Data and the changing business and operational landscape

Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with leading analysts and vendors about the current state of play within the Automatic Identification & Data Capture and Mobile Computing technology space, what potential benefits technology can afford the user in light of the current pandemic, and what might be some of the key developments and enhancements to look out for over the next two to three years and beyond.

Automatic Identification & Data Capture and Mobile Computing technology has become a non-negotiable for modern, forward-looking companies operating within the manufacturing, logistics, warehousing, retail and healthcare sectors. Developments and innovations can be swift within this fascination technology space, but what are some of the most notable changes and what are their benefits to users of this highly data-driven equipment? Steve Mulroy, portfolio marketing manager, EMEA, Zebra Technologies, makes the point that, due to the pandemic, the surge in ecommerce has increased warehouse orders dramatically, resulting in exponential growth in warehouse activity.

However, he adds that many processes and operations are still being done manually by warehouse workers. “Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology can help when companies tag and track for example, high value items or contents of pallets,” he explains. “RFID should be part of an integrated solution. High volumes of tagged objects and pallets are quickly and more accurately located than traditional methods. This automates the scanning process and improves accuracy and efficiency. Using rugged Android-based mobile computers with integrated RFID handheld readers such as Zebra’s newest MC3300xR series optimises workflows and shipment planning efficiencies.”

Mulroy points out that these devices are purpose built for transportation, logistics and warehousing operations with keypad and/or touch based applications. “Zebra MC3330xR and MC3390xR RFID readers deliver superior read performance with advanced data capture options such as standard and long-range 21.5 metre RFID reading, 18.5 metre RFID tagging, standard and long-range barcode scanning, and a large display to view business critical data,” he says. “Workers can quickly and accurately capture RFID tags on even the most challenging items. Modern supply chains need fast and accurate scanning to maintain momentum and satisfy customers. A scanner failure or a few seconds delay can result in significant revenue loss. As the added pressure created by consumer demand during the pandemic continues, warehouse operators and logistics companies should consider technology such as long-range scanning and RFID to stay competitive and increase productivity.

In terms of what has driven these developments, Mulroy again cites the pandemic, making the point that it has dramatically impacted commerce. “Millions of people began shopping from the safety of their homes. Consequently, the rate of ecommerce continues to grow so the warehouse is quickly becoming the new storefront. Growth in global ecommerce retail sales reached 209%* in April compared to the same period last year (*Global Payments Trends, ACI Worldwide, 2020). This has influenced omnichannel behaviour such as online ordering and click and collect. The result is that today warehouse shelves have become the new shopping racks and merchandise aisles while the need of micro-logistics fulfilment centres has increased, transforming some stores for picking and preparing online orders from store stocks.”

Re-evaluating the approach to fulfilment

Mulroy adds that these consumer behaviour changes mean warehouse operators need to re-evaluate their approach to fulfilment. “Traditionally, warehouse operations were designed to ship big pallets containing multiple goods to one central retail location. As ecommerce grows, ‘piece-based’ orders will replace many bulk transactions – and warehouses will increasingly need to ship smaller number of goods to more locations, requiring a more micro approach to fulfilment. Some retail companies are already converting parts of their large warehouses into micro-fulfilment dedicated areas.”

Mulroy explains that Zebra’s 2024 Warehouse Vision Study states a priority investment area for warehouse managers is technology such as mobile devices, barcode scanning devices and interconnected solutions to match rising supply chain demands. Extended range barcode scanning solutions and mobile computers with integrated RFID readers such as Zebra DS3600 series and MC3390R & MX3390xR products are critical for warehouse modernisation. These devices enable warehouse operators to quickly capture product information at any point with minimal effort, saving time and reducing operational costs.

What have been some of the subsequent benefit improvements for the user in light of recent developments and enhancements? Mulroy explains that companies are using sensors such as RFID tags to collect necessary data. “For example, if a worker is unloading the pallet from a truck and there are no workers available with a scanner to pull the trigger and read the barcode, instead, there will be a gate with sensors to scan the barcode as the pallet is unloaded and moved to its correct location,” he says. “We describe this as sensor-driven, real-time data. RFID provides a digital view of physical operations, creating a ‘system of reality’ enabling warehouse operators to capture and manage critical information across operations. Benefits include improved item and pallet level visibility and accuracy, resulting in enhanced warehouse automation efficiency and reduced ‘out of stock’ situations.

According to Mulroy, extended range scanner technology investment delivers the following advantages:

  1. Speed: fast scanning increases productivity and overall efficiency. As most operations need to be done ‘ASAP, extended range barcode scanners save time. A forklift driver can quickly and safely scan from the cab. If they can reduce 12 seconds off every scan by staying seated, that’s an hour saved per 300 scans. Extended range scanners also scan sequentially, enabling operators can hold down the trigger to identify multiple items.

  2. Intuitive operation: extended-range scanners generally use omnidirectional scanning technology, so scanner and barcode alignment are unnecessary. In vertically stacked warehouses this saves time. Combining this capability with long-range capability results in operator efficiencies as they don’t need to continuously pace the warehouse floor to scan goods.

