ZigBee Transforms the Supply Chain

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.

Optimizing robots
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.

22 comments on “ZigBee Transforms the Supply Chain

  1. Cryptoman
    February 13, 2013

    ZigBee is a really solid technology with built in networking capabilities that allows mesh topology. This feature allows something called “self-healing” where if one ZigBee node fails, the messages can be re-routed via the nodes that are up and running. Unfortunately, ZigBee has not found its deserved place in the IT world yet. If ZigBee modems could have entered the PC hardware a few years back like a WiFi or a Bluetooth modem, this standard would have gone very far by now. Due to the lack of applications and the need then, ZigBee could not make it into the PCs. I am sure there are other political reasons to this as well (but that's beside the point).

    In terms of battery life, ZigBee is good but it is not as good as Bluetooth. However, when you compare the capabilities of Bluetooth and ZigBee, I think the extra power requirement of ZigBee is more than justified. Unlike Bluetooth, ZigBee was designed as a wireless data networking technology from ground up whereas Bluetooth has been launched as a “cable replacement” technology and nothing more. Nowadays, with the rise of wireless sensor networking (WSN), Bluetooth vendors are trying to push it as a data networking technology, especially with the introduction of the recent Bluetooth Low Energy. Objectively speaking, ZigBee is much more suitable for data networking, however, whether it will manage to become a dominant standard depends on whether it can be recognised as an IT standard such as Bluetooth. I hope it does.

    Companies such as Philips have the power to make ZigBee fly by integrating it into their new generation products. The smart light bulb by Philips is a great product and a good opportunity for ZigBee.


  2. Wale Bakare
    February 13, 2013

    Interesting that ZigBee technology is getting support and market breakthrough from one of the big players in OEMs sector. I would love to see it blooming soon, hopefully.

  3. Brian Fuller
    February 13, 2013

    Douglas, over 50 perhaps, but with the hipness of a 25-year-old! 

    ;  )

    This is a great post that hints at some amazing innovation that will get injected in the chain, I'll argue, a lot faster than we think. 

    I liken it to driverless cars. Suddenly, they're here. Why? Because the technology has been here for years and it's low cost and accessible. The only thing holding adoption back will be regulation. The technology is not an issue.

    I'm sure there will be innovation within the supply chain (probably going on behind closed doors right now) that will fundamentally change how we do things, in ways few could have imagined. 


  4. Nemos
    February 14, 2013

    “Yesterday's fast is today's slow” that's is so true ,…. I have the feeling that every year it passes the technology is running with the double speed. When I was a child, you could not realize this, and today it is so obvious that I am afraid in a few years will not be in the position to follow the speed …..

  5. Ariella
    February 14, 2013

    @Nemos Absolutely, computing power gets faster, and we grow a lot more impatient. It was not so very long ago that I had a dial-up connection for the internet. I remember waiting 20 minutes for high-resolution photo to download. That pace of data transfer wouldn't work for today when images and even video are standard online.

  6. t.alex
    February 14, 2013

    Zigbee is really the ideal candidate for supply chain and warehouse applications. The only disadvantage as compared to bluetooth is it does not come ready inside mobile devices like bluetooth. 

  7. _hm
    February 15, 2013

    ZigBee is around for quite few years. Also, it has vast potential to help resolve many new applications. However, adaptation to this technology is rather quite slow. Is this due to incremental cost or is it technology introduced little too early?


  8. dalexander
    February 15, 2013

    @Ariella, You bring up an interesting point. I was around in the days of 300 baud dial-up modems and it took a lifetime to receive a graphic. All the web developers were encouraged to keep their images down to 100 X 100 or at most 200 X 200 pixels. Now with the increased bandwidth, as you indicated, huge multimedia files do not present a problem. I was thinking of your comment regarding “patience” and how our expectations have changed and how other personal and corporate “personality” traits may have been impacted with the widespread adoption of the internet. I know employers expect more work to be done in shorter periods of time and when those expectations are based upon internet speeds, it follows that the wider bandwidth the higher the productivity if all other things are equal. Sounds like a marketing tag line for an ISP.

  9. dalexander
    February 15, 2013

    t.alex, size is everything in mobile devices. The Zigbee radio is still pretty large but there are continual improvements for size so I imagine that we will see greater deployments as the size of the transponder decreases. Zigbee daisy chains so the distance or size of the warehouse is not an issue. Like youself, I think the Zigbee tech will become the wireless method of choice for WMS applications.

  10. Ariella
    February 15, 2013

    “Sounds like a marketing tag line for an ISP.” That could work. On just this topic, I recently shared this. Note the that a rotary phone is used to make the connection to the computer in the video. Note that what is conveyed is devoid of pictuers and ads (slower connections have their compensations) Also note the quote “we're not in it to make money.” Of course, in 1981 it was much cheaper to buy your paper for pennies rather than pay $5 an hour for a paper that takes 2 hours to dowload.

