As humans, we tend to think that only “new” technology can solve old problems. However, I’ve learned throughout my career in the technology industry that we don’t always need to reinvent the wheel to drive business process improvements – especially when all that’s needed is a more automated data capture (ADC) process. Sometimes, we just need to make a small tweak to the design of the wheel to improve its function.
For example, it’s common to think that ADC requires either a barcode, RFID or advanced vision system, particularly in supply chain and retail environments. Yet, optical character recognition (OCR) technology, which has been around for decades, may just do the trick with a few modifications.
You read that right: running an OCR engine on your front-line workers’ mobile computers may be the best (and only) way to extract the data you need from certain objects and get it sent to the right systems so you can keep your business running like a well-oiled machine.
Though manufacturers, distributors and retailers are increasingly putting RFID tags on tires and vehicle parts, and barcodes seem to be on everything, neither one of those technologies is universally used to capture and input vehicle identification numbers (VINs), tire identification numbers (TINs) or vehicle license plate numbers into business systems. In many cases, barcode scans and RFID tag reads for VIN/TIN/license plate data extraction isn’t technologically possible for those required to capture and report that data for regulatory or service level agreement (SLA) compliance.
That’s why far too many people working at automotive service centers, retail stores, dealerships and rental car centers are wasting time manually typing VIN, TIN and license plate data into customer records or inventory management systems. It’s also why some companies in the supply chain aren’t even bothering to capture VIN and TIN data if they don’t have to, even though such data could dramatically improve business processes, reduce waste, and increase accountability for stored and in-transit inventory. Manually capturing this type of data is tedious and time consuming. If even one digit is input incorrectly, the effort is pointless.
So, when people tell me that “OCR is so 2000’s” and try to dismiss it as dated technology, I remind them that anything which takes manual data capture out of the workflow equation is timeless – and that’s exactly what OCR technology is doing today in many business settings, especially automotive supply chains.
In fact, I recently connected with two colleagues – Mark Thomson, EMEA Retail Industry Director, and John Wirthlin, North America Manufacturing, Transportation and Logistics (MTL) Industry Principal – to make sure I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid when it comes to OCR’s value as an ADC solution. Find out whether they validated my thinking about OCR’s potential to improve business processes in the same way the barcode did 50+ years ago, and learn how they feel OCR compares to RFID and other vision systems for automated data capture in the automotive ecosystem specifically…
Stephan: When people hear the term OCR, they often think of it as the text conversion technology used to digitize entire documents or automatically fill in digital forms via analog data extraction from pieces of paper. But it’s clearly evolved into something more if we’re now able to use it for automated TIN, VIN, and license plate data extractions, among other use cases. Do you think this is something retail and supply chain leaders are starting to recognize?
Mark: It’s interesting because I don’t think OCR was on retailers’ radars as a potential inventory management, regulatory reporting aid, or workflow efficiency tool until recently. Some still may not be giving it the credit it’s due. That’s because traditional OCR engines have historically struggled to focus in and extract selections of text, like only the TIN number and not all the other tire specs imprinted around the TIN. Usually, it’s an all or nothing scan – akin to what happens if you put a document in your home scanner to convert it into a digital format. However, each OCR Wedge configuration is specially trained to read only the intended text, whether that’s only the TIN, only the VIN or only the license plate number; it ignores all other text surrounding those specified digits.
That’s why I have been hearing from more customers who want to try out OCR ever since Zebra introduced OCR Wedge and made it available on all handheld and tablet computing devices via the Mobility DNA suite. I mean, why wouldn’t they want to? Anything that empowers associates at a tire shop, automotive service center or even rental car facility to automatically capture the data they need to fill out customer records, service tickets, or inventory reports is gold right now. Retailers are hyper focused on cost reduction, labor optimization and loss prevention this year – we’ve heard it when meeting with retailers as part of our daily business as well as at tradeshows like NRF 2023. They are also looking for ways to keep associates more engaged, inventory well optimized, and the customer experience elevated. So, if we’ve found a better way to capture data in an automated fashion to help them accomplish all these objectives, which we have in part with OCR Wedge, then they want to check it out.
Stephan: Well, the good news is that they can take any (or all) of the six OCR Wedge configurations for a free 90-day test drive right now using the pre-installed DWDemo Application on their supported Zebra Android mobile computers. They don’t need to pay for a license.
Mark: Exactly. And, for that reason, they’re able to see for themselves if the OCR engine that Zebra has essentially turbocharged with machine learning algorithms can, in fact, send TIN, VIN and license plate data to the right fields in their mobile applications in a split second as we say it can.
Stephan: How are you personally seeing OCR used in retail and supply chain settings?
Mark: I know many tire dealers use TINs to ensure the oldest tires in stock are sold first, before their shelf life expires, because they don’t want to deal with the consequences of selling tires that could compromise consumer safety. So, the motivation to reduce liabilities, along with their eagerness to reduce waste, help make the business case for at least giving modern OCR engines a second look. If Zebra’s OCR Wedge software enables front-line teams to quickly check the records for every tire via TIN scans – and that OCR scan can occur as fast as, and perhaps easier than a barcode scan, there’s no reason not to give it a try. If they aren’t properly managing their tire inventory and they have to throw out old tires, that cuts into their profitability. So do fines for safety violations.