  3. Performance: in dimly lit, dusty and dirty operating environments, long-range barcode scanning technology will continually provide ‘first time capture’ from afar. Whether scanning 1D/2D barcodes, OCR, photos or documents with the dirtiest barcode stuck under layers of shrink-wrap, the accuracy and precision of the best ones will not falter.

Security

Are there any remaining concerns regarding the use of AIDC/Mobile Computing/RFID systems? “Any network-connected device is an endpoint open for an attack,” Mulroy states. “It’s vital for warehouse leaders to modernise their technology solutions, protecting their operations from possible downtime or infiltrations into private company records through connected devices.

In these challenging times, the continual running of warehouse operations and maintenance of inventory visibility is key.” With regard to scanners, Mulroy points out that the security risk is less as the devices transfer data to the host. However, he adds that it is also important to integrate wireless (WiFi) and Bluetooth encryption on devices to ensure data flows are safe and secure. “A secure option for modernising warehousing with mobile computers is to migrate to enterprise-class, Android-based mobile devices,” says Mulroy. In his view, the benefits include:

The longevity of enterprise mobile device support which can last up to 10 years or longer. Leverage multiple layers of security already designed into the solution to protect network vulnerabilities with long-term security OS support from manufacturers. Zebra OneCare Support Services provide repair services, technical and software support, LifeGuard security software updates for Android, online tools and device repair visibility with cloud based VisibilityIQ OneCare.

Warehouse and distribution centre operations with limited or unassigned on-site IT support. Centrally automated, secure, remote implementation, configuration and troubleshooting management to device fleets to ensure security patch updates and protocols are deployed on time. Usage of security assessment tools and features to protect setting modes and ensure only authenticated changes, such as software updates, can be made. Each connected device as security controls are assigned to every device (wired or wireless) via mechanisms built in to help prevent, detect, and fortify against threats.

In terms of technology ‘Convergence’ within the AIDC/Mobile Computing marketplace, Mulroy reflects that enabling the use of mobile touch computers combined with an RFID reader device when mounted on a sled is a solution for a use case where a mobile computer is used first as a handheld computer, and where reading/capturing RFID applications is needed from time to time by users. “A Zebra RFD2000 sled combined with a TC20 mobile computer is a solution for retailers who do have extensive RFID needs,” he says. “Purpose-built for the TC20, the RFD2000 delivers the same robust RFID performance expected in a dedicated device. The benefit is a complete retail solution.”

The rise and rise of e-commerce

Bryan Ball, vice president and group director, Aberdeen Group, observes that the demand for mobile data capture devices within retail has grown considerably in Europe and the US, partly because of the increase in people ordering online. “Customers are now very used to receiving packages on their porch from Amazon, FedEx and so on,” he says. “The increase in popularity of e-commerce is partly due to the convenience aspect and, more recently, partly because people are not going out to brick-and-mortar stores so often because of the pandemic.” So, adds Ball, there is naturally an increase in demand for the mobile devices that make this type of transaction possible.

The battery-life issue

In the case of distribution centres or warehouses, Ball makes the point that as mobile devices are being used more and more, one thing some companies haven’t thought about as much as they should is the battery life of the devices, and also the general maintenance regime for the upkeep of these devices. Therefore, Ball says there is now more of a realisation that more recharging ports need to be put in place and managed well in order to maintain the efficient day-to-day operation of these devices, many of which are needed for multiple shifts.

And with more people working from home, Ball believes how devices used for work are maintained in this environment needs to be given serious thought by companies in order to keep things up and running and the data flowing.

Ball adds that Internet bandwidth has become an issue in some areas due to the substantial increase in Internet traffic with people working from home, or people staying at home more often and watching things like Netflix. And, in terms of business systems that are now required to operate over the Internet due to less people being physically in the workplace, Ball makes the point that many legacy applications simply weren’t designed to be run that way, and this can result in operation issues, which could be further compounded by the bandwidth issue.

Mobility and accuracy

Laurent Lassus, head of Europe, SATO, explains that SATO believes there are three key areas of innovation right now: user mobility, user accuracy with track and trace RFID technology, and energy-saving hardware or software to deliver sustainability. “In terms of printer mobility, end users prefer PC-less operation as they are easier to maintain and manage,” he says. “They want on-board intelligence with near instantaneous database downloads to deliver speed to market and they want to be able to integrate with applications they use on a daily basis, such as PDF Direct Print or Direct Print with SAP, Oracle and so on.

In addition, end users are also looking for preventative remote management so they can be alerted to an issue before it causes business downtime. With the range of printers available at SATO, we offer customers the flexibility they require to work without interruption, including features such as those mentioned above, alongside remote management with SATO Online Service (SOS), Sato App Storage (SAS) and more.”

When it comes to RFID, Lassus explains that SATO supports customers throughout the complete supply chain with a range of efficient and accurate technologies for receiving and shipping management, including data rewrite capabilities, bulk reading and high levels of security. “For example, if a customer sent a box of 100 white shirts in different sizes, shipping verification can check that all orders are correct,” he says. “When returning goods, RFID technology can track and trace with accuracy and efficiency, so not only does it save a business crucial time it also helps to eliminate human error, reducing costs.”

Lassus points out that to ensure SATO’s technology is sustainable as well as functional, the company optimises licences to ensure the end user only pays for what they use. “In addition, with Application Enabled Printing (AEP), for example, less energy is used since we’re using less material/software in the printing process,” explains Lassus. “This means savings of up to €15,000 on a 5-year basis per printer.”

