Partnership Offers Affordable Telemetry System to Industrial Gas Distributors
TrackAbout, a worldwide technology leader in asset tracking and management for the packaged gas industry, announced it formed a referral partnership with Vendor Managed Gas (VMG) to provide TrackAbout customers with remote access to cylinder levels, level alerts, temperature, and usage charts for high pressure and liquid cylinders. Continue reading →
Asset Tracking Software Integrates with Epicor, Sage, Infor and TECSYS Systems
TrackAbout, a technology leader in asset tracking and management for the packaged gas industry, announced that three North American distributors recently selected TrackAbout to integrate cylinder tracking data with their respective business management software solutions. Continue reading →
In this post I discuss the path I took to enable TrackAbout to react more quickly to failures in our application’s email delivery. I wrote a service using Node.js which relays email delivery failure events from SendGrid to a HipChat chat room that our support staff monitors. The project is open source and available on GitHub as sendgrid-webhook-server.
Here’s a bit of news of interest to our user community. From Reuters: Honeywell sees slow 2013, to buy Intermec for $600 million.
This comes shortly after Motorola Solutions’ acquisition of rugged device manufacturer Psion, announced in June 2012 and completed in October 2012.
The year 2012 has been one of consolidation, but not innovation. We’ve been anxiously awaiting a sign that the rugged device market would adopt more modern operating system platforms than the Windows Embedded platform we’ve been stuck on for so many years. The two most obvious directions to head for these manufacturers would be Android and Windows 8 Embedded.
In February 2012, Intermec’s longtime CTO Arvin Danielson had some harsh words for Microsoft and their handling of the forthcoming release of Windows 8. Read the article for the full quotation, but the sentiment was that Arvin and Intermec had been stymied waiting for Microsoft to clue them in as to when Windows 8 would be available to OEMs. As a result, to this day there is no news that Windows 8 RT (the version of Windows 8 that runs on ARM CPUs) or Windows 8 Embedded is coming to rugged devices any time soon. The earliest we’ve been told to expect Windows 8 Embedded from Motorola is 2014.
Will the market wait until 2014 for Windows 8 Embedded, or will Android become the dominant platform for the rugged space in 2013?
Several Android rugged devices with scanning capabilities now exist:
- Honeywell Dolphin 7800
- Motorola Solutions MC40 and MC45, which can’t be found anywhere on their site, but Google returned this pdf containing no specs
- SDG Systems / Juniper RAMPAGE 6
- Pidion by Bluebird will have 4 Android devices soon.
- BP70 10.1" tablet IP65
- BP50 7" tablet IP65
- BIP-6000 handheld
- BM-70 smartphone
There are other manufacturers in the game as well. I found a thorough rugged Android device list. Most do not have scanning capability but could work with an external Bluetooth scanner.
Motorola and Honeywell are now the two remaining big players. They have done some experimentation and hedging with Android devices while waiting for Microsoft to get its story straight for Windows 8 Embedded. They are in the best position to know whether the market is really hungry for alternative OS devices, and we’ll be watching their next moves closely.
I caught wind of an exciting research project coming out of North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota. A research team, led by research engineer Cherish Bauer-Reich, has invented an RFID tag that uses the metal object on which it is mounted as its antenna! Here’s the university’s PDF.
RFID hasn’t made great inroads into the packaged gas and cylinder tracking space due to (1) the difficulty of getting tags to work reliably when mounted on metal objects (gas cylinders) and (2) the issue with discriminating between various tags answering the siren song of the RFID reader. Hopefully with this new invention, problem #1 is on its way to being solved. Congratulations to Cherish and her team are in order. Now its up to her university’s technology transfer team to license the technology and get tags into the real world in volume.
As the university’s press release states, existing RFID tags that work on metal tend to be quite bulky. This is due to the need to create space between the antenna and the metal so the antenna can perform its intended function. A bulky tag creates a large attack surface which makes it more prone to damage. This new design promises to enable a much thinner tag, as the spacing (and antenna!) is no longer necessary.
There are still a few things that barcodes do better than RFID tags.
- Barcodes are considerably cheaper than even the cheapest RFID tags, let alone tags that work well on metals.
- You can print multiple barcodes with the same unique ID and place them on the same asset. This adds redundancy and also enables barcode scanning from multiple angles. Most RFID tags for our applications are purchased in bulk and show up in bags, so managing duplicate tags for the purpose of redundancy is not realistic. Writing tags on the fly would be one solution, but it requires more expensive rewritable tags and the hardware to write them, which adds cost.
