How Data Collection and Visibility Can Improve Productivity

Big data and automation are only buzzwords if they aren't put to good use.

Singapore Business Owners



IT & Cybersecurity

“…the idea of being able to get on-demand service or product is becoming increasingly important…”

I love online shopping.

Besides the fact that there’s no need for human interaction and small talks (introvert here), it feels like sending yourself a gift that will arrive in the near future. Except that, in some cases, the gift can take as long as three weeks to arrive.

I don’t often need immediate gratification, but consumers at large tend not to be as patient. They want it, and they want it now.

“One of the things that we’re seeing over the last couple years and then moving into this year is something we refer to as the on-demand economy,” says Tom Bianculli, Chief Technology Officer at Zebra Technologies, “We serve the retail, transportation, logistics, manufacturing and healthcare industries and the idea of being able to get on-demand service or product is becoming increasingly important across every one of those verticals.”

“… 95% of respondents in the Asia Pacific said that faster delivery is their top concern.”

How fast do they want it? PWC asked consumers how quickly they expect their orders to arrive. 80% of respondents want it between same day to 5 days from the time that they place the order, and 41% of them are willing to pay a premium for same-day delivery.

Zebra’s own studies indicate that manufacturers and retailers are aware of this. “In out Fulfilment Vision Study, 95% of respondents in the Asia Pacific said that faster delivery is their top concern,” says Ryan Goh, Vice President and General Manager, Zebra Technologies Asia Pacific.

Compounding the challenge are customers’ needs for personalisation and complex purchasing models, which can slow down delivery times considerably. 

How can retail, manufacturing, transportation and logistics companies keep up?

Remove the technology overhead for the frontline worker

Tom shares three main ways that this can be achieved.

  1. Augment the end-user workflow
    “We have tools that put the right information in front of them at the right time during their workflow to guide them through it.”
  2. Introduce computer vision technologies
    Product-recognition camera technology that helps managers better understand what’s on the shelf, what’s in store and so on.”
  3. Intelligent automation using robotics
    Robots work with humans collaboratively in various environments to improve efficiency, cost savings and even carbon footprint reduction.”

Turn off the lights (at least partially)

“… Automation is feasible for repeatable processes, but many processes still require the human factor.”

“There’s a lot of talk about the dark warehouse right where the warehouse becomes fully automated and you can shut the lights off and all the automation takes over,” Tom explains, “but we’re still some time before that can happen. Automation is feasible for repeatable processes, but many processes still require the human factor.”

We’re talking about lights here figuratively, and companies should aim to turn off as many lights as they can. This would mean a higher level of automation and less human intervention. But as Tom mentioned, humans are still needed and hence full automation is still years away.

Better inventory management

Beyond optimising fulfilment channels, businesses need to consider improving inventory management, which can help get goods to the customers faster.

“Many SMBs are going e-commerce, but they seem to only be concerned with putting products online and connecting to payment platforms. There’s hardly any SMBs thinking about improving on-demand capabilities,” Ryan observed, “So any SMBs that can leverage inventory management will have a clear advantage, especially in terms of more efficient fulfilment and meeting customers’ faster delivery demands.”

Start collecting and using data

It’s easier said than done because collecting data is more than just installing some hardware and integrating some software. To effectively implement data collection and utilisation, consider getting your solution partner involved in the decision-making process.

“Zebra is well-positioned to be this intelligent partner, building out IoT strategies and roadmaps for businesses of any size so they can start implementing the tools needed to sense, analyze and act at the edge – the frontline of their business,” says Ryan.

Consider orchestration

“… Orchestration, on the other hand, enables you to automate an entire process or workflow that involves many steps across multiple disparate systems with visibility in real-time.”

Yes, sort of in the symphony music kind of way. Just like how each instrument contributes in its own way to complete a number,  discrete tasks can be automated to work together seamlessly.

“While automation is necessary to help make your business more cost-efficient and improve productivity with reduced errors and complexities, it only addresses a single task. Orchestration, on the other hand, enables you to automate an entire process or workflow that involves many steps across multiple disparate systems with visibility in real-time,” says Ryan.

But the eventual effectiveness of any orchestration effort is a product of the system that is collecting and processing those data.

“There still needs to be a system that’s collecting enough information and intelligent enough to orchestrate the workflow. We think that that’s a very powerful opportunity for us because, in these early days of automation, we can use that orchestration to help human-robot collaboration. And as the endpoint potentially becomes more and more automated, the orchestration value proposition still plays in.”

How is automation performing?

At first glance, automation seems to only benefit the bottom line. However, Zebra observed a happier workforce as well.

“There isn’t a formal study done yet but we observed that worker satisfaction and retention is higher in the warehouses that introduced automation compared to warehouses without automation. The quality of life of the individual is better because, for instance, some workers might be walking, many kilometres per day to do picking without help from automation. With automation, that can be reduced and it makes for a more satisfactory job,” noted Tom.

As we know, a happy workforce is a productive workforce.

Comments have been edited for clarity and length.

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