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The Industrial "Niche" Market

Mon, 05/08/2006 - 7:20am

In a panel discussion held during CTIA last month, a great deal of attention was paid to the newest innovations in cell phone technology — something one would expect from such a conference. Speakers promoted the newest gadgetry and the extensive features that went along with them, and explained how this will lead to the best service on the market for consumers. Naturally, the consumer market is the obvious target for such attention, particularly in a society where, more and more, you are being judged by how advanced or "cool" your cell phone is and how many features it has.


The wireless industry does appear to be addressing its own niche markets but they still seem very consumer-centric — sort of subsets of the overall consumer market, not anything hugely different. Panelists at the session at CTIA spoke of the hurdles of reaching the female consumer. To further zero-in and capture the buying power of this audience, cell phone manufacturers are designing new games and features for the female cell-phone user. And although I get disgusted "are-you-joking?" looks whenever I mention this to other women, I am sure there is some market research out there somewhere to support this effort.


But the conference supposedly covered "all things wireless."


A great deal of time is spent researching the niche markets of the female consumer, the sports enthusiast, and the "Gen X" and "tween" consumers. However, you don’t hear much about wireless on the manufacturing floor. Many smaller manufacturing firms aren’t even aware of how wireless technologies can work for them. We as consumers are totally confident that before we can even get our hands on the newest wireless service, another one will be in the works. Not so for manufacturing companies. In speaking with some of these smaller manufacturing firms, I discovered that many of them not only did not utilize wireless technologies, but simply weren’t aware that these technologies could be viable solutions to some of the most common obstacles that they face every day: how to make their businesses run smoother, faster, better and cheaper.


Currently, the manufacturing industry’s biggest hurdles for widespread adoption of wireless technologies include environmental complexities, high costs of implementation, and lack of industry-specific devices. The current efforts to integrate wireless include companies struggling to figure out how to use the latest PDAs, smartphones and wireless Internet technologies to benefit their own production capabilities. While wireless companies focus their attention on satisfying consumer demand, the industrial sector is often left to adapt what is currently available to their unique requirements. Yes, wireless industrial automation does exist. But it is primarily large, "progressive" manufacturers implementing wireless solutions to increase productivity. Relative to the maturity and sophistication of the consumer wireless market, this implementation is still in its infancy, even if the technology necessarily isn’t. There should be a more organized effort to carry over all this wireless innovation onto shop and warehouse floors.


There are fears that wireless industrial automation will further reduce the need for employees, adding to an already high unemployment rate in the manufacturing sector. But it’s important to note that there are many ways to raise productivity and efficiency levels that don’t include elimination of positions. For example, RFID tags, already used in many warehouses of some large manufacturers, allow crews and their leaders to have real-time knowledge of where a given part or shipment is, saving valuable time and unnecessary efforts to locate missing inventory. It is also an invaluable tool for quality control.


In the automotive industry, according to InformationWeek, a Toyota dealership has tested the use of a wireless headset with a flip-down screen for use by technicians repairing their automobiles. The display casts the contents of the technician’s repair manual directly into his or her retina. This way, a technician can stay put while working on the car, without having to refer back to the hard-copy manual. This can save the mechanic valuable time (up to a 30% increase in productivity, according to the dealership) — and in an industry where technicians often earn money for each job they do, this sort of technology can be very beneficial to both the companies AND their employees.


Cirronet (www.cirronet.com) is one of those companies exploring the benefits of wireless on the warehouse floor using ZigBee technology. ZigBee networks feature a "self-healing" mesh topology, instead of the star topology, which can cause problems if one node fails to link to the base station. The mesh topology automatically reroutes the transmission if one links fails, creating the kind of continuous communication needed in some industrial environments. The company does note that because of potential latency issues, it will not work in all situations. However, it is a technology with enormous potential and is worthy of note in any discussion about "all things wireless."


I realize innovative wireless technology designed to increase plant warehouse productivity is not nearly as exciting to some as, say, a female-oriented blackjack game that allows its player to "dress" the dealer. But the female consumer is just one niche market. And if the burst of the telecom bubble of late 2000 teaches us anything, it should be that putting all the company "eggs in one basket" is a recipe for disaster.


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