Zebra Technologies' next CEO, Bill Burns, intends to guide the company through a period of growth in mobile scanners, printers and solutions, by layering in more offerings around additional technologies. As he considers the company's strategy going forward, Burins sees radio frequency identification (RFID)-based products and solutions helping to enable applications including retail inventory management, but also being leveraged for automation and intelligence in multiple industries.
In addition to a wide variety of mobile computers, printers and scanners, Zebra produces UHF RFID printers and mobile and portal readers, as well as RFID reader software. It also provides active RFID real-time location system (RTLS) technologies, such as its MotionWorks Enterprise software platform, with ultra-wideband (UWB), WhereNet or Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) systems.
Anders Gustafsson, the company's existing CEO, has been at the helm for 15 years, and he will step down from the role on March 1. At that time, Burns will become the third CEO of the 50-year-old company. Burns has 30 years of experience in technology, seven of which were at Zebra. Previously, he was the CEO at Silicon Valley startup Embrane, acquired by Cisco in 2015. He also served as the CEO of test and measurement technology company Spirent Communications, and he provided sales management and ultimately executive leadership at Tellabs.
When he joined Zebra in 2015, Burns recalls, the company was a market leader in specialty printing, including labels used for e-commerce, as well as for hospital wristbands and specialized labels leveraged inside electronics. The firm was on a growth trajectory, he says, following the acquisition of Motorola Solutions' $2.5 billion Enterprise Business unit, originally called Symbol Technologies prior to 2007.
For the past seven years, Burns was Zebra's chief product and solutions officer, overseeing new product innovation, and he guided the company's movement into new markets. That effort will continue, Burns says. Zebra intends to continue innovating and driving solutions in its core markets, but with attention to adjacencies in technology that will help the company expand into new areas.
"Zebra is really about its people," Burns says, including partners and customers seeking technology-based solutions to evolving challenges. "We continue to build these strong customer relationships, and the way we do that is by attracting, developing and retaining the best talent we can around the globe." That talent is focused on reaching new audiences and addressing customer challenges, he says.
With that in mind, the company came up with three new areas that Burns considers adjacent markets—machine vision, robotics through warehouse automation, and retail execution software—for which RFID is a key enabler. "Zebra is at a point in its history where it will begin layering more products and solutions centered around these adjacent markets," Burns explains.
While Zebra continues to offer its product portfolio, Burns says, new technologies are opening up other opportunities as well. Machine vision, such as image-based information, can help with tracking supply chain and production events, he says, in order to improve efficiencies. Robotics can assist in warehouse processes to reduce reliance on human labor, while retail software can help companies manage inventory, staff assignments and other in-store tasks.
Machine-vision solutions are being adopted for production to ensure proper assembly before a product reaches customers. The technology can help companies identify, for instance, if a brake pad was built to the highest-quality specifications, or if the fill levels in bottles are all the same. Zebra is offering software and hardware that could enable such automation, Burns says.
RFID provides another way in which a system can automatically identify modules being assembled onto a product, such as a printed circuit board. With RFID tags on parts, and with readers deployed at production sites or leveraged at packing or inspection stations to scan those tags' unique ID numbers, users then identify each part and ensure all products leaving their facility meet quality requirements.
Burns says robotics inside a warehouse environment also creates an opportunity for RFID. For instance, robotic or cobotic solutions take some of the more mundane tasks from human workers, such as traveling to locations throughout a warehouse to pick products for an order. The use of retail execution software opens up new opportunities, as RFID tags are more commonly in place for products, especially garments, by the time they arrive at a store, providing an automatic ID for every unique item when the tag is read via an RFID reader.
For the past decade, RFID technology has been used for in-store inventory management to reduce the risk of out-of-stock events, and increasingly to enable omnichannel sales. However, Burns sees new applications for which RFID is providing benefits long before goods arrive at a store, including in supply chains. "RFID is one of those fastest-growing segments of our business," he states. "So while our core continues to grow, these expansion markets are growing even faster."
RFID tags and readers can help to bring visibility to what's happening at the point of production, by identifying products at the factory as they are created or packaged. Zebra Technologies offers software that enables data analytics to prompt business choices in order to improve efficiency or foster other outcomes. And Burns has been part of the journey RFID has taken from its early days of in-store inventory counting.
The technology has been commonly employed for detecting out-of-stocks, or for identifying, for example, the sizes of a stack of jeans on a store shelf. "I think there are extensions of applications inside retail," Burns says, that will now leverage RFID for other purposes, with loss prevention being one example. Still, his expectation is that a key growth area for RFID will be as a driver for supply chain improvements. He cites UPS's adoption of RFID to gain more efficiencies through the sorting, transportation and delivery of packages.
Active RTLS solutions are using MotionWorks software for application such as the NFL's player-tracking system to power its on-field statistics (see The NFL's Next-Generation Statistics, Ultra-wideband Scores Contract Extension from NFL and What You Can Learn From the NFL). Burns says the technology can be utilized in conjunction with passive RFID as well. One example is a passive UHF RFID system to track every piece of equipment used or worn by players.
By installing an RFID reader at a locker room door, for instance, as well as applying RFID tags to equipment, teams and leagues can collect data every time a player leaves the locker room, whether for practice or a game. That can include such information as what cleats, knee brace, helmet or shoulder pads that player is wearing. This data can then be analyzed against injuries to ensure players have the safest equipment.
Quick-serve restaurants will be another growing application for RFID, Burns speculates, to automatically track fresh food inventory and thereby ensure products are used in a timely manner before they can spoil. "I think that we'll continue to see RFID be more ubiquitous throughout our customers' environments of retail, transportation, logistics, manufacturing and healthcare," he says. Contemplating the years ahead, he adds, "I just see the acceleration of RFID and many more applications than ever before."
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