- Barcodes are extremely thin and unlikely to be knocked off during use as easily as a tag could be.
- At no extra cost, barcodes can contain a human readable number. This is useful in many scenarios and is unusual to find on the typical RFID tags we see used in cylinder tracking applications today.
- And last but certainly not least, barcodes can be read by modern smartphones. As TrackAbout continues to extend its capabilities, we want to make sure our customers benefit from the ongoing revolution in mobile devices.
Arguably, many of these “wins” for barcodes must be balanced against the ability to scan large quantities of assets quickly and without human intervention or line-of-sight. Time is money, and scanning cylinders one at a time with a handheld scanner takes time.
As our customers will attest, there are definite use cases where automatic scanning via fixed readers would be fantastic, but we still have the need for scanning assets individually in the field. For this, the handheld scanner remains the right tool for the job. That means we still need technology that can solve the tag discrimination problem, and this ups the bar for an all-in-one RFID tag solution for the packaged gas industry.
iOS in POS
Came across this Quora question/answer today which contains a short list of retailers who have committed to purchasing “significant” quantities of iOS devices for use in the retail selling process.
The article lists:
- Gap/Old Navy
- Ann Taylor
- Urban Outfitters
- JC Penny
- Tiffany and Company
- Victoria’s Secret
- Outback Steakhouse
- Guitar Center
I’d count seven of those as “upscale brands”. Apple’s image will fit in well there.
One plus in Apple’s corner which I bet influences the decision to adopt their devices in POS environments is that they rarely rev their products. One new iPhone a year (if that, recently) to contend with, and the form factor barely changes. Compare that with the avalanche of Android devices and their varying form factors, OS versions, and OEM UI customizations.
(Edit: 2012-Mar-14 — Add Moosejaw to the list )
Looks like the Motorola ET1 rugged Android tablet is out of the gate.
I’ll be talking with some people at Motorola one-on-one in a week or so about the platform, the development tools and viability for TrackAbout. I’m excited to learn more and get some tough questions answered.
Googling for the ET1 isn’t turning up any news whatsoever except the typical product announcement fluff coverage from the usual gadget sites. Not terribly surprising, given the device is squarely targeting enterprise retail and not the general consumer market. But it’d be nice if Motorola would get some news out there regarding any early customers who are planning large scale deployments with the device.
This is the first viable rugged Android platform I’ve seen that has potential for our product space. It’s great that Motorola has made this move. They’re the market leader, and if anyone can do it, they can. What’s not great is that it’s the first and only of its kind. It’s going to take time to see if it can get traction. Also, there’s just the one form factor, one size fits all.
Motorola is targeting retail (probably its biggest sector) and not industrial applications for now. A high velocity/volume barcode scanner won’t be out until Spring 2012, according to Moto. The only scanner for now is the built-in camera. That’s not going to fly in high volume/velocity scanning environments where users are accustomed to laser or linear imager scanners. It has a USB removable module, which is terrific, and could pave the way for third party hardware providers to create all manner of pluggable devices, such as RFID scanners.
Another negative for the ET1 is the lack of cellular radios. Wi-Fi only.
I’m looking forward to learning more.
I’ve written previously about Apple’s use of barcode and mag-stripe hardware from Infinite Peripherals. Looks like they have a new model out, the Linea-pro 4.
Apple recently added self-checkout capabilities to its retail stores, allowing users to use their own iPhones and iPod Touches to check themselves out for cheaper items. Cult of Mac writer Leander Kahney went to the store to check it out. Impressive, although having to join the Apple Store’s wifi seems like an unfortunate hurdle for your average shopper to deal with, and lots of average people buy Apple products.
This comes at a time when several grocery store chains have begun removing self-checkout lanes for a variety of reasons.
Yet Walmart is moving forward on using Apple’s technology to enable customers to check out items right in the aisle. When Walmart makes a move, it’s worth paying attention. Yet I can’t help wonder how much more shrinkage stores using self-checkout must see.
Looks like the Apple EasyPay POS system has some legs.
In Part 1, I discussed the pros and cons of enterprise rugged devices.
In Part 2, I compared and contrasted enterprise rugged devices with the leading consumer devices available today, with a focus on use for industrial scanning applications.
Here in Part 3, I’ll draw some conclusions and discuss potential future product directions for TrackAbout.
In Part 1, I discussed the pros and cons of enterprise rugged devices.
Here in Part 2, I will compare and contrast the enterprise rugged devices with the leading consumer devices available today. I’ll focus on the potential of consumer devices for use in industrial scanning applications like TrackAbout.