Consumer behaviour driving change

In terms of what has driven these changes, Lassus considers that consumer behaviour is one of the biggest drivers for technology companies. “When the end user requires something to be done in a certain way, an application will be created for them to use in the future,” he says. “It’s about spotting gaps in the market, tackling user challenges, and discovering what will make things easier for them. Of course, COVID-19 has played a huge part in consumer behaviour this year, which is why we’ve seen so many businesses turning to Auto ID and RFID-integrated devices.”

While Auto ID and labelling are an important part of the process between the delivery process and the customer, Lassus makes the point that RFID solutions have come into their own during the pandemic. “For example, they can protect both employees and customers by ensuring there is no contact between people with ‘no touch’ goods,” he explains. “SATO RFID wristbands have also played a significant role in healthcare via their track and trace technology, which helps limit the spread of the virus. There are also consumer apps which utilise RFID technology, as well as click and collect processes for retail.

“In the past decade, the advancements in RFID technology have been enormous. If the world had suffered from a pandemic of this scale ten years ago, businesses may not have been quite as prepared. But with consumers requiring convenience, flexibility and on-demand mobility, it’s given technology the chance to expand and evolve to where we are now.”

Remote management

Lassus reflects that we know remote management is now a way of life for many of us. “However, if we can safely work on site with the customer, it enables SATO to deliver a much better, improved customer service,” he says. “By collaborating with our customers, we can then provide the best solution for the task at hand. Whether that’s selecting a device that offers voice control, PDF Direct Print, AEP, SOS and more, by knowing our customer inside-out we can help them drive efficiency and accuracy in their business, while accelerating speed to market and reducing overall costs. At SATO, we believe technology works best when powered on site.”

Hygiene requirements

Richard Gilliard, managing director, Renovotec, makes the point that data capture is limited by the need for Covid-19 hygiene. “After use, handheld devices must now be left for 72 hours or fully disinfected; the problem being that most plastics deteriorate following the repeated application of disinfectant,” he explains. “Now, one handheld manufacturer has upgraded all its devices to the same level of plastic as its medical handhelds. There is apparently no price premium for the higher grade of plastic that is now being used across their range.”

Also with regard to the current pandemic, Gilliard explains that major distribution centre-based operators are increasing the number of picking bays because they don’t want workers to be positioned too close together. “This, in turn, increases the number of devices that are needed for scanning and data capture,” he says. “Seasonal demands add to the pressure: one solution is to rent devices. This is happening more as we enter that period.”

Renovotec is about to introduce a very timely technology that captures personnel health data. “It uses a mix of infrared imaging technology and AI to conduct an accurate-to-within-0.3-degrees-centigrade, two-second-capture facial temperature screening of personnel entering distribution centres and other types of facility – and can be rapidly deployed at the entrance to a factory, airport, distribution centre, stadium or office block,” explains Gilliard.

“A high-resolution thermal imaging camera can automatically screen a large number of people as they pass in front of it and immediately detect, capture and display any elevated temperature on a monitor. One major retailer’s picking environment, for example, has 4000 pickers working during peak periods: this device will capture data for a potential transmitter (so-called ‘super spreader’) of Covid-19, influenza and other temperature-related diseases at point of entry, saving time, money and potentially, lives.”

Fashion and sports in the data capture fast lane

According to Gilliard, fashion and sports retailers are arguably the fastest growing users of data capture devices at the moment. “For example, one leading retailer has placed an order with us for 400 handheld scanners,” he points out. “Another has just placed a large order to expand their voice data capture environment, while a further retailer has taken the same step but by renting voice data capture devices for the Christmas period.”

Gilliard also points out that a new, smaller generation of scanning engine is now being installed in PDA devices; one that enables integrated near-and-far scanning. “Previously scan engines were too big to fit into such devices (they were only suitable for near-use scanning such as package receipt),” he says. “But now, with the more powerful scanning engines reduced in size, their maximum scan capability has increased from 10 centimetres to a maximum 10 metres – suitable for warehouse top-shelf product data capture. This takes away cost and complexity and also means that near-to-far scanning devices can now be used as an alternative to a wearable warehouse device, with the addition of a small blue tooth finger trigger.”

Gilliard considers that one AIDC minus point is the plethora of cheap copies of data capture devices from China and other grey market manufacturing hubs. “The device is a small part of any data capture device purchase: the support, technical fixes and online security patches are equally important,” he says. “Major manufacturer kit costs more but is properly supported. As the saying goes, ‘buy cheap, buy twice’.” Returning to what is good about AIDC, Gilliard points out that data capture continues to be a massive growth market. “At the end of the day, Google and its competitors are data capture environments, and arguably almost everything is becoming a form of data capture in today’s IoT/IIoT world,” he says. “Going forward, the key will be the ways in which data is captured – barcode? RFID tag? Reading out a number? – how to capture data in the most efficient and secure way. Here good advice can save time and money.”

