Increasing demand for faster, more accurate, real-time information is pushing the boundaries of data capture technology. But is the plethora of bells and whistles getting in the way? Jessica Davies reports.
The data capture technology market is bursting with innovative new products, each designed to strip error and boost traceability across supply chain and logistics operations. Advancement in miniaturisation has bred generation after generation of electronic devices – each smaller, lighter, and more powerful than their predecessors.
Not only is the technology evolving, but so is the way users can pay for it. Mark Croxton, managing director of Aldata UK, reckons the market is moving towards using open rather than proprietary systems, which means that the costs can be spread across multiple applications. He points to this as the cheapest method of payment available, adding that the level of competition among manufacturers “will drive the costs down even further”.
Larry Klimczyk, chief executive of Blackbay, reckons there is increasing demand for devices that “do everything”. This includes anything from integrated satellite navigation and bluetooth capability, to scanning and image capture functions, all of which can be run on a single mobile device. “Customers need data capture solutions that can handle multiple job functions from the delivery driver to the in-field supervisor,” he says.
Most of the latest rugged mobile devices are 3G-enabled; taking advantage of an increase in bandwidth and delivering faster transmission of data. They also provide real-time visibility and data transfer, integrated WAN (GPRS) radios, one-dimensional (1D) and two-dimensional (2D) barcode scanning; image and signature capture functions; and are often RFID-compatible. “Data capture solutions must offer all of this functionality to successfully replace a paper-based management system with an enterprise mobility one,” says Klimczyk.
Colin Pike, country manager, Datalogic Mobile UK, says that technological advances in miniaturisation have sparked the emergence of converged devices. As a result, Datalogic’s range features mobile devices with integrated barcode scanning, voice recognition and RF data capture. Pike points to the Datalogic Memor pocket terminal as one of the lightest and most compact hand-held terminals on the market.
Terran Churcher, managing director of mobile data specialist Codegate, says that hand-held products now offer “previously unheard of flexibility in communications”. Barcode scanning used to mean aiming a red laser line across the barcode, he says, but most devices now use image capturing to achieve the same result, removing the need to orientate the device to the barcode.
“Pictures can be taken of work issues experienced in the field, for example the front door of a delivery address, proving delivery was attempted. The captured picture can be geo-tagged, date and time stamped to ensure adherence to SLAs, aiding business transparency, promoting corporate mutual trust,” explains Churcher.
The transition from 1D to 2D technology is a trend currently influencing the market. David Downey, general manger, data capture operations, Intermec, says: “This fast-paced technology is revolutionising production, tracking and maintenance processes and this trend shows no signs of slowing down.”
2D scanning technology can capture more information in a smaller space and the functionality capabilities are more flexible, for example scanning stacked or multiple codes. “There was a time when 2D scanning was relatively slower than 1D and some users have shown hesitancy because of this, but the performance of these scanners has improved to the point where they are equal to or faster than some 1D technologies,” says Downey.
Omni-directional technology has also influenced the market and improved performance. By combining this with the latest 2D products, users can read a larger variety of codes, from further away, even if the codes are damaged. With the development of near-far area imaging, 2D barcodes can now be read at distances ranging from six inches to 50 feet.
Pike reckons vehicle mounted terminal design has changed hugely. “These days many devices feature touch screen keypads,” he says. “This eliminates the need for a separate physical keypad and so reduces maintenance costs and total ownership costs. It also makes it easy to implement changes and improve the user interface by providing larger, more visible virtual keys.”
Given that the core functions of data capture hand-helds are the same, competition is fierce among manufacturers to find new ways to differentiate their devices. Zetes’ Andrew Southgate says: “Certain manufacturers have begun including unusual features that are not necessarily beneficial for the customer” in an attempt to do this – pointing to digital compasses as an example.
Andrew Donn, director, northern Europe, Honeywell Scanning and Mobility, agrees, adding that as a result, manufacturers are bringing out more and more buzzwords. Opinions differ over the usefulness of functions such as accelerometers, which inform the user how many times a particular device has been dropped.
