Panasonic Serves Changing IoT Demands in Warehouses, Stores

The company's latest Internet of Things offerings are being provided with a layered approach to meet customers' challenges during and after the pandemic, mixing HF, NFC, UHF, BLE and other technologies, depending on individual use cases.
Published: February 2, 2021

To meet 2021 demands for automation and data capture at warehouses, stores and other sites,  Panasonic is providing Internet of Things (IoT)-based solutions employing a selection of technologies as companies seek systems that capture data in an expanding variety of applications, according to Jim Dempsey, Panasonic’s director of business development and partnerships. While Panasonic has sold devices for RFID data capture for more than a decade, such as ruggedized handheld readers, it expanded to offer full IoT solutions through its Internet of Things division, launched in December 2019.

Whether customers use ultrahigh-frequency (UHF), high-frequency (HF), low-frequency (LF), Near Field Communication (NFC) or Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) solutions, Dempsey says, “There’s no one technology that serves all applications.” He considers RFID a data-capture technology and one of multiple technologies that can provide information regarding what is taking place within a business.

Jim Dempsey

Panasonic has two categories of hardware products that meet RFID requirements. In the Android space, it offers NFC readers built into its devices, while its Windows products can include HF, LF or UHF RFID readers. RFID, however, does not solve every problem, Dempsey says. In some cases, RFID can be costly to deploy, and an alternative like BLE provides a lower-cost asset- or inventory-management solution. To address the varying requirements, Panasonic’s IoT department builds solutions and also offers RFID tags and readers, along with some products from partners.

The company’s latest rugged devices, for instance, are employed across a number of industries to capture sensor-based data for use in logistics and manufacturing. The TOUGHBOOK A3 offers Bluetooth 5.0 and NFC technology and is compliant with the ISO 14443 and 1563 standards. The TOUGHBOOK N1 includes a dual Nano-SIM, with a BLE chip and NFC. Its handheld products have been commonly used in warehouse and logistics environments in which ruggedized readers are required to capture data about the movements of goods and assets.

“We’ve traditionally seen RFID for tracking heavy assets,” Dempsey says, including totes at automotive manufacturing, or forklifts for yard or warehouse management. Until recently, however, “The cost and complexity for RFID installations was a lot higher,” which usually meant only high-value assets like equipment and vehicles were being tracked by Panasonic’s customers.

“There was no ROI [return on investment] for tagging low-value objects,” Dempsey explains. However, with the reduction in cost of tags and readers, as well as the introduction of other IoT technologies, “We’re seeing a resurgence for certain use cases,” such as utilizing RFID to track inventory in the supply chain. NFC and BLE technologies, meanwhile, are being used for transactions in retail environments.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the evolution of RFID and IoT technology use for Panasonic as well, Dempsey reports. Prior to March 2020, the company’s retailer customers were seeking wireless solutions to implement at brick-and-mortar stores, he says, so they could better engage with customers and help manage their experience.

Panasonic was offering solutions with which BLE beacons, for instance, could be mounted in stores to transmit data to shoppers’ smartphones. With BLE functionality, these stores could then capture the identities of customers as they arrived, and sales associates could view that information, be notified if an individual was a frequent shopper, and better serve him or her according to that person’s interests.

The healthcare sector was deploying RFID and, in some cases, BLE technologies to track the locations of assets such as medication carts or nurse crash carts, by placing a tag on each cart and installing beacons or readers around a facility. RFID tags could also be read via handheld readers, such as during periodic inventory counts. BLE, on the other hand, could be used for wayfinding, to help healthcare personnel, patients and visitors locate specific areas of a hospital by viewing their location on a mobile phone.

In warehouses, Dempsey says, Panasonic’s products and solutions were being employed to help management understand where forklifts or other assets were located, and to view historical data regarding storage, shipping and receiving, as well as any bottlenecks that might occur in their operations. The pandemic has shifted the interest of Panasonic’s customers, he notes, especially in the retail sector.

Since many stores were temporarily closed during the outbreak or were operating at limited capacity, the focus shifted to ensuring inventory could be located and quickly routed to online buyers. “While it’s still about tracking locations and making decisions based on those locations,” Dempsey says, the focus is now on helping store personnel understand where products are located, as well as on finding them for order fulfillments.

Meanwhile, warehouse deployments have demanded more data to help companies move products quickly. BLE technology is being used at warehouses to track devices at a low cost, Dempsey reports, even if those units are powered off. For instance, one company found that its Panasonic handheld devices needed to be tracked because they would often go missing at its busy facility. The solution, he says, may be to attach a low-cost passive tag to each device.

Healthcare companies’ requirements have shifted during the pandemic as well. Hospitals are currently using BLE for geofencing, helping busy staff members understand when equipment or medications leave specific areas, and enabling them to ensure they can serve an influx of COVID-19 patients (or those with other illnesses) without being delayed in finding tools. “There’s no single technology for every challenge,” Dempsey states. “It’s a layered approach for which technology serves which use case.”

One of the changes currently under way is the elimination of  Microsoft‘s Windows CE operating system, which Microsoft is no longer supporting, in handheld devices such as those used at warehouses that often include RFID readers. As such, many distribution centers and warehouses are instead employing iOS- or Android-based devices.

These companies are challenged with utilizing a warehouse-management system that needs to communicate with an operating system such as Android. That transition means IoT devices, including UHF RFID readers, increasingly need to accommodate the Android platform. “That’s driving hardware manufacturers like us to add functionality in to support the technology,” Dempsey says.

Because of the pandemic, Dempsey says, retail distribution technology has advanced by about a decade within only a single year. That change was driven by consumers, he adds. “Today, consumers have a two-hour delivery expectation,” he states, which means more warehouses are being located closer to customers, and goods are moving through those warehouses fast enough that there are more pickers onsite.

Due to COVID-19 transmission risks, companies need to view the locations of workers, as well as provide both social-distancing support and contact tracing. At the same time, Dempsey says, the rate of returned goods is skyrocketing. In fact, approximately 30 percent of all online purchases are returned to sellers, resulting in greater complexity in warehouses.

Panasonic sells its own products through its IoT division, while also partnering with technology providers. The firm offers smart tags for shelving, along with handheld and fixed readers, and it teams up with third-party suppliers and systems integrators. Some areas of IoT growth have experienced less impact from the pandemic, Dempsey says. Utility companies, for example, were already finding ways to automate data capture in the field, using technologies from Panasonic, utilizing either barcodes or RFID, to track the conditions of, for instance, a transformer elevated on a pole. In such a scenario, a company can update information about the transformer without any climbing or lifts.

Technology allows utility companies to drive past homes to capture meter reads, or to accomplish those reads via an interrogator mounted on a drone. Dempsey foresees a pickup of instore-based solutions with which retailers can help improve the customer experience within a physical store by providing information specific to each customer’s interests and ensuring that he or she has immediate access to merchandise of interest.

In the near-term, Dempsey predicts, “We will also see more stores that, because of that two-hour window of delivery, become a quasi-warehouse.” Whether a purchase is made onsite or online, via the “buy online, pickup in store” (BOPIS) model, the visibility of goods and intelligence will be more important than ever, he says.