Regarding drivers for change, Gilliard considers that with uncertainty being rife at the moment, data capture flexibility is important. “We find that rent to buy is becoming increasingly attractive for supply chain companies who can rent data capture devices by the month or quarter with the option to buy them later at a reduced price when the rental that has been paid is offset against the cost of purchase,” he explains. From a demand standpoint, Gilliard comments that Renovotec’s managed print services (MPS) division is finding that mobile printers’ ability to capture data and print barcodes on the move is growing in popularity. “It increases operational flexibility and speeds data capture,” he explains.

The rise of Android

In terms of key trends, John Greenwood, systems integration specialist, Dakota Integrated Solutions, observes that one of the big sea changes in the AIDC world in recent times has been the Android operating system. “The system offers particularly fast processing, large memory storage, large screens, system efficiency, reliable security, increased productivity and high levels of accuracy,” he says. “Microsoft support for Windows CE, one of the previous leading operating systems, is being reduced and Apple’s system iOS is mainly consumer grade, so I believe Android is the go-to system for companies using AIDC in the business world – whether that’s manufacturers, warehouse professionals, field service operatives, logistics companies or healthcare professionals etc. At Dakota, we can help companies to migrate to Android seamlessly and within a short timeframe."

Preparing for the post-pandemic reset

Recent Gartner research has outlined some current top data and analytics technology trends that can help data and analytics leaders navigate their Covid-19 response and recovery and prepare for a post-pandemic reset. “To innovate their way beyond a post-COVID-19 world, data and analytics leaders require an ever-increasing velocity and scale of analysis in terms of processing and access to succeed in the face of unprecedented market shifts,” says Rita Sallam, distinguished research vice president at Gartner. She believes data and analytics leaders should examine the following 10 data and analytics trends to accelerate renewal or recovery post COVID-19 pandemic:

Trend 1: Smarter, Faster, More Responsible AI – By the end of 2024, 75% of organisations will shift from piloting to operationalising artificial intelligence (AI), driving a 5 times increase in streaming data and analytics infrastructures.

Within the current pandemic context, AI techniques such as machine learning (ML), optimisation and natural language processing (NLP) are providing vital insights and predictions about the spread of the virus and the effectiveness and impact of countermeasures. Other smarter AI techniques such as reinforcement learning and distributed learning are creating more adaptable and flexible systems to handle complex business situations; for example, agent-based systems that model and simulate complex systems.

Trend 2: Decline of the dashboard – Dynamic data stories with more automated and consumerised experiences will replace visual, point-and-click authoring and exploration. As a result, the amount of time users spend using predefined dashboards will decline. The shift to dynamic data stories that leverage for example augmented analytics or NLP, means that the most relevant insights will stream to each user based on their context, role or use.

Trend 3: Decision intelligence – By 2023, more than 33% of large organisations will have analysts practicing decision intelligence, including decision modeling. Decision intelligence brings together several disciplines, including decision management and decision support. It provides a framework to help data and analytics leaders design, model, align, execute, monitor and tune decision models and processes in the context of business outcomes and behaviour.

Trend 4: X Analytics – Gartner coined the term “X analytics” to be an umbrella term, where X is the data variable for a range of different structured and unstructured content such as text analytics, video analytics, audio analytics, etc.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, AI has been critical in combing through thousands of research papers, news sources, social media posts and clinical trials data to help medical and public health experts predict disease spread, capacity-plan, find new treatments and identify vulnerable populations. X analytics combined with AI and other techniques such as graph analytics will play a key role in identifying, predicting and planning for natural disasters and other crises in the future.

Trend 5: Augmented data management – Augmented data management uses ML and AI techniques to optimise and improve operations. It also converts metadata from being used in auditing, lineage and reporting to powering dynamic systems. 

Augmented data management products can examine large samples of operational data, including actual queries, performance data and schemas. Using the existing usage and workload data, an augmented engine can tune operations and optimise configuration, security and performance.

Cloud is a given

Trend 6: Cloud is a given – By 2022, public cloud services will be essential for 90% of data and analytics innovation. As data and analytics moves to the cloud, data and analytics leaders still struggle to align the right services to the right use cases, which leads to unnecessary increased governance and integration overhead.

The question for data and analytics is moving from how much a given service costs to how it can meet the workload’s performance requirements beyond the list price. Data and analytics leaders need to prioritize workloads that can exploit cloud capabilities and focus on cost optimisation when moving to cloud.

Trend 7: Data and analytics worlds collide – Data and analytics capabilities have traditionally been considered distinct entities and managed accordingly. Vendors offering end-to-end workflows enabled by augmented analytics blur the distinction between the two markets. The collision of data and analytics will increase interaction and collaboration between historically separate data and analytics roles. This impacts not only the technologies and capabilities provided, but also the people and processes that support and use them. The spectrum of roles will extend from traditional data and analytics to information explorer and citizen developer as examples.

Trend 8: Data marketplaces and exchanges – By 2022, 35% of large organisations will be either sellers or buyers of data via formal online data marketplaces, up from 25% in 2020. Data marketplaces and exchanges provide single platforms to consolidate third-party data offerings and reduce costs for third-party data.

Trend 9: Blockchain in data and analytics – Blockchain technologies address two challenges in data and analytics. First, blockchain provides the full lineage of assets and transactions. Second, blockchain provides transparency for complex networks of participants. Outside of limited bitcoin and smart contract use cases, ledger database management systems (DBMSs) will provide a more attractive option for single-enterprise auditing of data sources. By 2021, Gartner estimates that most permissioned blockchain uses will be replaced by ledger DBMS products.

