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July 31, 2017

A future where quality is king -- A look at Zebra's 2017 Manufacturing Vision Study

On July 31st, 2017, Zebra Technologies Corporation published the results of their 2017 Manufacturing Vision Study on emerging trends that are shaping the future of industrial manufacturing. The broad result of the global study suggests that manufacturers are adopting IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) and Industry 4.0 concepts to get better insights and information about their manufacturing process and, most importantly, to improve quality.

Why Zebra knows

Why should such a study come from Zebra? Isn't Zebra in the mobile printer business? They are, but not only that. Zebra's been around for almost half a century, having started as "Data Specialties Incorporated" back in 1969. They initially made a variety of electromechanical products but soon focused on labeling and ticketing systems. The name changed to Zebra in 1986. A dozen or so strategic acquisitions followed and by 2013 Zebra cracked a billion in sales. And then more than tripled that in one fell swoop by acquiring Motorola Solutions' enterprise business in 2014.

Why do I mention all that? Because Motorola Solutions' enterprise business mostly consisted of the former Symbol Technologies, a pioneer in retail and inventory management bar code scanning systems. In my capacity as Editor-in-Chief of Pen Computing Magazine I visited Symbol's headquarters on Long Island several times before its acquisition by Motorola in 2007. On each visit I was impressed with not only Symbol's scanning and mobile computing technology, but also by the importance they placed on exploring fresh ideas and innovative concepts to push the state-of-the-art in data collection to new levels and in new directions. And by how in tune they were with emerging trends and directions.

Despite Symbol going through rough times in the early 2000s, that innovative spirit never flagged, and that didn't change under Motorola nor under yet another big change when Zebra came along, and it's apparently still there. I don't know how many of the same people are still around, but that spirit of innovation, of dreaming up new concepts and uses, of trying new things, of viewing great hardware as just one part of making business better, that's still there. And it's at the heart of those vision studies that Zebra's been generating.

Vision studies

These vision studies are, truth be told, not super-easy to read and comprehend. On the surface, the studies are surveys of how customers use technology, how they view new developments, and what their plans are for the future.

But Zebra also provides considerable value-added by presenting the survey results with commentary and in the context of emerging trends and directions. That includes not only the obvious, the Internet of Things, but market-specifics, like the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), and Industry 4.0 where intelligent networked systems go beyond mere machine control via feedback systems, interdisciplinary cooperation, IoT technology, and advanced resource/demand management to morph into "intelligent" or at least "smart" factories.

Zebra doesn't even stop there. The value-added of the vision studies also includes relating their survey findings to emerging trends, mindsets, and revelations, and how technology can get customers from here to there.

In this latest vision study entitled "Quality Drives a Smarter Plant Floor: 2017 Manufacturing Vision Study," Zebra highlights a major shift and transformation, that from cost-cutting no matter what to quality first.

Exclusive focus on ROI is out. Focus on quality is in

In essence, what's happening is that almost everyone is realizing that cost-cutting in an effort to boost short-term return on investment has been a disaster. That's because while it's certainly a good idea to eliminate waste, far too often cost-cutting has led to loss of quality. The whole concept of quality is extremely multifaceted, but it's almost inevitable that cutting cost just to please investors is quite short-sighted and will almost inevitably lead to lowered quality, and lowered quality will inevitably frustrate and anger customers, no matter how loudly they asked for low prices.

The result of realizing the dangers of exclusive focus on cost cutting to improve ROI is that quality is king again. But wait, don't you inevitably get what you pay for? If manufacturers used to cut costs to remain profitable even as quality suffered, won't a new emphasis on quality increase costs and raise prices?

The price of quality would indeed be higher prices if manufacturers continued business as usual. But Zebra's survey of 1,100 executives from automotive, high tech, food, beverage, tobacco and pharmaceutical companies showed considerable optimism about the positive impact of technology on both quality and revenue. The number of fully-connected smart factories will double in the next five years, the use of emerging technologies will rise, and respondents felt very positive on the impact of technology and automation. And Zebra cites a study by the American Society for Quality (ASQ) that claims that for every dollar spent on a quality monitoring system, companies could expect to see an additional $6 in revenue, a $16 reduction in costs and a $3 increase in profits.

How to improve quality and ROI

But how, exactly, do they expect to get from here to there? From the dead-end of the cutting costs/lowered quality cycle to solid quality and growth?

In essence by using emerging technology, IIoT and Industry 4.0 concepts to keep better track of both the supply chain and of assembly lines.

As is, Zebra points out that there's no real-time communication between supply chain and production lines, resulting in too little inventory (slowing production) or too much of it (increasing costs).

And while 27% of those surveyed by Zebra are collecting data from production lines, supply chains and workers, that data sits in some database or spreadsheet instead of being shared, leaving the true value of the intelligence untapped. In addition, tracking points are few and far between.

While most manufacturers already track production, real-time monitoring is usually limited to just a few checkpoints, or so called "gates." Visibility over the entire supply and production process can be vastly improved by adding more connected gates that use auto ID technology to provide real-time location, material allocation and asset condition at every critical juncture. This data can then be used to eliminate bottlenecks, communicate with suppliers, optimize just-in-time shipment, and ensure quality. And additional gates can help meet the ever more important demand fro increased product variants.

Towards quality and visibility

What are the components needed to make all of this happen? There's "the Cloud," of course, with its various levels and services, ranging from simple sensors and gateways all the way up to the various enterprise IoT offerings with all of their services and capabilities.

What Zebra contributes here is the subset of IoT that the company calls "Enterprise Asset Intelligence." That includes the company's impressive roster of wearable and mobile technology, various methods of data capture and identification, voice recognition, smart IDs, as well as enabling hardware/software solutions such as Zebra's SmartLens for Retail or a variety of purpose-built manufacturing solutions that cover every aspect of the operation.

Tracking assets from start to end is key to optimal, consistent quality. That makes real-time location systems (RTLS) in the manufacturing environment an interesting and mandatory proposition. Collected data along every step of the production process can be used not only for quality control purposes. It can also be used to communicate directly from the factory floor to suppliers so they can quickly react, keeping supply and inventory at optimal levels. Zebra calls that "Sense, Analyze and Act."

Moving past strategy and into deployment

What it all amounts to is that with its 2017 Manufacturing Vision Study, Zebra provides not only information how over a thousand manufacturing industry executives see the current and future use of data capture technology of their operations. Zebra also offers a blueprint of how to move from a strictly ROI model to embarking on a future where simple cost-cutting is replaced by greatly enhanced visibility over both supply chains and production lines via a finer mesh of intelligent gates, optimizing both quality and cost in the process. Zebra feels that it is ahead of the curve in this, and one of the few players than has moved past strategy into real world deployments that will have profound effects on all their customers in the coming years.

Zebra's 2017 Manufacturing Vision Study

Zebra Wearables on RuggedPCReview: WT6000
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Posted by conradb212 at July 31, 2017 05:11 PM