Logistics companies are embracing the Internet of Things (IoT) as a tool to handle the pressure of rising e-commerce fulfillment volumes, but as the trend expands, many users are scrambling to manage the flood of new data, an industry panel said Monday.
Falling prices on the building blocks of the IoT—such as sensors, barcodes, and radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags—are making the strategy more affordable for users in industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, retail, and transportation and logistics, according to a study by Harvard University's Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH).
That expansion is triggering a new challenge, dubbed "the data dilemma," according to TECH's recently released report on its "2016 Strategic Innovation Symposium: The Intelligent Enterprise." Sponsored by Zebra Technologies Corp., the Sept. 27 symposium included members from industry, government, and academia, representing General Electric Co., Target Corp., Whirlpool Corp., Zebra Technologies, Google Inc., IBM Corp., Accenture, the National Football League, the city of Boston, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard.
The dilemma is that it has become easier to collect data than to analyze it, the report said. As more businesses adopt IoT strategies, they will begin to focus more on the art of analyzing the data and turning it into outcomes, rather than simply adding more sensors to parcels, pallets, or truck chassis, the report said.
"There's some significant transformation going on in supply chain and logistics," Bill Cusack, Zebra's transportation and logistics marketing lead, said in a phone interview. "E-commerce is driving incredible volumes through our customers' operations. And the Internet-driven sales trend will continue to expand, so our customers are all under pressure, whether they are USPS, DHL, or FedEx."
Zebra's answer to this challenge is to expand from its traditional identity as a hardware vendor selling printers and scanners to become a consulting resource for "enterprise asset intelligence" (EAI), Cusack said. "The IoT could be just your refrigerator talking to your washing machine, but EAI focuses on the enterprise, because our customer needs to sense, for example, that a truck is not being loaded properly, and then get notified of that problem in time to intercede," he said.
The benefits of that refined approach could extend the utility of the IoT beyond basic tasks, such as tracking assets like a fleet of trucks, and improve the efficiency of operations, the report said. For example, better IoT data analysis could help warehouses deliver more accurate and on-time fulfillment; allow warehouse managers to use trailer load analytics to make sure cargo loads are packed to their full potential; or let retail supervisors use more advanced inventory tracking solutions to improve supply chain visibility, the report said.