This function bears a striking resemblance to Apple’s iPhone, which also features an accelerometer sensor. It enables the hand-held’s screen to switch between landscape and portrait when it’s rotated – just like an iPhone. “Functions are being brought out that are more relevant to the general public rather than logistics companies,” says Donn. “The fundamental core of these devices is scanning – this shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Ebbie Khadem, managing director, Spirit Data Capture, says that some manufacturers are even offering enhanced data capture features such as direct part mark reading and UV barcode reading.
The cost of investing in completely new data capture hardware can be significant. Ownership costs can escalate, as a result of hidden costs; for example, batteries not being included, and no extended warranty. “Customers are becoming very savvy about hidden costs,” says Donn.
Honeywell has launched its Service Made Simple “all-inclusive” package, available in three or five-year programmes; in a move to cut out extra costs being added further down the line.
Pike says the cost of mobile devices has “tumbled” in recent years. When it comes to upgrading devices, he says the existing Wireless LAN can continue to be used, which helps limit the replacement costs. “When compared to the escalating costs of maintaining old legacy mobile devices, the ROI often works out to be quite rapid.”
Manufacturers are also coming up with ways to extend the life of existing estates. Zetes introduced a new goods receipting system for retailer Dunelm Mill, which involved integrating legacy hand-held terminals with its SAP retail system. This gave the retailer a real-time data capture system that can be upgraded quickly as and when it purchases new hardware.
Churcher says: “As with all things computer-related the price rarely comes down, instead the features increase within the same size package. In some instances it is possible to upgrade from a previous model to the most recent model while keeping the peripherals previously used.
“The Honeywell Dolphin 9900, which replaces the Dolphin 9500, offers more memory, a faster processor and better display, but previously-used peripherals can be used with the newer model, maximising ROI. Unlike desktop PCs, mobile devices are rarely upgradable by the user and after spending three years in the field, often don’t look good enough to want to upgrade.”
Khadem believes that this is where the value of the re-seller comes in, “by adding packages such as device management, pre-configuration, battery charging and many other pre and post install features. Many customers are now deploying data capture solutions backed by cost effective finance lease packages. This spreads the cost of the implementation which can include a technology refresh in the future.”
Klimczyk says that an increasing number of enterprise mobility solution providers offer managed services which include the software, devices, provisioning and support of data capture solutions. These services can be offered on a pay per user per month over 12, 24, 36 or even 60 months.
Jade Communications has launched its Mobility as a Service package, designed to give transport and logistics companies an “affordable, hassle-free, quick and easy way to implement mobile technology”. Managing director Mark Brackley says this particular package is becoming increasingly popular as users can pay monthly and it helps reduce maintenance and support costs.
Available from £20 per user per month, the package includes rugged mobile devices, specially-designed software, accessories and service desk support. Typical functionality available with the package includes mobile office and e-mail, project management and scheduling, asset management and inspection, navigation and route optimisation.
A large question mark still hovers over the future of RFID, and whether hand-helds should be RFID-ready. Pike says: “The provision for RFID should not be a requirement for the vast majority of logistics applications. The ability to scan newer barcode types (the global GS1 DataBar standard), which are beginning to emerge in the retail supply chain, is a fundamental requirement to be compliant with.”
Khadem agrees, saying: “We are still waiting for RFID to hit the market in a big way and the number of projects where RFID is the preferred choice of data capture has increased very slowly.
“RFID implementations tend to be in specific areas of the supply chain, where there is high value asset management, or in applications such as ticket and tracking. The number of products with RFID integrated, is still somewhat limited.”
And Honeywell is set to launch a new range of devices this quarter, which do not feature integrated RFID capability.
However, Pierre Bonnefoy, director of RFID solutions at Psion Teklogix, believes there are RFID developments that can provide “revolutionary new functions” for logistics managers. “Near-field communications provide new services like payment, pairing between devices, security functions, and access control. Ultra high frequency (UHF) near-field tags allow the use of UHF devices with water or products that include metal such as jewellery and pharmaceutical applications,” he says.