Trend 10: Relationships form the foundation of data and analytics value – By 2023, graph technologies will facilitate rapid contextualisation for decision making in 30% of organisations worldwide. Graph analytics is a set of analytic techniques that allows for the exploration of relationships between entities of interest such as organisations, people and transactions. It helps data and analytics leaders find unknown relationships in data and review data not easily analysed with traditional analytics.

Data – the new jet fuel

With regard to the world of manufacturing, logistics, warehousing and retail and the part mobile devices can play, Alan Salton, director of innovation, Panorama Consulting Group, considers that it is essentially all about data. “You could say data is the new jet fuel – it’s what’s driving everything in terms of where we want to be right now and where we want to go in the future,” he says. “The world is changing very fast and so is the role data can play. Both from a business and operational perspective, more and more people are talking about the Internet of Things (IOT) or, more accurately within the world of manufacturing and logistics, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

However, I believe many people don't fully understand IIoT and what benefits it can bring to their company. Essentially, IIoT is where your information technology intersects with your operational technology. Most people know about the IT part – the ERP, the CRM or supply chain management systems – but the operational technologies and all the data that feeds into them are not so well understood. For example, over the past few years there has been an enormous proliferation in the use of devices within manufacturing, such as cameras on the shop floor, sensors on production equipment and on mobile devices, embedded processors and even facial recognition software. All these devices rely on data but efficient utilisation of the data isn’t achieved as best as it could be in many instances.”

Salton continues: “So, IIoT devices collect data that is then fed into the IT systems. The problem is that with the explosion of data and the number of devices that are often now involved, a lot of this data has no context, structure or utility and is therefore not nearly as useful and valuable to a company as it could be. It’s too random and too complex to be adequately understood and applied for the benefit of the company. So, companies need to be able to take this large and complex amount of unstructured data, analyse it and make it relevant for various business and operational personnel in order for them to utilise the data to their mutual advantage.”

Structure and meaning

Salton explains that once the data has been structured, there are two main levels it can be assigned to. “The first is the strategic level – what you want to do with this data, and how it ties in with your corporate goals and objectives. The second level is about machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). Because of the amount of data and the complexities involved, managing and making sense of data can be beyond the scope of people unaided. They need some high-tech assistance. This is why using machine learning and AI at a micro level is needed to start to give all this data some structure and meaning that translates into business and operational benefit for the organisation. One of the key benefits of machine learning and AI is it can look for patterns and micro-trends; things that people typically would not notice just by looking at information and statistics on a screen.”

Salton elaborates: “By finding these patterns and trends – for example, related to customer buying patterns and seasonality – companies can improve service levels in the supply chain and react almost in real-time as they see changes in customers’ behaviour. Machine learning and AI could even be used to analyse and make sense of the data coming from websites related to customer interest levels in particular products, together with their actual buying patterns. Again, this can help companies to provide the best possible service to customers as well as help to optimise their supply chains – for example, stock levels in the warehouse.”

Machine learning and AI can also play an important role within the manufacturing space, as Salton explains. “Take preventive maintenance, for example. In the same way machine learning and AI can give companies the ability to access the right type of customer-related data, aggregate it, organise it, visualise it and utilise it, today’s embedded sensor technology together with machine learning and AI can give companies the ability to plot trends related to the performance of production machinery on the shopfloor – for example, providing the right type of data to determine when parts are likely to need replacing (maybe based on historical trend data), optimum times to conduct a service based on production peaks and troughs and so on. Additionally, machine learning and AI can help to optimise efficiencies in the way products are made. By using the data collected from sensors and cameras fitted on and around production machinery you can more easily measure any slight variations and nuances in operation and performance.”

Machine learning and AI together with efficient data collection and the use of cameras and sensors can also help to optimise a company’s routing and transportation regime. “For example, take the replenishment requirements of a vending machine through embedded sensors connected to the Internet,” says Salton. “As people consume products at the vending machine, the machine can send information in real-time back to the supplier. This process can start a snowball effect in terms of how it disrupts the supply chain for the better. Traditionally, drivers would arrive in a truck containing everything that could possibly fit in all the vending machines on their route. They would open the vending machine, determine what was missing, then open the truck and start refilling.

“From a forecasting and supply chain optimisation perspective, this is hardly an efficient way of doing things. The forecasts were often inaccurate, so the trucks would likely contain a lot of irrelevant, unwanted products, often resulting in a high level of spoilage due to the limited sell-by dates of some products. With sensors, cameras, machine learning and AI, companies can better monitor customers’ buying behaviours. The company can send a replenishment order to the supplier outlining exactly what products are need and in what quantities. There can also be major optimisation benefits for the suppliers. For example, they can allocate packaging bins containing exactly the required products for each customer and each vending machine. So, better managing the data that flows from customers and suppliers through IIoT, machine learning and AI can help to optimise the entire supply chain.”

