'Over the air' security is not a standard component of an RFID solution. This means that tag information is often communicated in the open or in the clear from the tag to the reader. Organisations need to assess whether this poses any risk for the organisation or at a broader level. The organisation also needs to address privacy concerns which may differ depending on the country the solution is being implemented. If the data is important, it can be encrypted. One option is for the application to encrypt the data before it is written to the tag unless the information is a number that is used as a licence plate and points to an upstream database. In the same vein, data from the tag may communicate its information to any reader within the specified frequency unless precautions are taken to encrypt the data upfront or to password protect the data on the tag. Lastly, there is the issue of tags being cloned and the effect of cloned tags on the operation. An assessment needs to be made of the risk associated with RFID data if it is universally available, and whether it needs this additional layer of security.

Technology convergence

What are your commentators' observations and opinions regarding technology convergence within the AIDC/mobile computing space? Gupta considers that data capture technologies are well-entrenched in the warehouse and the broader supply chain, and are widely used to allow consumers to check on the status of their package at a series of checkpoints during the delivery process. She adds that specific warehouse operations that are often expedited by barcode/RFID solution-based automation in particular include track-and-trace, order sorting, order fulfilment, shipping and receiving.

Bhattacharya considers technology convergence as an absolute necessity in order to make the solution stronger and support multiple businesses and applications. "Each business has different needs and different types of technologies are used," she said. "Within the same industry different applications have different requirements and the technology changes accordingly. Hence it is always beneficial to have one solution that caters to all types of businesses and supports all applications with very minimal need of customisation. Also, a stronger and robust software solution that supports multiple protocols together is much more scalable to support business expansion."

Hall maintains that if one takes browser technology to its ultimate conclusion, all devices will be browsers and the concept of an operating system will disappear. "The advantage here is that there will become one platform that is compatible across the world," he said. Boyce believes it is exciting to see the new developments that are constantly being made and improved upon. "The tools that will become available in the future will enable organisations to improve operations, which ultimately generates value to end-users and customers," he remarked.

Clark observes that the growth of IOT/IILOT/IPOT (connectivity, Big Data) is increasing rapidly, and makes the point that Honeywell has embraced this. "Complete connectivity from AIDC devices recording additional information for instance from sensors or trackers that can be relayed back to the device/handheld is our vision for the future," she said. "It is for this reason that Honeywell Sensing & Productivity Solutions was created, merging the traditional AIDC technology of Scanning & Mobility with the alternative and expansive data sources of Sensing & Control."

Briggs explains that there is more functionality wrapped up as standard in most modern devices – scanning and Voice-enabled. As an example, he points out that the A730 device from Honeywell Vocollect is a Voice device with a built-in scanner. "Five years ago you had to choose whether you wanted a scanner or a camera etc., but now you can have both," he said.

Thompson comments that the IoT means businesses will want more devices to be connected so that more data that can be collected. "Technology will need to converge and devices will need to be able to offer multifunctional scanning capability and multimode communication ability in a single device," he added. "This will provide much greater performance benefits to users and businesses and ensure the data gathered is more accurate and in real time."

Dombach believes convergence is a good thing. "If we can build more technology into our devices then customers need to buy fewer types," he said. "Take, for example, our 3600 series of ultra-rugged scanners. Built for unstoppable performance with a super-tough structure and extended battery life, the scanner includes sophisticated scan engines to scan quickly and accurately. And, of special interest here, is the fact that the long-range version can scan close up or to 21 metres – meaning one device can handle a multitude of scanning needs."

Dombach continued: "Our TC8000 mobile computer is also highly versatile. For example, with its powerful scanner and data capture options – including a camera – it can be used as a multifunction computer to support a wide range of logistics and warehouse apps. But it also has a proximity sensor that can be used as a cradle on a trolley to become a presentation scanner. And, by replacing a one-size-fits-all keypad on all-touch devices, such as the TC8000, we can programme keypads to specific tasks or roles.

"A modular approach to device design is also seen with our TC70 and TC75 mobile computers. These professional-grade Android devices are highly configurable. For example, in a retail environment, it looks great in front of customers but is equally at home in the stockroom, where it can be used to check inventory, or in the warehouse, where it can be fitted with a pistol grip, attached to a belt, fixed to forklifts and more, to manage a range of applications. From the CIO to the factory floor to the warehouse loading bay, the TC70 is an example of how organisations can consolidate on a single device to lower the cost of mobile deployment, maintenance and optimisation. And, used in conjunction with apps like Workforce Connect, teams can intuitively connect with colleagues across their organisation using voice calls, Push-to-Talk and rich messaging to help teams collaborate quickly and naturally."

The future

What might be the next innovations and developments to look out for over the next year or two within the AIDC/mobile computing space? Gupta considers that data capture industry veterans today face stiff competition not only from new and emerging barcode scanner vendors introducing lower-cost devices in conventional form factors, but also from non-traditional ecosystem participants building scanning accessories and software enhancements for consumer handhelds like smartphones and tablets. "This advent of scanning alternatives is challenging the advantage that purpose-built devices hold over general-purpose, non-enterprise-grade options," she said. "VDC expects success in the data capture market to be determined by vendors' ability to be adequately agile in their sales and marketing strategies, especially as enterprise-wide solution consistency, low TCOs, and higher ROIs become necessary."

