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Supply chain technology: What’s happening in the innovation economy

By Bob Trebilcock, Editor at Large
June 14, 2010

Like a lot of people who follow business like they follow sports, I’m interested in questions like whether the materials handling industry is up or down, whether business is getting better, holding steady or falling behind. I’m also curious about what our readers – our advertisers’ customers - are thinking and doing.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been talking to analysts about what they’re seeing in the supply chain technology markets they cover, RFID, voice and warehouse management (WMS) and transportation management (TMS) systems. I’ll be writing more about supply chain management software in the July issue when we present our annual look at the top 20 providers of supply chain management software. Here’s what I found.

RFID: When I talked to Drew Nathanson, director of research operations for VDC Research Group, he was downright excited about the results of a recent survey of RFID users. In a nutshell, he told me, Tier I companies say their planned spending on RFID in 2010 is up by 200% over their planned spending in 2009, with an average planned spend of about $3.5 million.

Is it a fluke? Nathanson says no. Those same companies are planning to increase their spend on RFID by 96% in 2011 over 2010. The reason for this jump, Nathanson said, is that companies are finally confident that they are going to get real results from projects they have been piloting for the last three or four years. They’re ready to ramp up and roll out. “Companies that have been using 250,000 tags a year are about to use millions of tags a year,” Nathanson told me. As word about success among the early adopters spreads, Nathanson expects to see other companies implementing RFID to keep up.

“Around 2012, you’ll see a rapid increase in new RFID users,” he said. “And by 2015, existing accounts will only represent about 30% of the market.” RFID is finally becoming commercialized.

TMS: The market for transportation management systems has clearly been impacted by the recession, said Adrian Gonzalez, a director at ARC Advisory Group. Now, ARC did not quantify the market in 2008, so the comparison is 2009 against 2007. “When you compare TMS to other applications we cover, it outperformed,” Gonzalez said. “But it could not escape the recession.”

What’s more, Gonzalez expects the TMS market to return to growth in the second half of 2010 and show compound annual growth of 5.4% over the next five years. That’s a lot lower than the double digit growth rates TMS had been posting, but I know any number of companies that would kill for 5% compounded annual growth. Heck, at NA2010, I talked to a rack manufacturer who told me she would have killed for just a 20% decline! Why is TMS holding up? Gonzalez believes it’s because transportation is still a big spend for most companies, and TMS can help a company reduce its costs or hold the line while increasing growth. The bigger news: The market for TMS in a traditional licensed model is flat at best; the market for TMS in a Software as a Service model is growing by double digits. This is still an emerging story but companies replacing their TMS systems are taking a hard look at cloud computing. 

WMS: The warehouse management system market is still a $1 billion market, said Steve Banker, service director, ARC Advisory Group, but it was hardest hit among these three core applications. Banker has not finalized his analysis of 2009, but he’s predicting a double digit decline in sales.

Why the big drop? Personally, I think it’s a combination of factors. A WMS is typically a 10 to 15 year investment; just as end users are getting more mileage out of their lift trucks and conveyor systems in this recession, they’re probably thinking twice about upgrading or replacing a WMS system unless they have to. And, the retail market is in the tank. Retail DC projects accounted for a lot of the growth in all of the segments of the materials handling market for a few years there. Last, WMS is the most mature of the three technologies I’ve looked at recently; with a larger install base of WMS users than TMS and RFID user, there are fewer opportunities for new customers and a significant portion of the base upgraded their WMS before the recession to accommodate new channels of sales like e-commerce. Does a WMS deliver real results? Absolutely. But I think many users are going to try to make due for now.

Voice: I don’t know of any analyst that quantifies the market for voice recognition technology in the supply chain. In part, I believe that’s because voice is sold by so many different players. Vocollect and Voxware are the top dogs among players that just do voice; but voice hardware and systems are also offered by the mobile computing and automatic identification leaders like Motorola, Intermec and LXE; by supply chain software providers like Aldata; by systems integrators like Intelligrated, Dematic and Numina Group; and by other voice specialists like Lucas and Datria. It’s just harder to get a handle around the size of the market. That said, at least based on the DC’s I’m writing about at Modern, voice, along with pick-to-light, are the technologies to watch. I think Vocollect is on to something when they talk about the voice enabled DC as the wave of the future.

About the Author

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Bob Trebilcock
Editor at Large

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484 and .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


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