Broader adoption

According to David Krebs, executive vice president, VDC Research, the fundamentals driving mobile computing investments/adoption have not changed substantially over the years and remain rooted in the desire to enable real-time decision making, at scale, in a highly distributed fabric. “Improvements to mobile solutions – as expressed in faster processors, improved battery life, higher bandwidth and more reliable wireless networks, more intuitive applications and lower cost of ownership – are all contributing to broader adoption and reliance on mobility solutions,” he says. “Clearly, with COVID-19, 2020 has been atypical. We have seen greater emphasis around mobile device sterilisation/cleaning – especially for shared devices – and for example using sensors for social distancing alerts.” From an industry perspective, Krebs has seen the following developments in 2020:

Retail

  • Permanent behaviour shifts to online and delivery across all customer segments. Surge of first-time online users, especially in the grocery segment and among 50+ consumers. This behavioural shift will persist post-pandemic as more shoppers embrace frictionless options.
  • Growing profit challenges. With e-commerce boost – especially in grocery – added costs of fulfilment, delivery and transportation will challenge already margin-thin sector.
  • Renewed focus on retail frontline workers. Ensuring health and continuity of food supply chain has shifted focus to new class of ‘essential’ workers. As a result, supply chain security and workforce management becoming ever-more critical.
  • Increased emphasis on visibility. Retailers with the greatest visibility into operations have been able to pivot more effectively. Offering curbside checkout and using stores as fulfilment centres have provided critical lifeline for many non-food retailers.
  • Self-service & contactless reimagined. Bridging of digital and physical divides driving increased customer engagement opportunities.
  • Supply chain realignment. Shift in channel preference coupled with stock-outs and lack of capacity in segments like e-commerce grocery creating an environment poised for disruption.

Supply Chain & Logistics

  • Decentralisation of manufacturing capacity, with companies looking to bring production home. This trend grew with the likes of automation and small batch production.
  • Global firms will diversify their supply chains in the future, instead of relying only on China. Manufacturing hubs such as Vietnam, Mexico, and India are likely to benefit from that shift.
  • Traceability and serialisation efforts to extend beyond pharmaceuticals and into fresh foods. Programs being rolled out to match food service distributors with excess capacity food retailers and wholesalers that require additional resources.
  • Continued capacity strain on last mile delivery services.

Warehousing

  • The top priorities for warehousing operations in general are same-day shipping, or to increase fulfilment speeds in general, and to improve operational/inventory visibility. These are driven by current market needs such as item-level fulfilment, e-commerce demands on speed and accuracy, and the growing problem of returns processing.
  • Greater emphasis on workforce management and the connected essential warehouse worker. From onboarding and training to retention and support, greater emphasis on enabling workers with the right tools to drive productivity and safety.
  • Growing emphasis on automation to offset labour challenges.
  • The big picture goal here is to improve the financial impact that the warehouse has on the organisation – “how can we reduce costs while leveraging them to be more competitive and increase revenues?”

Healthcare

  • Explosion of tele-health services. Impact on turnkey services including billing and coding, remote monitoring and online digital evaluation including mobile telehealth triage solutions.
  • Standing up remote testing clinics ushers in new distributed healthcare service options during crises.
  • Acceleration of digital efforts in healthcare settings. From patient check-in and ID to specimen collection and management and medication administration. 

Blockchain

Nandini Bhattacharya, industry manager in Frost & Sullivan's Industrial Practice, considers that convergence of various technologies such as RFID/RTLS, biometrics, Internet of Things (IoT), and blockchain is an interesting development that has happened in the recent times. In addition, she points out that artificial intelligence (AI), and Big Data analytics are increasingly being added on top of the latest solution platforms. “This trend will continue, and the industry will increasingly see implementation of solutions that support convergence of various technologies and has the real-time intelligent decision-making capability based on AI and data analytics,” she says.

In terms of drives for these developments, Bhattacharya makes the point that today's businesses are rapidly changing and adopting new business models. “Companies are looking for greater mobility due to global business operations and remote workforce,” she says. “In order to address the needs of customers, which are changing rapidly, companies are focusing on personalised products, solutions and services. The one-size-fits-all mantra does not work in today's age and customisation or personalisation is the key to offer greater customer experience and customer satisfaction. As a result, businesses are increasingly depending upon IoT-based applications, AI and Big Data analytics to understand customer behaviours and preferences. RFID and RTLS technology connected to IoT can offer the end to end visibility and greater control.”

Bhattacharya adds that businesses also need to protect important business information from potential cyberattacks. “Biometric technology offers the much-needed security and prevents unauthorised access,” she explains. “In addition, blockchain provides greater accountability by keeping a footprint of all kinds of business transactions that are happening. As a result, technology and solution providers are increasingly developing products and solutions that support RFID and RTLS with biometrics or blockchain or both. For example, smart card manufacturers are now focusing on biometric smart cards for chip and contactless payments. The biometric smart cards are highly secure and increase the security aspects of regular smart cards manifolds. Another example would be supply chain visibility. RFID and RTLS along with IoT can bring in the visibility needed in the complex supply chain. The blockchain technology establishes the authenticity and quality of physical assets, 2hile digital payment authenticated by biometric technology or biometric based logical access control can ensure that there are no unauthorised access of data or systems.”

