The concept of ‘everything connected’ is beginning to become a reality and US firm Zebra Technologies is well placed to contribute to this revolution. The company’s core offerings centre on enterprise asset intelligence, designing and marketing specialty printers, mobile computing, data capture, radio frequency identification products and real-time locating systems.
In 2014, it acquired the Enterprise division of Motorola Solutions, which added a different range of real-time asset visibility, cloud technology and rugged handheld computer devices and scanners to the company, along with its well established Wi-Fi portfolio.
This is enabling Zebra to deliver end-to-end solutions that unlock the value of the Internet of Things (IoT), enabling businesses to change the way they operate and opening up new possibilities.
Euro Beinat, VP Platform Technologies at Zebra Technologies, explains that the company is looking to harness the interconnection of internet-aware devices, systems and services that new technology is providing.
The idea is that enterprises can gain better real-time visibility into their organisations anytime, anywhere, through the cloud by deploying M2M/IoT solutions and then use the data to improve their operations, processes and customer service. Key sectors for Zebra include: retail, healthcare, manufacturing, transportation and logistics, education, sports and entertainment, financial services and government.
Explaining the logic behind Zebra’s growth and acquisitions strategy, Beinat says: ‘Zebra has developed over time a very strong portfolio of identification technologies (bar code, card, RFID printers). Our customers use these products in a very broad set of applications and industries to identify, locate and monitor the condition of assets and to support people workflows.
‘So, we started thinking of ourselves less as a provider of printing technologies and more as an enablers of location, identity and condition applications - Enterprise Asset Intelligence, in a more general sense. This led to a series of acquisitions, first of specific location technologies, and then of the Enterprise side of Motorola Solutions.’
He points out that Motorola and Zebra have complemented each other’s portfolio for a long time and so being part of the same organisation made a lot of practical and strategic sense.
Wht Zebra has now added to the mix is its Zatar platform for the Internet of Things, which serves as a glue for in-house products and cements Zebra’s position in the IoT, as Beinat puts it. He says that the company justified this move because it saw three major trends.
The first is the cloud: more and more enterprises are looking at apps that live in the cloud; then there is the shift towards accessing intelligence and information anywhere, anytime – i.e. a move towards mobility and mobile working in general; finally, the third trend is the proliferation of devices able to talk to radio networks and hence the cloud.
For Zebra, the driving need was to provide a broader set of products, services and solutions, one of which is the ability to deliver packaged solutions. ‘Because of the nature of the company, its size and historical products we have a need to provide more packaged products, services and solutions for our customers. So, we looked at the IoT angle and examined all the options in the technology community about connecting to the cloud.
‘We are confident that all the hardware out there, including video, printers and smart handhelds will be connected to the cloud in one way or another. But many other assets will be remotely connected to the cloud too such as building systems like ventilation, lighting temperature gauges – all sorts of devices and things will be connected.
‘We developed our Zatar IoT platform to create a pathway between devices and applications, so that it will be much easier to create applications that leverage devices data and capabilities,’ explains Beinat.
Zebra has developed its own hardware range for cloud compatibility, but Beinat says it can also connect any other piece of equipment in the workplace too, not just its own products.
‘Some of the early customers wanted to just purchase the hardware, such as printers, but once you have all the connectivity in place, we can offer not just hardware services, but a different model based on consumption for users and customers,’ he reveals.
‘As a manufacturer of printers, the traditional model was that the warehouse would buy our printers to label all the boxes they ship. Once they bought the printers, that was the deal done and we continued to serve them for maintenance and repairs,’ says Beinat. But other customers are taking a different approach.
New business models
Zebra is in the process of developing new business models, one of which is to enable organisations to consider a pay-per use model in addition to standard purchasing models.
‘The thing is we couldn’t do that before because we, or they, couldn’t monitor the devices,’ says Beinat. ‘But once you have cloud connection that gives the customer visibility of what they use - and we can see it too. That’s how you validate the billing per hour or per label model.’
Beinat says some customers are finding this a very attractive offering as their business is based on consumption. They can then extend that to everything they do, so they consume the hardware as a service rather than buy it. ‘Pay-per-use is a very general model that can be applied to a variety of devices, not only printers,’ notes Beinat.
With these new business models and potentially new markets opening up, Zebra is seeking to capitalise on this further by investing in resources and knowledge in IoT. ‘We think everything will be IoT compatible and be seen in a homogeneous way,’ says Beinat. ‘There are so many other players offering IoT solutions. The one thing we decided early on was to provide a very solid and future proof way to represent devices in the cloud, be they scanners, printers, or whatever.’
However, representing hardware products in a meaningful way on the Internet is complex, according to Beinat, who makes two observations on this. ‘The first is that, with many heterogeneous devices and things capable of connecting to the cloud, one may need to deal with a variety of data models, protocols, connectivity choices, etc. This will become a barrier to adoption. It would be very beneficial to access all devices in a similar uniform way, in spite of their diverse capabilities. The second is that by introducing a layer between devices and applications we enable stronger device control and security.’
To solve the problem Zebra got together with MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), which was working with some students on cars that connect to the cloud. ‘There are many ways it can go wrong, so you need to find a separation between the application using the device and the device itself,’ explains Beinat.
