The supply chain has always been an aspect of living on planet Earth. The food chain, from prey to predator, is a supply chain of sorts. If and when we colonize distant worlds, we will bring the supply chain dynamic with us.
The large grocery chains are putting the corner stores out to pasture. The tobacco companies can easily snare and indenture their prey, so they are both host and parasite at the same time. But this article is not about tobacco companies. This is about being surrounded, engaged, and overwhelmed by the mechanisms of commerce and R&D that keep the supply chain advancements moving at an ever increasing pace. The more we enhance supply chain efficiencies, the more dependent we become upon those technologies and practices that bring things to us faster, cheaper, and better. Yesterday's fast is today's slow.
New technology in the chain
When I read about a new invention, convergence, or innovation, I find myself asking how this new technology can be applied to the supply chain.
Let me give you an example. Philips has introduced a line of light bulbs with RF chips that send and receive wireless signals to an iOS or Android mobile device via a control hub hooked to a local network. The bulbs use the ZigBee wireless protocol, which includes both network and application layers. The relatively new wireless standard (named for the waggle action that bees use to communicate with one another) has device recognition capabilities that detect and enroll end-user products on the network controlled by the hub unit.
Each hub in the Philips lighting system can support up to 50 light bulbs. The hub system not only turns the bulbs on and off remotely, but it also can dial in color hues to set a mood. The wireless technology operates at up to 200 feet. ZigBee also incorporates daisy-chaining functionality that can extend the network to greater distances.
Philips is releasing the application development code so that software programmers can add features such as hues that change with music tones. The ZigBee RF signal is already used in logistics to monitor container inventory on oceangoing vessels. Now it is finding its way into home, medical, and industrial applications. Smart homes are nothing particularly new, but before the ZigBee-enabled products, installation required a professional's efforts. With the ZigBee embedded lights, installation is as easy as putting an Ethernet cable on a router.
Control is key
The two essentials for effective supply chain management are access and control. Anything that has an on-off switch will soon be accessed and controlled by mobile devices. Connect a servo to the switch, and now you have access to open-closed functions. Connect sensors, and you have monitors.
Warehouse management systems, facilitated by handheld devices for picking inventory via voice-host controls, are prime ZigBee product candidates. Instead of the human picker manually operating a button-based system for moving inventory shelving into the picking positions, a ZigBee radio could utilize the voice recognition of the host-node operating system. Program the resident flash memory module with stock keeping unit numbers, and on voice command, the shelf holding the requested SKU would automatically rotate into place for easy access.
On the factory floor, ZigBee technologies can be incorporated into pick-and-place machines to help determine whether the correct reels have been loaded for accelerated assembly staging and setup operations. The ZigBee flash would contain verification information for products on the reels. Before the placing operation would commence, the host would compare programmed setups with the reel locations and part numbers in the loading racks.
ZigBee is not intended for wide-bandwidth or high-speed operations, but lest ye be thinking of Bluetooth as a substitute, let me just say that it takes a Bluetooth radio up to three seconds to find and connect to its intended node. ZigBee is almost instantaneous. It's designed for lower bit-rate transfer, but it is more than adequate for control and access applications.
We should be expecting more iPhone, iPad, and other operating systems geared up with mobile apps that will provide more access and control to manually operated systems like entertainment centers, cameras, and garage door openers. Remote controls will be cheaper, because ZigBee costs less than Bluetooth. It goes right through walls, so node devices don't have to have line of sight to operate.
The ZigBee standard includes a battery life requirement of two years, so energy conservation considerations will be a core driver of its ubiquitous adoption.
Now add ZigBee to your vocabulary enhancements like Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and Doodle, and soon you will be speaking a brand new everyday language that anyone older than 50 will be unable to comprehend.
OMG, I am older than 50.