August 5, 2015

Manufacturing firms buying into Internet of Things, Zebra survey shows

Companies building data networks despite cost concerns.

By Ben Ames

How the Internet of Things is Transforming Manufacturing
This infographic from Zebra Technologies shows how companies are using—and plan to use—the Internet of Things. Click image to view PDF.

A vast majority of manufacturers have begun to use the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve their supply chain operations despite lingering concerns about the cost of the new technology, according to a new survey released today by Zebra Technologies Corp.

Eighty-three percent of manufacturers in the poll said they either have IoT implementations in place or plan to deploy it within a year, according to results of the survey from Zebra, a tracking and visibility solutions provider based in Lincolnshire, Ill.

Few technology trends have received more hype in recent months than the (IoT), which is generally described as a network of physical objects—or "things"—embedded with unique identifiers that enable them to automatically exchange information with their manufacturer or operator.

Proponents say an IoT network allows a distribution center operator or a third-party logistics provider to collect real-time data on the location and condition of every pallet, forklift, tractor-trailer, and warehouse employee. Armed with that information, the business could monitor its supply chain, mitigate loss and risk, improve operations and asset utilization, and enhance customer service, according to supporters of the technology.

Respondents to the Zebra survey said the most important enabling technologies they are using to build an IoT are Wi-Fi networks, real-time locating systems (RTLS), security sensors, bar codes, global positioning system (GPS) receivers, and mobile computers.

Despite the great promise of IoT for the supply chain, there are some real-world hurdles to installing a system. Asked to list the top five barriers to adopting an IoT solution, half of the surveyed manufacturers cited cost, 46 percent indicated privacy and security, and 46 percent named integration challenges. The best way to clear these hurdles is for each company to design an IoT that matches its specific challenges, said Jim Hilton, senior director and global manufacturing principal at Zebra Technologies. "It's not a hammer. You have to choose the right technology," Hilton said in an interview. "If there are critical points in the supply chain that were in the dark before, you can apply whatever technology is appropriate at that particular chokepoint."

Each company should apply only the amount of technology it needs to track its goods, assets, people, and processes, Hilton said. That can vary widely depending on budget, shipment value, and how soon the data is needed. One firm may need real-time data throughout the chain, while others would be satisfied to check in at the next point of connectivity or when the shipment arrives at the truck yard. That decision will help each business decide whether to implement an IoT network based on active or passive radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, Bluetooth wireless signals, or even basic barcodes. "Not everything has to be run through analytics to be valuable," Hilton said. "If I'm tracking a temperature-sensitive shipment, don't show me everything that was right; just show me five points that were wrong." The bottom line is to apply intelligence at the point of activity, so individuals—or even machines—can see the data while they can still do something about it, he said.

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

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