2016 marked another celebrated year for the technology industry. During the year, we witnessed significant progress in autonomous vehicles, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities, robotics, the number of devices connected to the internet and the 5G wireless network etc.
As the industry continues to evolve and accelerate in 2017, Zebra Technologies is looking at the emerging industry trends for next year and how they will potentially impact enterprises in the year ahead.
Some of these trends include the use of virtual assistants with natural language capabilities along with the use of virtual reality and augmented reality, more advanced analytics, wearable technologies, smart tags and 3D barcodes, smart sensing, and autonomous systems and machine learning.
The possibilities that these technologies can bring to enterprises, customers, partners and end-users will ensure they are as connected and smart as the world we live in by giving them visibility that’s visionary.
Businesses will benefit from greater visibility into their assets, people and transactions
As “things” are increasingly affixed with barcodes and radio frequency identification (RFID) tags – or simply, sensors – they are given a digital voice to communicate with humans. Gartner forecasted 6.4 billion connected things would be in use worldwide in 2016, up 30 percent from 2015, and will reach 20.8 billion by 2020.
In 2017, there will be growing “talkability” in the business environment, thanks to devices that are now able to “speak” to each other. This will spur more interest for enterprises to increase their visibility to know better where an asset is, or even what condition it is in.
Tracking these assets relies heavily on data capture devices such as laser barcode scanners, two-dimensional (2D) barcode imagers and RFID readers and beacons to “talk”.
The devices help translate digits, printed patterns or encoded data into text that humans can interpret and understand easily. With growing demand for real-time insights and analytics, we expect to see a continued increase in demand for data capture devices.
Apart from operational visibility, it will be imperative for enterprises to have the visibility into the performance and health of a fleet of devices to ensure that they are running at their optimum. The failure of any device will have a direct impact on staff productivity, possibly put a dent in customer satisfaction, and ultimately on the organisation’s bottom line. Internal Zebra research of Zebra enterprise mobile computing deployments identified that a single device failure can result in up to 80 minutes of lost productivity. Implementing comprehensive management on these devices, such as Zebra’s cloud-based Operational Visibility Service, will provide actionable insights to make intelligent decisions to stem a problem before it starts.
Making sense of data before it “perishes”
Over the last few years, we have witnessed an exponential growth of unstructured data generated in almost all industries that have been disrupted by the Internet of Things (IoT) and data analytics. However, the conundrum remains – many organisations are unable to fully make sense of data before they lose their value.
At Zebra, we believe data is perishable. Its value is time-sensitive and has a limited shelf life. Businesses must make sense of data before it expires. However, enterprises are losing valuable insights as there are many disjointed sources generating and collecting data on their own, contributing to only bits and pieces of the bigger picture, instead of rendering a broad view.
Decoding these data collected through IoT-enabled devices and wearables will help companies accelerate their decision-making processes, and make more informed business judgments. According to IDC, every person online will create 1.7 megabytes of new data every second by 2020. At this rate, the concept of “perishable data” is more relevant than ever. We see that one of the challenges next year will be for businesses to translate captured data into actionable insights as fast as they can.
Doing more with devices
Each day, more consumer-grade devices powered by various operating systems (OS) are being embedded deeper into business operations – just think about how we use our smartphones, tablets, or laptops for work. Many organisations even allow, or encourage, its employees to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Despite being portable, flexible, and “cost effective,” these devices do not incorporate the kind of technological capabilities needed to achieve high performance and drive efficiency in an enterprise setting.
In 2017, enterprises will continue to look for new ways to enhance and expand the functionalities of their devices to try to achieve the level of performance on par with that of enterprise devices.
Additionally, we also anticipate that more and more functions and services will be incorporated into a single enterprise-grade device. We will see demand – in areas such as retail, healthcare, transportation and logistics (T&L), and manufacturing – for mobile devices that scan barcodes, measure objects using mobile dimensioning technologies, connect to the internet or intranet, make voice calls, and more. Similarly, enterprises will increasingly shift to 2D imaging technology for barcode scanning, as this is much more versatile in reading barcodes. Whether traditional or 2D, or if they are printed on paper or on a mobile screen, 2D scanners can capture these barcodes from various angles, off multiple surfaces, and piece together missing information from mangled barcodes.
Take wearables as another example. Those used in the warehouse are increasingly equipped with multi-modal features, allowing workers to access multiple functions in one device. The wearables can issue voice-directed commands, allowing users to receive instructions and undertake the task simultaneously, leading to 15% productivity gains according to internal Zebra industrial design/engineering research.
Mobile dimensioning is another trend picking up steam, especially in the T&L industry. In a market where shipping fees are increasingly charged by volumetric weight for lighter items, such as garments or gadgets, this ground-breaking technology enables field workers to measure the dimensions of a package with a single touch on their mobile device – doing away with the hassle and inefficiency of carrying and using a measuring tape.
Artificial Intelligence and automation will solve age-old supply chain problems
Despite the limited concerns around Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation displacing humans, supply chain strategists are looking forward to more of these technologies to be used in 2017 to boost productivity of workers. IDC has identified robotics as one of six innovation accelerators that will drive digital transformation by opening new revenue streams and changing the way work is performed. IDC forecasts global spending on robotics and related services to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 17% from more than $71 billion in 2015 to $135.4 billion in 2019.
Amazon and DHL have started employing robots for handling materials in their warehouses. These robots can lift and shift the goods about in the warehouse and bring them to workers who then pick and pack the items. This does away with the menial task of running down the aisles in warehouses and hand-picking items that need to be shipped, proving to be a major time- and money-saver.