Differentiation

What are some of the key areas of differentiation within today’s AIDC/mobile computing marketplace? Bhattacharya cites the following:

  1. Technologies are no more isolated, but work with other technologies to provide better results.
  2. RFID/ RTLS solutions are advanced now that can support mass customisation with greater accuracy and visibility.
  3. The role of software is becoming important. The software solutions need to support various technologies, ensure that the solutions work seamlessly. In addition, the software also needs to have AI and data analytics components to support intelligent and databased decision making.
  4. The software players are focusing on SaaS-based business models.
  5. RFID and RTLS companies are working towards developing different solutions for indoor and outdoor applications. For example, Bluetooth low energy based (BLE) solutions are fast evolving and are being preferred in close proximity indoor and outdoor applications.
  6. For enhanced efficiency and productivity, RFID is now integrated with autonomous robots, and cobots.

Product categories related to AIDC and mobile computing have matured substantially and increasingly standardised around processor technology and OS, observes Krebs. “That said, we are still seeing some interesting differentiation, especially in how mobile computing solutions and data capture technologies are being applied,” he adds. “The camera and its abilities (to read barcodes, identify items, support OCR, etc.) is certainly one area where we continue to see advances, especially around computer vision and detection systems. In addition, we are seeing OEMs like Samsung leverage the mirroring capabilities native to Android to develop their DeX (Desktop Experience) solution. Use cases such as in-vehicle computing (i.e. coupling a smartphone with a display and keyboard) to ‘mimic’ a full desktop/PC experience is gaining interest and traction in areas such as public safety/first responders, utilities and transportation/logistics. Also seeing interesting developments around device analytics to manage and support large mobile estates more effectively. Finally, the integration of voice technology in certain workflows is becoming more common and provides a natural interface between the user and the device which is especially important in workflows where hands-free operations is critical.” 

Back-office

And what of the relationship between AIDC/mobile computer/RFID systems and back-office systems? Lassus considers that the Auto ID industry must fulfil every standard IT system output faced in a business environment. “Printing must facilitate those standards at a local level, so that the end user can easily utilise the applications provided at their fingertips,” he says. “As touched on previously, devices must be flexible to allow for user-based thinking. Perhaps one of the key changes in back-office systems recently is its ability to understand the action that’s needed before the user takes it. “This need for high flexibility and adaptability is widely used within our range of intelligent SATO printers. So, no matter how the data is formatted at the company, our printers can easily understand this raw data and convert it into a business-critical label. While the process of converting data is expensive, the user can still manipulate the data to say exactly what type of label they’d prefer (i.e. standard or RFID), which reduces costs and printer error.”

What have been the subsequent benefit improvements for the user? Lassus believes some of the greatest benefits for end users are targeted towards the idea that ‘less is more’. “If we can make our customers' lives easier with less manual labour so that they can speed up time to market for the consumer, that’s certainly a win-win situation – and SATO solutions do just that,” he says. “Our range of printers come with features that ensure no middleware is required. This means data can be processed faster with less manual work, with a much larger reliance on automated tasks. Of course, printing can also be done anywhere, no matter your location, making it perfect for those working remotely. In addition, SATO only uses open source software (i.e. AEP), which means no licence fees apply making it much more cost-effective for the user.”

Greenwood considers that the more state-of-the-art back-office systems (ERP, WMS, MES etc.) are now not only more functionality-rich but can also be more easily integrated with best-of-breed mobility solutions. “I’m heartened by the fact that I often speak with customers that are looking to install new back-office systems and want to source a system that is readily mobile enabled,” he says. “Today, people can run a business system from pretty much anywhere in the world by simply running a browser on a mobile device integrated to a back-office system. Of course, this is a massive improvement compared with legacy systems. When I started selling business solutions many companies were running IBM mainframes that took up space the size of my current office. When I first showed them terminal emulation connectivity in the early ’90s they were blown away even though the ‘handheld devices’ were the size of a house brick. Little did we know that with the explosion of personal phone usage and technology they would soon be the size of a packet of cigarettes. Now of course this is a given, with most businesses running business applications on a mobile device. Of course, there are still companies out there that for reasons best known to themselves – likely financial – still use legacy software. Nevertheless, we can still supply brand-new Android mobile equipment that can be used with old green screen technology to talk to these old business systems if necessary."

Renovotec has just introduced a network monitoring service, driven by feedback from its supply chain customers. “Much of the appeal seems to be cost: in a data-driven environment, 24/7 monitoring is a lower-cost way of securing the network,” says Gilliard. “The ‘data about data’ produced by the service also helps users to leverage the intelligence in their network.” Continuing on a supply chain-related theme, Gilliard reflects on Brexit. “Brexit means more administration and less profit, which in turn will lead to increased cost in the supply chain that one way or another we are all going to have to bear,” he says. “Some bigger distributors are opening new, strategically sited warehousing and logistics operations in the UK to ‘ship round’ the Brexit problem and protect the flow of goods within the large, consumer-driven UK market.”