Gupta added that AIDC vendors with the ability to provide their largest customers with guidance and direction in analysing and presenting Big Data in a meaningful way will be most successful in the future. "Offering support services that go beyond simple break-fix and depot repairs will play a crucial role in determining AIDC vendors' success in transforming their business to better align with demands of today's organisations," she said. "These include remote monitoring and diagnostics, technology- and brand-agnostic device management, and even application hosting services. VDC envisions more data capture solution providers will begin to innovate and make investments in portfolio expansion that goes beyond hardware."

Hall fully expects that the IoT will make good on its potential and provide the productivity and performance gains that will take supply chain efficiency to the next level. As well the automation of many processes, Hall also believes IoT will also offer the level of visibility that is key to turning the Wide Area Warehouse concept into a reality. "It will allow stock to be managed more effectively, space to be used more productively and give us flexibility to deal with unforeseen issues," he said.

As the industry advances, Boyce believes we could see more inclusion of technologies in the form of wearables, but also collaboration with VR/AR and AI. He also thinks there is potential for AIDC to work with driverless technology that could allow improved supply chain management in areas such as forecasting, planning and tracking. Boyce adds that robotics and drone technologies are other areas that continue to be promising for automated data capture.

Increased use of RFID

Bhattacharya anticipates that printed RFID labels will be more popular. "There will be an increased use of protocols such as BLE, UWB for location monitoring," she said. "Increasingly, businesses will be shifting to IoT space, thereby increasing the number connected RFID devices exponentially. RFID/ RTLS will be a key enabler to the smart city, smart manufacturing, smart retail, smart healthcare, and smart transportation. Smart supply chain across industries will grow with increased RFID penetration."

Briggs believes vendors may come up with less-traditional form factors, taking the TC8000 as a leading example. He also foresees further developments in the area of the IoT in terms of how data is collected and how devices will be able to talk to a wider variety of machinery, equipment etc. to capture Big Data.

According to Clark, one key innovation involves applying Voice-directed work technology, which was once mostly used in the distribution centre, to vehicle maintenance and inspection work. "Instead of having technicians recording findings on paper and manually entering them into a database, the interaction is carried out by Voice while the system is updated automatically," she explained. "Using a Voice-directed, hands-free and eyes-free inspection process, workers eliminate skipped steps, make fewer errors, are more productive and have higher job satisfaction. The Voice-directed solution for fleet maintenance eliminates the post-inspection manual data entry process and facilitates compliance." Clark adds that, whilst RFID has been talked about for many years, its adoption is becoming a reality for many enterprises now, as costs are driven down and the demand for supply chain visibility grows.

Similarly, Thompson maintains that fixed and mobile RFID will become more widespread as business requirements for more data more quickly drives demand. He believes this technology will become integrated into more devices.

Dombach comments that, to coin a phrase, we've seen nothing yet when it comes to stretching the value from the trends contributing to Industry 4.0, from Enterprise Asset Intelligence (EAI), to mobile computing, Big Data and more. "Take trailer loads for example – around 70 per cent of trucks on the road today in the US are not full [Reference: Visibility that's Visionary, Zebra report, 2016], leading to huge revenue leakage," he said. "By using spatial awareness apps on mobile devices, which can capture the space that an item takes up – not just its size – firms will be able to use predictive technology to optimise their loads and make better use of their fleets, reduce costs and protect the environment through fewer wasted miles. We'll also see augmented reality used via devices. For example, a point of a camera at a shelving unit could return an image overlaid with advice such as what product should be picked, what items might be missing and what items need to be put away, where."

Dombach pointed out that Zebra launched its first wearable device 20 years ago and believes that the explosion of wearables that we've seen in the consumer space will be matched in the enterprise. "We're now looking closely at the potential of customised heads-up displays in smart glasses," he said. "The displays will provide users with all the information they need in their eye line and be tailored to the individual's job in hand. Complemented by Voice guidance and the use of augmented reality (for example, presenting 3D SOP guidance to a line worker), the technology will provide more intuitive and natural ways to work to productively and effectively manage tasks."

Continuing evolution

Software will also continue to evolve, according to Dombach. "Look out for enterprise apps that apply analysis of Big Data and the operator's own style of working on their device, to learn on the fly and change workflows," he said. "Devices may also have the intelligence to change their applications and interfaces based on assessing the user's level of competence – a key advantage where a large number of seasonal workers are using devices."

Doyle envisages that we will see greater adoption and more developments in Voice technologies over the next few years. "Voice technology has already seen some significant advancements with next generation solutions delivering astonishing picking accuracy," he said. "This is being achieved through additional functionality like location validation, which is designed to prevent users from memorising locations and picking items without visually confirming the location. Users can also interact with some Voice software if they are uncertain about what product to pick, things like 'Show Me' functionality will display a picture of the product on the mobile device that the Voice unit is paired with."

Doyle also believes we will see more changes in the software space; particularly as more and more applications and infrastructure become Cloud-based and adopt SaaS, IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service) and EaaS (Everything as a Service) models.

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