Barcodes are ubiquitous in the modern world, appearing on everything from books to vehicles. They are also ubiquitous in manufacturing for identifying and tracking parts, components, bins, tools, and finished products on the plant floor and into the supply chain.
There’s a big limitation with barcodes, however: They’re prone to error and encounter other difficulties in high-volume manufacturing settings.
A barcode reader can only read one barcode at a time
Barcodes have to be reprinted when information changes
Physical damage to barcodes is common in manufacturing, through abrasion or other wear and tear
Barcodes can’t be automatically read in certain situations
Polytron’s Lead System Architect Jim Flagg was describing serial number barcodes at a plant making filters, but it’s easy to see how other types of barcodes, from 2D to UPC, might be affected by some of the issues described above.
PPR recently interviewed Jonas Girardet, the COO and cofounder of Munich-based ProGlove, which makes a wearable IoT device for manufacturing, logistics, and other specialized industrial uses. The system is already in use at BMW, Lufthansa Technik, and other manufacturers and retailers, and recently exhibited at CES. The following interview was edited for clarity and was first published in the PPR newsletter earlier this month.
PPR: What does the ProGlove do?
Girardet: ProGlove connects the worker to the industrial IoT. We develop smart gloves that enable manufacturing and logistic staff to work faster, safer and easier. If you go to a factory, you’ll see more barcode scanners than any other digital device, such as tablets, smartphones, notebooks, or PCs. Our smart gloves have a connected barcode scanner comfortably attached to the back of the glove to work and scan at the same time and to help workers become more efficient. It makes fewer mistakes when scanning, compared to a normal handheld barcode scanner.
Integration is quite easy, as it’s just text that’s transmitted. It’s plug and play — basically, there is no IT work involved which is nice because the sales cycle gets shorter. And of course it’s nice for the customer, because he can basically rip off the existing scanner, put on the ProGlove, and continue working. You can do that during a coffee break. You don’t have to stop the line, or do a 12-month ERP project.
PPR: Is it complementary to other wearable IoT systems, such as Google Glass?
Girardet: We created ProGlove because of the fast integration and the immediate value to the customer. Today you need to grab the scanning gun, do the scan, put away the scanner, and then do your work. With ProGlove, it’s basically part of your normal movement, so with every scan, you roughly save four seconds. But you have thousands of scans per day. And that’s why production process managers really appreciate the idea, and understand the benefit. And of course we see it as complementary to Google Glass.
PPR: How is the platform being expanded?
Girardet: We will have more hardware products, and we are now developing software products on this hardware platform, that will connect the human worker with industrial IoT.
For 150 years, manufacturing and logistics has been optimized for efficiency. Now we have these highly automated lines and robots. But a robot is not made for a product lifecycle of three months, or a lot-size change within two days from one million to ten million. But you can actually do that with human workers. The downsize nowadays is that human-related work is kind of a black box. The problem is, there is no communicated status of the current work and progress, because the worker are not connected to the rest of the factory. They are left on their own with their fixed tasks. We can improve flexibility and reliability if we change this. not When we connect the human to the IT systems in the factory, we can give the worker real time guidance of his next tasks to do.
PPR: How does connectivity work?
So at the moment we are using a proprietary standard. The most obvious choice would be Bluetooth, but what we learned is that Bluetooth is not widely accepted in industry because it’s operating in the 2.4 Ghz band. Big OEMs try to avoid bringing any device into the industry that is operating in that band. ProGlove has an access point in a little box that connects with your PC or to your network, and then vis Sub 1 Ghz to Mark, which is the scan module.
It’s operating at 915 Mhz in the U.S. and 868 megahertz in Europe, but the standard itself is a proprietary standard.
PPR: Are you planning to use other LPWAN technologies?
Girardet: We are definitely looking into Bluetooth, because Bluetooth has evolved. When I talked about the spectrum problems, that was Bluetooth 2.1. Now the technology has evolved and is more stable. And we have customers, especially in the fast-moving consumer goods category, and they don’t they don’t have that problem of too many device conflicts because they have only scanners — there is no machinery or tools operating in these frequencies. And of course for us it’s about software that will be able to integrate deeper into manufacturing systems and ERP systems. From a pure hardware standpoint, it will always be Bluetooth or WiFi.
PPR: So ProGlove basically is replacing a standard barcode scanner. But in the future, the platform will bring the data or maybe some other information that’s being captured into other types of systems.
Girardet: That’s the vision. The first step is hardware, and barcode scanning. The second step will be connectivity, so you connect the worker with the system. The worker with the warehouse management system, and the warehouse management system with the worker. So you scan the barcode, and then immediately determine if it’s the right barcode or not. And then you can start to think about data flow.
Our customers at the moment are just thinking about step one. They are starting to think about step two. The data is definitely part of the vision – the human hand can generate a lot of data.
PPR: Talk a little bit about the number of installations or the verticals that you’re really heavily present in.
Girardet: We are from Munich, Germany, and the automotive industry is really strong there. We started to develop our product with BMW and Festo. You can say, almost every BMW from a German factory is built with ProGlove.
So the majority of our customers are in the automotive industry or their suppliers, but also fast-moving consumer goods, such as Rewe-Penny (German Wal-Mart) in Germany, which are using our products in supermarket warehouses. When a supplier ships yogurt to the warehouse, they want to be sure it’s the right kind of yogurt, and the right amount of yogurt gets shipped.
There is also pharmaceuticals. All over the world, laws have changed, so they really need to document more information, such as where the pharmaceutical goods come from. That’s why they scan a lot of barcodes.
As for the number of installations, it’s a few hundred warehouses and manufacturing sites in Europe that are using our product. Germany is our core market, but also the UK, Eastern Europe, and France. But now we are getting ready to jump into the U.S., one of the biggest manufacturing markets. The product is already used here, at the pilot stage.
PPR: Does the ProGlove require a systems integrator?
Girardet: Basically it’s plug and play. You can plug it in next to a preexisting barcode system. And it can work with big industrial OEMs.
You can order the US version, we will ship it to you, and you can install it. However, normally we work together with our champions who want to work with the product, so we will do a proof of concept with them. The champion might buy a few units for two or three stations, which will generate a lot of data to see how much time is being saved, economic improvements, and worker acceptance. He can then convince IT, QA, and finance. And then it can scale.
PPR: Can you talk about efficiency metrics?
Girardet: We have the numbers confirmed by OEMs in Europe that it’s basically bringing down the duration of barcode scanning by 40 percent.
Of course, barcodes are only part of the process. But if you think about an auto manufacturing site that has a cycle time of 50 seconds, every 50 seconds the car moves, and then the operator does the same step again. And when they are installing an air bag, they basically have three or four things to do and one these things is scanning a barcode. There might be two barcodes, one on the car and one on the part. And one barcode scan takes eight seconds. And you basically save 40 percent of these 16 seconds, out of a 50-second cycle time. That’s really a lot of time.
That’s really why we have big returns on investments for our customers. There’s always a case for ‘Are you saving money? Are you really more efficient?’ You don’t buy it because it is cool, fancy stuff. You buy it because it is more efficient.
PPR: Last question: where do you see this technology in five years?
Girardet: In manufacturing, and supply chains, there is so much value being added compared to the consumer sector. That’s why I think wearables will really play a massive role in the future of the industrial world. Then of course one of these things will be Glass, something that’s in your eyesight, and the second thing will be in the form of a glove, or on your hand. Think about displaying more information, and also having feedback on the hands.