Zebra is charting a new path From data to information


Most of us see Zebra Technologies as a computer hardware company, with the leading position in the automatic data capture industry which includes barcode scanners, printers, laptops, voice systems. and RFID. Frankly, it’s not even close: Modern’s 2020 list of the top 20 ADC vendors had Zebra at $ 2.6 billion; Honeywell, its closest competitor, reached $ 798 million. That’s a lot of scanners and printers.

This view might be shortsighted. In fact, it looks like Zebra is in the midst of transforming data into insight into its offerings. My own perspective began to change in the spring of 2019, when I moderated a panel discussion at a conference hosted by Heartland, a Zebra reseller. As many exhibitors displayed their latest hardware, the Zebra panelist talked about something I called a working runtime system, or WES 2.0.

Although it shares the same alphabet as a Warehouse Execution System, or WES, it is a new generation of warehouse software that brings conventional warehouse based planning and execution. on the constraints associated with a WES in an automated warehouse.

Conventional warehouses still rely on people driving forklifts and push trucks – people with mobile computers and voice recognition systems or barcode readers. The idea with this new category is to put decision-making capabilities on the periphery where work occurs to enable optimization of people and work. Zebra has registered the term FulfillmentEdge for its solution. Of course, this still requires the hardware Zebra is known for, but the secret sauce that makes associates more efficient and productive is advanced computing, software, and analytics. The material is only a means of reaching the end.

Since then, Zebra has made a number of acquisitions that strengthen its digital skills beyond data collection.

In 2019, she launched Zebra Prescriptive Analytics following the acquisition of Profitect, a provider of prescriptive analytics for retail and CPG companies.

In 2020, the company acquired Reflexis Systems, a provider of task management, work planning, and time and attendance management software.

Last August, Zebra made the leap into warehouse and factory automation by acquiring Fetch Robotics, a provider of autonomous mobile robots (AMR). Yes, it’s hardware, but Fetch’s robots rely on AI, machine learning, and analytics to optimize fieldwork.

At the end of August, Zebra announced the acquisition of Antuit.ai, a provider of AI and machine learning-based inventory management and allocation solutions specific to forecasting and merchandising for the retail and GICs.

Obviously, Zebra has been busy during the pandemic.

It is an eclectic portfolio of solutions. But, if you think about them, they share at least two things in common. First, they complement Zebra’s core offerings – after all, you need to collect data before these other solutions, including Fetch’s bots, can do what they do. The other is that they push Zebra deeper into analysis, understanding, and execution. And with robotics, they go further in automation. I can see Zebra arguing that all of these tools build on the investments their existing customers have already made in data collection and mobile computing.

OK, it’s a long wind-up. To understand Zebra’s vision, I spoke to Tom Bianculli, the company’s chief technology officer. Bianculli made a number of points to explain the acquisitions.

They are the culmination of a vision outlined in 2015: This is the year Zebra acquired Motorola. “The vision was that every downtime and every worker on the edge would be connected and optimized,” said Bianculli. When you think “at the limit,” think about the point where the job is done. Much of the Motorola acquisition was about hardware. Until then, Zebra was best known as a printing company, while Motorola laptops, barcode scanners, and voice technology were ubiquitous in distribution centers. Perhaps the biggest bet was Zebra’s investment in the Android operating system in an otherwise Microsoft world. Today, Android is the operating system of choice “but in 2015 it was not clear,” noted Bianculli. “Customers viewed Android as a mainstream operating system. It’s a bet that paid off. The other big change was also hardware-based, which was the shift from laser scanning to camera-based imaging.

The world has changed: Omnichannel distribution turns every node of the retail network into a distribution network. Orders are still fulfilled from fulfillment centers, but they are also shipped directly from partners / suppliers, fulfilled by 3PLs in some areas and from retail stores. They are shipped to our homes, workplaces, lockers, or other partners (think FedEx shipping your order to Walgreens because you are out of town) or picked up curbside. The result, says Bianculli, is that the supply chain is no longer a chain with linear connections, it is a mesh. “We’re no longer talking about omnichannel,” he says. “We are talking about missions and moments. Consumers have times when they want something, or they go on a mission to do something.

The material, even the right material, won’t get you far: Hardware alone does not fully provide the optimization that retailers, e-merchants and distributors seek to satisfy the outcome of these missions in a timely and cost effective manner, especially in a very dynamic environment. “A device,” he said, “doesn’t coach you or make you better or more collaborative.” The goal, he added, is to deploy technology that can “orchestrate the dance between human workflow and automation”, and also provide a “layer of intelligence – contextual intelligence – on it. happens with a finer granularity layer. We want to understand not only the location, but the movement of the worker, and what products this worker chooses better than this worker.

Ditto for inventory: The combination of work execution software and robotics achieves this dance between people and automation (who said technology is not poetic?); the acquisition of Antuit.ai aims to bring AI and machine learning, as well as data from sources such as weather reports, upcoming promotions and Nielsen data to provide better answers related to the inventory allocation.

Dynamic planning: Maybe the last item – and I’m sure I’m forgetting something – is the ability to create dynamic, real-time shots, or “streaming shots,” Bianculli said. “We believe that the planning and execution systems are going to merge, whether it is a workforce plan, an inventory plan or a merchandising plan. The old way of planning, executing, replanning and re-executing is gone because of the on-demand economy, ”he said. “Our idea is to create a streaming plan by analyzing the data we collect at the edge of the tools in the hands of workers, then delivering the right actions to the right people in real time. ”

The last question I asked Bianculli is how Zebra will bring this strategy to market. Traditionally, the company sold its equipment through a network of resellers. They are very good at selling, operating and maintaining this material. These are more complex solutions and, from a software perspective, they are offered in a Software-as-a-Service, or SaaS model. “For now, SaaS products will be a direct sale by Zebra,” he said. “But our goal is to network many of these solutions. To do this, we need to create tools for rapid deployment. He added that Zebra works with large systems integrators and consulting firms, such as Accenture and Deloitte. “It’s a new channel for us,” he said.

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock Bob Trebilcock, Editorial Director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for almost 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also editor-in-chief of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.


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