For Krebs’, the need for real-time visibility across supply chains and trading partners is clear. “Serialisation efforts are underway in several sectors including pharmaceutical products and, for example, for alcohol and tobacco products in select country markets,” he explains. “Retailers with the greatest/most accurate visibility into their inventory/operations have fared best at seamlessly pivoting to/rolling out omni-channel shopping options such as BOPIS/Click & Collect and curbside checkout during the current pandemic.” However, according to Krebs’ a big challenge for organisations is that their databases are often not set up to process or consume the additional information – such as lot and date codes, serialised content, etc. – and are often truncating data they scan/read from barcodes or RFID tags. In addition, Krebs observes that many organisations are also not sufficiently sharing data with trading partners, which can lead to increased inefficiencies and the burden – for example in retail – of excessive safety stocks.

Bhattacharya believes the data capture relationship with back-office systems is an important aspect. “Solutions are becoming complex with multiple technologies converging together,” she says. “As a result, the latest platforms support multiple technologies. Also, these solutions need to be customisable depending upon the business requirements. Hence, it is absolutely essential that various components of these solutions work seamlessly. Also, these solutions need to be integrated well with the ERP, WMS, and CRM systems. Seamless integration with ERP ensures that the technology implementation is working fine and producing the desired results which are recorded by the ERP for decision making. WMS allows companies to efficiently manage their warehouses and reduce losses. CRM is increasingly becoming important in today's age. Companies are trying to understand the customer requirements and preferences. At the same time companies are opening up continuous and two-way communication with customers. Constant feedback from the customers is then taken into account for improving their business processes.”

The future

And what of future developments in the world of AIDC and Mobile Computing? Bhattacharya believes the IoT connectivity, convergence of various technologies and improved versions of CRM will present a scenario in the near future where a customer sitting in the US will be able to order a product totally customized as per his personal preference from a company based in Europe that is manufacturing the product in its manufacturing unit in Asia. “The customer will get real-time status updates of his product right from the stage of conceptualisation to the end result,” she says. “If necessary, the customer can provide feedback or make changes in the product during the production process. The customer will also get real-time alerts and updates on the exact location of the product when in transit. If needed, the customer can also demand for the exact physical and environmental condition of his product in transit. The customer can choose to make payment through internet or mobile banking or cryptocurrency. The transaction is authenticated with the help of biometric technology and is legitimised with the help of blockchain. The company can study the customer's preferences and behaviour and promote different products and solutions to the customer based on the analysis.”

Mobile data capture is likely to become even more critical within sectors such as retail, believes Ball. He makes the point that customers have of course been used to sitting at their table after which a waiter or waitress has come to take their order. Then, the order has been delivered in person at the table. Once the meal is finished, customers have paid for it in person at the counter by handing over cash or paying with a credit or debit card. And although mobile devices were already moving in the direction of more self-service, such as order screens, Ball believes health and safety has now come more to the fore with the pandemic, which could speed up the wider use of this type of technology. “I can envision this becoming more of a way of life within the restaurant and hospitality industry – partly out of necessity from a health and safety perspective,” he says. “Whereas this type of technology might initially have been put in place as a convenient and novel way of taking orders this may become more the norm.” For example, Ball envisages that a device on the table could become more common whereby people key in information on the screen as to what they want to order. “Also, when you walk into a outlet you could receive an opt-in notice on your mobile phone to look at the menu online, then key in your order,” he says. So, he adds that now we are taking about a device that only you are touching – the customer is not keying in information or signing his or her name on a device that is used by other customers.

Mulroy remarks that the pandemic has created exceptional levels of demand, which have led to increased hiring. “Before then, Zebra’s 2024 Warehouse Vision Study revealed that recruitment was a significant challenge for 60% of warehouse operators,” he explains. “Lockdowns and shielding have exacerbated this. Even if new staff are available, improving throughput and workflows within warehouse operations is not solved by simply adding more people. Our customers tell us the reason for this is that in an average warehouse, getting new staff up to speed so they can perform as efficiently as established staff, takes 4 and a half weeks. This is an enormous resource drain. Typical busy periods might last 3 months, and the extra staff hired to deal with these peaks might not be able work effectively for a third of that time. Efficient device training and onboarding is even more critical in the new normal. Zebra provides Video on Device (VoD) tutorials. These easy-to-follow, how-to videos enable training to be done via the device, helping to accelerate worker onboarding and adoption time. Maintaining warehouse productivity and worker efficiency is key to meet increasing customer demand. Warehouse operators and logistics companies have to invest in new technology and ensure they have the return on investment expected to stay competitive.”

Gilliard reflects that he AIDC world is changing rapidly. With this in mind, he explains that Renovotec users will soon be able to deploy QR codes that use facial recognition to produce a unique barcode that relates only to ‘you’. “For example, at events where perhaps for GDPR (general data protection regulation) reasons the organiser isn’t permitted to hold your image on their database, that data can be held in a QR code on your phone or other device. So, facial recognition via a barcode,” he says.

Greenwood reflects that the move towards more e-commerce transactions has put a greater strain on the brick-and-mortar store in the high street, and this trend has become even stronger due to COVID-19. “I don’t think this trend is going to go away any time soon and the high street will likely look a very different place in the not too distant future,” he says. “COVID-19 has also resulted in less cash transactions and likely moved the trend towards cashless payments forward by about five years or so. So, because of the move towards more and more cashless payments, there will be an even greater increase in demand for the types of mobility and POS solutions that can make cashless payments as safe, convenient and quick as possible."


This
Special Technology report can also be read in the October issue of Manufacturing & Logistics IT magazine.

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