Bonnefoy says that RFID is providing more return on investment on a larger number of applications, but only when the project is well managed, well defined and the reading ergonomics are clear. “If the RFID project is already planned and defined, but is to be implemented at a future stage of the programme, it is vital to make sure that the devices are upgradable. Otherwise, it is very challenging upgrading devices not selected for their RFID ability from the beginning, because of the poor reading ergonomics.”
Klimczyk says: “Because RFID technology gathers more data than traditional barcode solutions, there is a resulting increase in the amount of information needing to be transferred from the mobile worker to the back office systems. IT managers are looking for RFID solutions that will integrate with existing middleware and that will not require a major overhaul of legacy systems.”
Case Study: Hermes swaps paper for integrated mobility
Hermes rolled out one of the largest mobile workforce deployments of 2009. Blackbay, Barcode Warehouse, and Intermec joined forces to deliver the deal; designed to improve customer service by increasing the productivity and efficiency of the home delivery company’s couriers.
Blackbay’s Delivery Connect real-time mobile worker software is run on Intermec CN3 hand-held terminals, which have been issued to some 7,500 Hermes couriers, and The Barcode Warehouse is to provide overall support of the solution.
Hermes wanted to replace its paper-based system with a mobility solution which could provide real-time visibility on delivery and collection status via the myHermes web portal. Delivery Connect has been designed to provide electronic job management and electronic manifesting in the field, which also enables intelligent routeing, barcode scanning and POD via electronic data capture.
Carole Woodhead, chief executive of Hermes in the UK, says: “This [project] ensures we possess a full track and trace facility and creates invaluable management information and exception reporting. This in turn enables us to deliver even higher levels of service and better serve the delivery needs of high street, catalogue and internet retailers.” Pictures can be taken of work issues experienced in the field, for example the front door of a delivery address, proving delivery was attempted. The captured picture can be geo-tagged, date and time stamped.
Renovotec reckons open-source Linux-based mobile computers are on the up as an alternative to the traditional Windows CE-based devices – offering streamlined, real-time inventory control with savings up to £750 per terminal.
Linux takes on Windows
Renovotec’s Julian Patrick says that warehouse and distribution managers who have opted for RF data collection systems for faster, more accurate inventory control, may be caught out. “As the original, DOS-based terminal emulation systems they’ve relied on wear out, or are phased out by manufacturers, they’ve been pressured to turn to more costly, complex Windows-CE based systems.
“But many industry professionals are finding that open source Linux-based drop-in replacements for these old DOS devices running terminal emulation clients, provide real-time access to inventory applications, without the unnecessary bells and whistles of Windows CE-based systems,” he says.
Barry Germany, of Foulger Transport, says: “When upgrading our WMS, we saved about 40 per cent on our hardware costs by investing in Linux-based terminal emulation devices instead of Windows CE-based models.
“While Windows is great for desktop PCs and office applications, it was overkill for the RF requirements of our WMS.”
“Windows CE devices will continue to dominate the auto-ID market, however companies looking to invest in this technology should definitely be considering the option of Linux-based devices,” says Patrick.
Case Sudy: Hand-helds for put-away
Data capture solutions must offer all of this functionality to successfully replace a paper-based management system with an enterprise mobility one.
Home shopping channel giant QVC rolled out a Datalogic Mobile and Ryzex joint hand-held solution for its put-away applications in its warehouse for jewellery stock.
It wanted a device that was smaller and lighter than its previous units, and chose the Datalogic Skorpio device, which features an advanced ergonomic design.
QVC is still operating a large estate of legacy devices that have been discontinued by their original manufacturer. Ryzex’s ability to service end-of-life equipment at its European repair site, means that QVC can continue to use its older devices in conjunction with the new Datalogic Skorpios, and will only need to upgrade its legacy estate as and when it needs to.
Andy Shuker, WMS manager for QVC, says: “The Datalogic Skorpio has really helped our operations. The continued support from both Ryzex and Datalogic Mobile through the process has made the process of transitioning from one technology to another a seamless and easy process.”