Workers prepare to load a pallet from a warehouse onto a truck while a supervisor documents the action on a rugged tablet.
By S. David Silk | November 19, 2019

How a Transportation & Logistics Customer Helped Us “See” a Different Dimension to Mobile Dimensioning

This project is proof that collaborative innovation is the key to extracting “value” from a far-sighted “vision.”

As many will attest, innovation with successful outcomes can be illusive. Teasing out the details of a solution to maximize outcomes can be arduous at times. That is why it is always exciting to collaborate on a team that has a clear vision of how technology can be used to address customer pain points in a big way. It’s even more exciting when the customer, the ultimate beneficiary of the innovative solution, is part of that team. Wonderful things can happen.

Case in point…

Solving the “Dimensioning” Dilemma

Freight measurement inaccuracies have plagued the Transportation & Logistics (T&L) sector for as long as I can remember, mostly due to workers’ inability to accurately capture and convey dimensional data in a timely manner using a tape measure.

The financial losses incurred by third-party logistics (3PL) providers as a result of inaccurate measurements ripples into the logistics process and adversely impacts other critical activities such as load planning. Having more accurate dimensional information available sooner in the logistics process translates into significant savings for the customer.

That is why the idea of “mobile dimensioning” has such as strong value proposition, even though it is still in its infancy. Replacing the tape measure with a mobile dimensioning solution could fundamentally transform the industry. It would provide 3PLs with a more accurate and repeatable means to measure freight at customer sites – if it works as promised.

Thus, Zebra’s challenge.

We are highly committed to delivering a mobile dimensioning solution that “works as promised.” Yet, the enormity of this request – the pressure to migrate an entire T&L sector to a tape measure-less “measurement” method – requires compromise by both our team and our customers.

For Zebra, that “compromise” is balancing our customer-first commitment against our first-to-market ambition.

For our customers, that “compromise” is the adoption of what I’ll call a middle-ground solution: a willingness to implement mobile dimensioning in a slightly different way than originally envisioned, at least in the interim.

Let me explain…

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Being First-to-Market with a Certified Mobile Dimensioning Solution vs. Bringing a Solution that “Works as Promised” Sooner to Market

Zebra has actually been exploring the potential of mobile dimensioning solutions for some time now, and recent advances with image processing have put this transformational technology within reach. And, presumably like our competitors, we want to achieve “certified performance,” which means that the mobile dimensioning solution is certified by an industry-approved third-party for use in trade for “weights and measures.”

However, delivering such a certified solution is still going to take some time. Truth be told, many 3PLs have been rather frank in telling us over the last couple of years that they are skeptical that a solution can be brought to commercial fruition in the near term. They have been monitoring the development of mobile dimensioning technology for the last 10 years and understand the challenges of delivering a certified solution.

This honest feedback was appreciated. It was also motivating.

In late 2018, Zebra was approached by a 3PL customer looking for a mobile dimensioning solution. However, the customer wasn’t asking us to deliver a certified solution. At least not yet.

The 3PL wanted to see if we could find an alternative way to deliver the mobile dimensioning capabilities it needed right now while we (and the rest of the industry) continued to work toward a “certified” solution.

This 3PL, like many others, was clearly struggling with the repeated and consistent inaccuracies that occur when freight is measured with a conventional tape measure. Human errors introduced into the workflow are real challenges with tangible impacts. The costliest – and, therefore, most valuable – pain point that must be addressed is revenue recognition of processed freight with accurate measurements. If we could come up with an alternative solution to today’s conventional process, even if it was just an interim step, then the 3PL (really, the entire T&L industry) could achieve tangible gains almost immediately.  

This customer request certainly got me thinking, as it represented an interesting paradigm shift. To date, technology providers have been solely focused on delivering a mobile dimensioning solution capable of performance for certified use. But why wait (as the customer) or make customers wait (as the solution provider) when there is a path to achieve “good enough” performance and value right now, I reasoned.

It was good business to put the needs of the customer first, especially since it meant starting with the simple and working toward the complex.

That’s when I began in earnest to deconstruct the original vision Zebra had for mobile dimensioning for T&L.  

Rather than seeking to achieve certified performance at initial release, it became evident that it was indeed possible to start with the simple and work toward the complex. We could deliver an automated measurement tool sooner (comparatively speaking) that could provide improvements over the tape measure. Then, as the underlying technology continues to mature, follow soon with a certifiable mobile dimensioning solution.

The Implications of an “Incremental Innovation” Strategy

Load planning challenges are costing individual 3PLs tens of millions of dollars in losses on an annualized basis.

As simple as the traditional task sounds, using a physical tape measure in the field at the point of pickup and transcribing measurements into the line-of-business software is not repeatable and prone to human error. This creates costly ripple effects within the logistics process.

Automating this process to make it repeatable and remove human error represents a significant operational efficiency enhancement. But you don’t need a certified mobile dimensioning solution to facilitate such automation, especially for workflows with palletized freight. Nor does an automated measurement tool need to be certified to deliver extensive value to 3PLs (our customers) or their customers. The open dialogs we had with 3PLs in 2018 helped us realize for the first time that a unique balance could indeed be achieved between the desired outcomes and what was technically feasible now. A “middle-ground” mobile dimensioning solution is a win-win all around, with immediate benefits being realized throughout multiple supply chain touchpoints.

Without the profound level of customer collaboration that has occurred to-date, though, the vision that we had from the outset to address these pain points may have not become actionable until much later. The collective willingness to adjust expectations around what the mobile dimensioning “solution” should look like, and a shared enthusiasm to innovate incrementally is ultimately allowing us to make a greater impact for the customer and the industry today.

The Takeaway

Customer collaboration can make it possible to rapidly deconstruct the vision for an innovative solution and reconstruct it as a more readily actionable, value-centric solution.  As a result, critical decisions can be made early in the business cycle which, in turn, can drive clarity of the business and technical implications in executing to the vision.


We want to know…

Have you ever utilized an “incremental innovation” strategy to achieve your desired outcomes? What was your experience?

Transportation and Logistics, Innovative Ideas,

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