‘It is not a good idea to connect the device direct to the cloud. Instead, you connect to a representation of the device and talk to that. It is a bit like Facebook, where other people talk to a representation of me, a kind of avatar. They are not talking directly to me, but to a Facebook intermediary of me. So, we developed a platform for avatars that live in the cloud: they may represent temperature sensors, lights, printers; or entire buildings with these things in them.’
These representations of devices are an abstraction with just the data items required to carry out tasks, such as: record the current status of the device; identify its abilities; or issue commands like turn on or off, for example. In short, it provides a simple, unified and coherent way to talk to heterogeneous devices.
‘A device like a printer can be very complex, but it may only have five attributes that are really important, so we just abstract those five attributes in a way that makes sense to the users. That means you can have different avatars for the same type of equipment for different users,’ says Beinat.
‘So, whenever we design an IoT solution we think in terms of avatars,’ he continues. ‘We decide what capabilities they should have and when that’s done we populate the cloud. The applications then talk to the avatar, not the device itself, and the avatar talks to the device.’
Beinat notes that going forward most of what Zebra does will exploit some form of wireless technology from generic wireless though to Bluetooth in close environments. But even more important is the ability to communicate between one radio system and another.
‘For example, you might have wireless in some areas of a hospital and non-wireless areas that rely on cellular telecoms networks,’ explains Beinat. ‘The networks can sense persons in a particular area and have the ability to move their devices between different bearer technologies.
‘Wi-Fi networks now are a layer that connects with everything,’ he continues, ‘but what if these networks had the capability to connect objects with sensors to the cloud?’ he asks. ‘Then, instead of just connecting to the cloud, you connect to a cloud communications layer. Wi-Fi networks are the perfect interface for this. Instead of just communicating with devices, you can also capture information and send it to the cloud at the same time.’
The acquisition of Motorola’s Enterprise division did not just bring the division rugged mobile computing and scanner portfolio, but also its Wi-Fi expertise, so as Beinat points out this puts Zebra in a better position than most companies to take advantage of this new direction.
‘We already had a lot of experience in location-based technology, but buying Motorola’s Enterprise division gave us access to other kinds of location-based technology such as beacons. Now we have everything from simple RFID tags to Wi-Fi-based location and various types of beacons in between our RFID and Wi-Fi solutions,’ says Beinat.
As an example, he points to the deal Zebra did with the National Football League in the US, where tags have been inserted onto the shoulders of football shirts and connected to sensors around the field. This allows them to track what each player is doing on the field in real-time.
Beinat also points to the retail world. ‘If you take the retail sector, at the front end beacons are perhaps the most appropriate technology to track who the customers are, where they are and how long they stay in any particular area. At the backend, you can deploy RFID tags to track goods coming in and out. Out in the warehouse, you might use Wi-Fi to locate where the fork lift truck is.
‘What we can now provide by adding Motorola technology is total visibility from end to end from the goods coming into the retailer’s premises to the customers at the front end. We can provide for very mixed scenarios within the retail sector now,’ says Beinat.
He adds that if he were to point to one area where Zebra thinks there will be an enormous uptake of this kind of technology it is the healthcare sector. This is a sector under severe cost pressures, so anything that makes it more efficient and productive is to be welcomed.
For example, in a hospital several procedures have to take place within a certain amount of time to be effective. Hospitals manually keep track of this: for instance, how long it takes for a cardiology patient to go from the hospital door to the treatment room.
Since manual measurements are prone to errors, many have looked at technologies to detect patient flows automatically. Until now, however, the available solutions required installing complex, expensive sensor networks inside the hospital. As a result, adoption has been limited.
The introduction of beacons and Zatar changes everything, argues Beinat. The sensing infrastructure becomes very inexpensive, the patients can wear disposable wristband beacons, and Zatar applications provide real-time visibility into the patient flows at a fraction of costs and complexity. And all can be purchased on a per-patient basis – that pay per consumption model again.
Wearables will, of course, play a big part in healthcare as prevention shifts from doctors and healthcare centres. ‘Some people think the hospital of the future will look like an airport dashboard, which monitors the population and only takes in extreme cases,’ suggests Beinat.
‘It is all about tiny data, just one ECG reading, for example. You wear a device that sends you data for a year. In many cases you just need a tiny amount of data to make a difference in the field.’
Summarising the future direction of Zebra IoT, Beinat says: ‘What I think is important is the avatar abstraction of data reality, as it makes it possible for devices to talk to the cloud all in the same way. Large players like ARM are endorsing specific standards and that will simplify things a lot.’
Zebra Technologies timeline
The company has over 7,000 employees, including over 1,700 engineering experts and currently holds over 4,200 asset management technology patents.
1969: Founded as Data Specialities
1980: First barcode printer; and changed focus to speciality on-demand labelling ticketing systems
1986: Changed name to Zebra Technologies; first thermal printer for on-demand barcode labelling
1991: moved production to Asia and opened first European office
1998: merged with Eltron International, a provider of desktop printers and photo ID card printers
2000: acquired Comtec Information Systems, a provider of wireless mobile printers
2007: Anders Gustafsson takes over as CEO
2013: Introduces IoT platform Zatar and the Zebra MotionWorks sports solution; acquires Hart Systems
2014: Acquires Enterprise division of Motorola Solutions