By Jill Nolin

Investment in automation is yielding greater efficiencies throughout the supply chain, and that will likely continue as more manufacturers—even mid-market organizations—upgrade antiquated systems, several Motorola Solutions representatives and channel partners said during a recent media briefing.

“It’s amazing how many (manufacturers) are still manual in their warehouse and supply chain—paper based,” said Tim Wills, vice president of marketing and support with Peak-Ryzex, which is a Motorola Solutions channel partner. “These are market leaders, names we would all know, and they’re really trying to take their business to the next level of productivity by putting that capital investment in their infrastructure.

“It’s amazing how many multi-billion dollar companies we run across that still have not adopted even the base technology—wireless LAN, scanning, barcode printing. It’s still very prevalent.”

Motorola Solutions has identified manufacturing as a major growth area, said Mike Wills, Motorola Solutions’ vice president of North America enterprise sales. Mike Wills and Tim Wills were part of a media briefing at the Motorola Solutions Channel Partner Expo in Las Vegas.

Motorola entered the manufacturing market through acquisitions and, as recent as late March, planned to expand its reach further and more deliberately in the market.

“Ongoing capital outlay to fuel growth continues to be the huge attraction point for us, led by the heavy industrials resurging, retooling and reshoring jobs back here in North America,” Mike Wills said at the March media briefing.

Although the company announced yesterday that it will sell all of its mobile-computing and advanced-data-capture technologies to Zebra Technologies for $3.45 billion, a company spokesman said the plan is to continue to conduct “business as usual” until the transaction closes late this year and that channel partners’ transition to selling enterprise solution with Zebra should be smooth.

When the transaction is complete later this year, about 4,500 Motorola Solutions employees are expected to join Zebra Technologies, and about 20,000 Motorola Solutions channel partners will sell Zebra products and services.

That $3.45-billion price tag is an indication of the anticipated opportunities in manufacturing, as companies seek to reduce downtime throughout the supply chain and plan for a millennial workforce.

“It’s not the same old factory that we knew (from before), nor is it in the same worker profile that they’re hiring into these factories,” Mike Wills said.

As manufacturers rebuild or expand capacity in North America, they are doing so with “fewer workers with radically different jobs,” Mike Wills said. A traditional factory worker functioned in a small space in an assembly-line format, but manufacturing employees today are “mobile knowledge workers” who need the flexibility to roam the plant while staying connected to the data.  

“The whole nuance of mobility is a brand new dynamic that our manufacturing clients are having to deal with, whereas before it was a static work environment,” Mike Wills said.

Bill Morris, senior director with Motorola Solutions’ channel partner Manhattan Associates, described manufacturing as the “forgotten space” when it comes to technology. Different components of the supply chain historically have operated in silos, but Morris said he sees that changing.

“Now, our customers are pulling our traditional warehouse solutions, work-order management solutions, into raw material supply and actually making sure those raw materials are where they need them when they need them throughout the manufacturing process,” Morris said.

“We’re still doing what we’ve always done. We’re just doing it deeper in the supply chain.”

These systems are improving connectivity to devices on the plant floor, traceability along the supply chain and visibility throughout the process—all in an effort to reduce downtown and increase productivity.

Manufacturers also are preparing for a generational shift, as an aging workforce gives way to new employees with different technological expectations.

“Part of (the pressure) is coming from the standpoint that they are going through tremendous turnover in personnel as they hire millennials, who expect real-time data to do their job,” Mike Mills said. “They’re saying, ‘Seriously, you don’t even have wireless LAN in this facility? What do you mean I’ve got to go back to a control room to get a data sheet on this? Are you kidding me?’ They can’t retain highly qualified, highly talented individuals inside their organization.

So the pressure to automate, to make the investment in this type of technology is coming now from multiple forces and the most ironic one is the turnover of personnel.”