From manual to automation: How the network can drive productivity
“Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything,” the famous quote of Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist. Despite these words being over 20 years old, they are just as (if not even more) applicable today. For some productivity is a challenge, for others it is a golden opportunity ready to be unlocked. Regardless of your perspective, it is top of the agenda for businesses and countries alike.
Today, there are a number of variables hampering productivity, these range from skills shortages and infrastructure issues to finance availability and a lack of investment in innovation, which all have a detrimental impact on increasing output. There’s no silver bullet answer to productivity, but accelerating the adoption of digital technology has a significant role to play.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, we need to stop thinking that working harder will solve our productivity challenges. It’s a classic papering over the cracks approach which isn’t sustainable in the long term. The UK collectively for too long has been reliant on working more hours; that can’t go on forever. Eventually you run out of people and hours in the day and ultimately, ‘hours worked’ becomes the denominator. Instead we must start embracing the power of technology and start working smarter.
This is not about how we transform digital industries; it’s how we make all industries more productive. In only a decade we’ve seen an unprecedented change in the way that we use technology. Today, in this high speed era of digital transformation, business structures, processes and models are being reimagined and ultimately digitised. For such transformations to be effective, digital can’t be a bolt-on or afterthought it must sit at an organisations’ core, which is why having a digital ready network is fundamental to every organisations’ success.
The network is no longer just providing the plumbing for businesses, it is driving innovation and in turn fuelling productivity. IDC reports that companies that have invested in modern network capabilities are experiencing two to three times the rate of growth in revenue, customer retention and profit. They have also deployed twice as many digital transformation initiatives compared to companies with legacy networks.
Today, billions of new destinations are joining the network. Add mobile technologies, the cloud and security threats that deliver new ways to operate, innovate and experience life, and the network has become unsustainably complex. The network, as we know it, is simply not able to keep up with, let alone stay ahead of this digital pace of change. Today, the network can no longer be manual, hardware-centric and static, it must be automated, software-driven and dynamic.
Network automation is fast becoming a requirement for ever-more complex enterprise networks. Specifically, it allows for manual tasks to be automated, existing network services to be better operated, increases in efficiency and quality, reduced downtime and uncovering hidden problems in the network. But accumulatively it allows organisations to transform into digital entities to capture the exponential opportunities that the connection of people, processes, data and things bring.
Despite its vast benefits, IDC reports that only 20% of organisations have aligned their network strategy to their digital strategy. However, more encouragingly, over the next two years, 49% organisations in EMEAR expect to achieve digital-ready network capabilities. That represents four times the current adoption rates. Ultimately, business leaders must view the network as the central nervous system of their organisation, driving productivity and helping to ensure they remain competitive over the next five years.
In this post-fact world, Paul Krugman’s words undoubtedly still ring true. Productivity as an issue won’t go away or be solved, but there are numerous steps which can be taken to improve it. The role of digital technology is rapidly shifting, from being a driver of marginal efficiency to an enabler of fundamental innovation and fuelling productivity. Much like the construction principles of creating a futureproof building on robust and enduring foundations, organisations striving to flourish as digital business must have an intelligent and automated network that dynamically responds to their needs and empowers employees at digital speed.
Upgrading RFID and Automated Track and Trace Solutions
During the COVID-19 pandemic, global supply chains faced the challenge of rapidly adjusting their business priorities to new customer preferences. Local supplier backlogs, winter storms, and the Suez Canal backup in March underscored the need for efficiency and visibility across the supply chain.
According to Christof Backhaus, Digital Lead Product Supply and Smart Label Project Lead at Bayer, companies must now place critical importance on tracking and tracing their products. “All large enterprises in the world dealing with finished goods,” he said, “seek functional and technical solutions to real-time channel inventory.”
Indeed, RFID’s real-time tracking data allows executives to make quick, well-informed decisions in moments of supply chain crisis - and rather than unfolding across days or weeks, it only takes a matter of minutes.
Why does RFID remain relevant despite digital disruption?
Essentially, RFID uses radio frequency waves to transfer data wirelessly between a scanner and a tag. In contrast to barcode technology, which requires a stationary scanner, RFID tags can be pinged from anywhere in the world, allowing companies to track real-time movement through the supply chain. RFID tags can also scan unique SKU numbers and distinguish between varying product sizes, colours, and styles: a critical feature for increasingly personalised end-user products.