  11. dalexander
    February 15, 2013

    @ Cryptoman, I agree. When companies start to take advantage just two-state control systems like on-off, open-closed, up-down etc., then Zigbee remote controls for many of the basic automation requirements in the home or business will be quickly adopted. Writing software script files that cycle through a command-control set, will prepare an entire environment before the inhabitants arrive. Mobile devices with applications that talk to Zigbee hosts could be next big wave of application types. Boot up your computer at home while you are still on the freeway. Turn on the coffe pot, central heating, or lights from bed. Or wake-up remote cameras by location in the home from work. I can see it coming. Zigbee batteries are designed to last for two years so wireless cameras at the perimeter of your property or inside your refridgerator or mounted on your dog's collar may be cimmon place in two years. Hey! Check out the neighbor's dog looking at us. I wonder if his camera is on?!

  12. Lou Covey
    February 15, 2013

    I wonder how we got to this design in the first place.  The problem with it is that it is always on, drawing power, and the point of it is to reduce power consumption.  And it adds a tremendous amount of complexity and potential failure to the entire system.  Wouldn't it make more sense to put it on an ethernet system ? It would be much less complicated and lower power.


  13. Brian Fuller
    February 15, 2013

    There's an interesting subtext that strikes me in this thread. It used to be (and still is) the case that technologists complain that governmental regulation of technology can't keep up with technology's hyper-fast changes. 

    Perhaps we're at the point within the industry itself that we can't keep up with the changing pace of the very technology we invent. In other words, there's some natural human “adoption rate.” 

    So to the victors go the quickest adoption of the fastest-changing technologies. Maybe this is stating the obvious. 

  14. mfbertozzi
    February 16, 2013

    @DA: do you think sooner or later IOT (Internet of Things), by deploying 6LowPan, will replace short range paradigm, including ZigBee or RFID?

  15. dalexander
    February 16, 2013

    @mf…iI think 6LowPan has weaknesses and strengths. The fact that a ZigBee can use 6… Is a plus, but I'm not sure I want to run critical sense and control applications over IP. HLS is already having fits about cyber terrorism and sensitive grids like power and it would seem that almost any IP transport stream is vulnerable to hacking. Until Internet Security becomes hack proof, I would hesitate to encourage any national security sensitive applications from the 6… protocol. That being said, for in home use or non security sensitive applications, 6… May become the application of choice as ZigBee does not have a PN innate connectivity to TC/IP stack. 6… Would facilitate multi-mode controls over otherwise discrete ZigBee systems, so I think there is definitely a possibility that 6… Will have a serious impact in the same market space as ZigBee, but they may work more in consort rather than competition. Good Question! Recently, I was asked to consult on a Digital TV network installation where we could distribute the signals through the AC power lines in a medical clinic. I think there are multiple choices and mixes for transport protocols and mixing and matching, if interfaces become transparent to one another, will produce even more flexible products for home and industry. It could become a market sector in itself.

  16. mfbertozzi
    February 16, 2013

    @DA: many thanks, very interesting feedback; speaking for myself, I think you are right in suggesting a prudent approach by adopting 6…but on the other hand I think technology for making a step forward, sooner or later, will go toward seemless deployment and maybe we will assist to a sort of overall integration among short-wide protocols communication.

  17. dalexander
    February 16, 2013

    @mf, Good point again. “Seamlessness” is definitely a technology enabling factor. Convergence of various technologies largely depends on the interfaces, data modes, and power requirements distribution between the technolgies allowing them to work in tandem. I never thought of this before, but there probably is room for a company that exists soley to analyse the various technologies' I/O for the purpose of selling canned interfaces between or among systems. I know that software operating systems use API, real-time sharing and file format conversions for intercommunication, but take that concept to blend hardware/software based convergent technologies together seamlessly and truly agile products across many industry sectors can become a huge boost to the economy. By definition if the individual technology is already in place, then creating new products that simply major in tying the technolgies together into whole new products, would have a relatively short time-to-market and very low R&D costs.

  18. dalexander
    February 16, 2013

    @Brian…Not to mention the fact that inner-product line delvelopment advancements can make an iPad three obsolete with an iPad 4 within months of former's release. I still don't know what the change-worthy buying incentives are, but I'm not looking either. iPad 5 is on the way…I'm sure. 

  19. t.alex
    February 17, 2013


    Thanks for highlighting on the size of Zigbee radio. I am curious about the complexity of Zigbee vs Wifi and how would people manage to fit Wifi into mobile but not yet Zigbee. Zigbee seems to be much simpler than Wifi.


  20. mfbertozzi
    February 18, 2013

    @DA: thanks again, it is a very fascinating discussion, my pleasure; I believe you have properly outlined several interesting key factors which are doable to influence the near future in terms of smart-objects and apps embedded. Thanks again.

    February 19, 2013

    Zigbee has been around for years but I am not sure how well it is actually selling.  I do not think it has ever lived up to the hype.  However I recently saw a post about Nordic Semiconcuctor (I seem to recall) who claimed to have a very useful ultra low power version of Zigbee.  It might be worth checking it out.

  22. t.alex
    March 4, 2013



    Zigbee should be popular and it is mainly found in industrial applications, not consumer products.

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