Furthermore, businesses are looking to adopt more automated form factors in the years to come, such as roving robotic devices or flying drones that can read barcodes or RFID tags with little to no human intervention.
According to Zebra’s Warehouse Vision Study, seven in ten decision makers expect to accelerate their warehouse technology investments as heightened customer expectations are driving technology investments to improve fulfillment accuracy, reduce out-of-stock situations and shorten delivery times.
Enterprise-grade mobile devices gear up for OS choices
Consumer-grade devices are not efficient in addressing enterprise needs, as they are not made for the heavy-duty, demanding business-critical tasks undertaken in the enterprise environment.
While it may appear to be a cost-saver upfront, using consumer-grade devices in the enterprise environment entails a higher total cost of ownership (TCO). VDC Research estimates the average annual TCO of a rugged mobile computer is 44% lower than the average annual TCO of a non-rugged small form factor device. This is because over the course of five years, the cost for hardware will only account for 10% of TCO, and that of less obvious operational costs – such as productivity loss, opportunity loss, IT support, or repair – will make up 90% of the TCO.
As companies adopt more task-specific devices, they need to first decide on the mobile OS on which to build their applications. In the last decade, embedded versions of Microsoft Windows have traditionally been the preferred OS. However, the company will end support for Windows CE and Windows Embedded Handheld (WEH) 6.5, on which most enterprise-grade devices are currently running by 2020. This decision has thrust companies into choosing an alternative OS from a host of new options, such as Android, Microsoft Windows Embedded Handheld 8.1, Apple’s iOS, and HTML – each bringing its own pros and cons.
Notably, we have already observed an uptake in the adoption of the Android OS in the enterprise space. We have recently shipped our one millionth Android-based enterprise-grade device. With Zebra’s Mobility DNA suite of apps created for Android, Zebra’s Android-powered devices offer unmatched productivity, simpler management and easier integration into existing systems.
Locationing service is key to customer satisfaction
The sports industry has taken the lead in deploying industrial locationing technology used by warehouses and hospitals in innovative ways. The National Football League (NFL) players, for example, don gear with RFID tags secured in their shoulder pads so their movements can be accurately tracked in real-time, enabling more in-depth analysis of the dynamics taking place in the field and for fans to be engaged even more closely with play-by-play stats. Starting in the 2016 season, RFID tags have also been placed in the footballs to track their movement across all 120 yards.
By doing so, the sports leagues and fans can now glean a huge deal of information about each match, including which player is over- or underperforming, when they should have passed the ball, and even integration with other monitoring systems.
In 2017, we foresee that such locationing technology – some even in the form of drone-based applications – will be further explored to enhance customer experience in industries spanning healthcare, retail, hospitality, and manufacturing.
For example, Zebra’s recently released Hospitality Vision Study reveals that around 70% of all hotel guests look forward to receiving customised messaging and offers. These can be implemented via locationing technology – using Bluetooth beacons and sensors – to push location-based coupons or offers to guests, as well as location-based alerts to spa availability, golf course tee times, free gaming or tables.
The demise of pure-play retail and the rise of the omni-channel model
Finally, 2017 will be a banner year for omni-channel retail. According to Innovative Retail Technologies’ 2016 Retail Tech Spending Report, nearly 78 percent of surveyed retail executives stated their companies place emphasis on innovative technologies and processes to increase margins and improve the customer experience.
Currently, brick-and-mortar stores are under tremendous sales pressure owing to the growing popularity and adoption of e-commerce, and – more recently – the click-and-collect retail business model, making it a necessary move to shift their business online. Retailers worldwide lose a staggering $1.75 trillion annually due to the cost of overstocks, out-of-stocks and needless returns, according to retail analyst firm IHL Group.
On the other hand, almost counter-intuitively, online retailers are opening physical store fronts. For instance, Amazon, while famous for digitising the publishing industry and stifling the print business, opened its first physical bookstore in late 2015. The company had also announced plans to open more physical bookstores in the next few years – a move that signaled the start of the omni-channel retail.
However, in an omni-channel scenario, challenges remain. First, lack of inventory visibility makes it hard to anticipate or meet sudden demand surges. As the supply chain for omni-channel expands in size and complexity, businesses need to find a way to better track stock and predict demand across its supply chain. Second, due to the same reason, e-commerce retailers will face difficulties and the T&L industry will need to gear up to sustain speedy deliveries as online orders intensify, and customers demand next-day, same-day or next-hour delivery. Third, maintaining the same level of customer experience online and offline is also a challenge. For example, how can customers navigate as easily in a physical shop as they do in a virtual store? Those are all the things retailers need to consider.
It’s no surprise that technology can help address some of the issues. At Zebra, we call it Enterprise Asset Intelligence – meaning enterprises are given the ability to “sense”, analyze”, and “act” on insights into their operations.
For example, RFID is the fundamental underpinning of omni-channel retail, enabling the retailer to see in real-time where their product is in the warehouse and how much stock is left. The enterprise will need a printer that can print and encode the RFID tags. In addition, they will need readers to read these RFID tags.
At the same time, locationing services will be incorporated into innovative offline stores to gain actionable insights to boost customer engagement, with services such as location-based coupons, real-time shopping maps, location-based assistance, and loyalty programs, to deliver an unprecedented shopper experience. Zebra’s Retail Shopper study Shoppers identified that over one-half of surveyed consumers are interested in location-based in-store services.
Neil Gouveia is with Zebra Technologies South Africa
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