Though the first patent for RFID tags appeared in 1973, higher accuracy rates, lower costs, and advances in sensor and data technology have made it newly accessible to a wide range of companies. Today, the technology is used in logistics networks, manufacturing and delivery networks in the pharmaceutical industry, and any business where efficiently tracking and monitoring product location is critical: raw materials, consumer products, cars, electronics, retail, and agriculture.
What are the key benefits?
Overall, automated track and trace solutions keep labour costs low, optimise operating costs, mitigate security risks, use capital effectively, and assist companies in adhering to regulatory requirements.
Below are three in-depth dives into how RFID benefits major industries:
- Pharmaceuticals: RFID tags help manufacturers safeguard sensitive products such as vaccines, tracking where they are and when they will arrive in real-time. Sensors closely monitor temperatures to ensure regulatory compliance. If anyone tampers with a shipment, the sensors alert the company.
- Logistics: RFID identifies process gaps and frequent anomalies by monitoring a product’s lifecycle from shipment to delivery. This data helps decision-makers predict the most efficient routes and therefore optimise their distribution schedules.
- Retail: Sensors help guard shipments against theft and provide critical intelligence when shipments go missing. Before adopting RFID technology in 2203, UK retailer Marks and Spencer relied on barcodes to scan inventory. When they made the switch, their productivity increased from a maximum of 400-600 items scanned per hour to up to 15,000 items scanned per hour. Building on their initial success, the retailer expanded the use of the technology and is still using it today.
Regardless of the industry, RFID promotes accuracy, immediacy, and efficiency. Companies reduce human error by automatically scanning products, keep track of inventory even in geographic locations with poor connectivity, and help streamline warehouse operations by identifying exact product locations.
Which recent innovations have changed the game?
With recent developments in cloud technology and IoT, a multitude of cloud-based alternatives have emerged to challenge traditional RFID technology. One of these cutting-edge solutions is Sony’s Smart Label - an intelligent shipping label that runs on AT&T’s global cellular network.
As with any good innovation, Sony’s proprietary technology started with a customer need ready to be solved: the Bayer Crop Science Division lacked an international IoT solution that could track seed products from start to finish throughout its distribution channel. Millions of dollars of revenue stood at stake, so Bayer turned to Sony to develop a smart label that would set the organisation up to manage its supply chain with end-to-end visibility.
Sony’s printable and disposable adhesive label allows companies to track the condition and location of their products worldwide and act upon the vast amounts of data it collects. The process is simple: the label activates when attached to the package, connects to AT&T’s secure LTE-M network, and sends data to the Smart Label Cloud in real time.
In sharp contrast to other smart label solutions that place trust in a patchwork combination of Wi-Fi, radio-frequency identification, and other limited coverage connections, the Sony Smart Label connects solely through a secure and universally-available cellular network. “Working with Sony,” says Robert Boyanovsky, the vice president of Mobility, IoT and 5G at AT&T, “we provide full visibility of every item shipped.”
Most importantly for companies on the edge, the Smart Label integrates with existing enterprise systems to achieve full visibility, thus adding value without disrupting supply chain process flow.
Why is this important now?
Companies that previously delayed introducing RFID and other automated track-and-trace technologies can capitalise on recent developments that lower costs, improve accuracy, and supercharge traceability.
Clearly the technology has value in today’s uncertain global marketplace, and can help decrease the costs of tracking goods. To quote Christof Backhaus, the Project Lead at Bayer, “the Smart Label indicates how much product is in the market, from the packaging line to the end customer.” Companies no longer have to spend a small fortune to take advantage of recent IoT developments. “Due to the technical composition [of the label],” Backhaus explains, “we don’t require additional infrastructure, manual scanning, or other expensive tools.”
Over the decades since RFID was first introduced, support for introducing it to company supply chains has also improved. AT&T’s IoT Professional Services Organisation, for example, supports companies through the end-to-end design and integration process--from installation to deployment and project management.
Companies that invest in traceable and visible supply chain solutions stand the best chance of survival, adjusting in real-time to natural disasters, shipping backups, and slowed-down supplier turnarounds as a result of the global pandemic. “Smart Label promises to help businesses like Bayer realise the full potential of the IoT,” says AT&T’s Boyanovsky. “[We can] deliver improvements in revenue and cost savings and make supply chains more efficient.”
Certainly, company executives will be hard-pressed to ignore recent innovations. In an age of uncertainty, RFID and its challengers herald a welcome sense of supply chain security. The next step? “Our sales team,” Boyanovsky adds, “is prepared to engage with prospective customers now.”