Likewise, rental car companies and dealerships rely on the VIN to update and retrieve records when issuing, receiving and servicing vehicles. We’ve all seen how long it takes to read off a VIN number and make sure it’s typed in correctly in the system. These companies have to find ways to shave off seconds, because seconds add up to minutes, which add up to hours, which add up to saved or lost sales depending on how you’re looking at the situation. Same thing with license plates if that’s what’s used to make the association with the customer or vehicle record.
John: In the MTL space, RFID is certainly gaining traction for inventory management and track and trace. But like Mark said, there are instances in which RFID tags aren’t available or companies don’t have the infrastructure available to read tags. So, workers may need to use the VIN or TIN to report the status of an item in inventory or confirm its next destination. In those cases, workers almost always have a mobile computer in their hands and, if it’s a Zebra mobile computer, they could use OCR Wedge to quickly capture the VIN or TIN like they would a barcode and either provide or retrieve the information needed to keep the vehicle or component moving along to the right place.
Stephan: In the case of tires and other automotive components that might have a barcode and a TIN or VIN on them, would you say the TIN/VIN read would be better than or equal to a barcode scan as far as automated data capture goes?
John: If a company has to report part/component status for regulatory compliance purposes, then the VIN or TIN read might be better. The data about that part/component can be automatically extracted from the vehicle or component and correlated with the appropriate record for reporting purposes, whether in a government system or business system. But if a service department at a dealership just wants to keep track of inventory movements, sales or location, then I suppose they could accomplish the same thing with a barcode scan, RFID tag read or OCR read of the VIN or TIN.
However, I should point out that it’s rare, especially in the automotive space, to have RFID tags on every piece of inventory. Even though tires are being tagged more often, we’re not to the point yet where every tire is being tagged – and those that are tagged aren’t always tagged at the point of production. Sometimes it’s happening at the retail level. Barcodes aren’t always put on individual items either. When they are, workers might find the barcode isn’t as visible as the TIN or VIN depending on placement. For these reasons, I could see OCR Wedge used quite a bit in the coming years to help automate data capture actions and records updates and improve business processes and outcomes across the automotive ecosystem.
Mark: I agree. At the retail level, specifically, there’s pressure to increase customer churn rates. Dealerships, service centers and tire shops want to get people in and out as quickly as possible. The more sales they can close in a day, the better. So, if they have to capture VIN, TIN or license plate data to capture revenue – whether as part of the service experience or a product sale – they want to make sure that action happens fast. Automating data extraction via OCR technology shaves time off each transaction. People don’t have to lean over a windshield to read the VIN, bend down to get the TIN or manually type in anything. They point their mobile device at the physical text they need to capture, tap the button in the appropriate mobile app to snap the letters and digits, then the OCR software automatically recognizes the correct data and completes the form field. If the app is designed correctly, it will then retrieve any associated information for that VIN, TIN or license plate to help the associate or technician complete that customer transaction. Like John said, this same efficiency is possible with an RFID tag or barcode if it exists on the vehicle or part and can be easily read. But people know where to look for the VIN and TIN, whereas they may be searching for a barcode, and I think it will be a while before you’ll see RFID tags used universally. Plus, we may never see barcodes or RFID tags on some license plates given how fragmented the issuance system is from state to state, country to country.
Stephan: Have you ever calculated the time savings for automated data capture of VIN, TIN and license plate data via OCR Wedge versus a manual entry by a front-line worker? Curious what those real-world numbers might look like.
John: I have not performed a formal study. However, I have had my fair share of experience typing in large item numbers into a computer system manually and that process is tedious and prone to error. I would have loved to have this technology in my pocket during my Air Force logistics days over 20 years ago. Those challenges around data entry are still relevant, and this solution is something that organizations can implement quickly, at low cost and experience greater efficiency and accuracy.
Stephan: In Zebra’s recent Automotive Ecosystem Vision Study, most industry decision-makers agreed the pace of technological innovations is accelerating so fast that their organizations can’t keep up. Though tools like OCR Wedge are certainly new and innovative, the underlying technology – OCR – is more familiar. Do you think taking familiar technologies like this and applying them in new ways will help alleviate the fear and hesitancy that is slowing business process improvements in the automotive ecosystem – and really across all industries?
Mark: Any time we can simplify a technology platform – whether it’s hardware or software – I think we must. Complexity impairs progress, as people either get frustrated and give up or don’t even try to use the technology in the first place. With OCR, I think people saw its early limitations and then dismissed it as an option for anything other than document digitization. Now that we’ve both fine-tuned and trained OCR technology to make it work in their environment for a very specific need, which in this case is VIN, TIN and license plate number extraction, they may be more apt to give it a chance – especially if it’s easy to deploy.
Stephan: Which it is. It Because it is powered by DataWedge, a free Zebra Mobility DNA tool pre-installed on all Zebra mobile devices, OCR Wedge can be up and running in minutes. All a customer has to do is choose the right OCR Wedge configuration for the task at hand, which may be license plates, VINs, TINs or even ID documentation, and then purchase the corresponding license and start scanning. They don’t have to fuss with testing Wi-Fi or cellular connections since this OCR engine can work 100% offline. There is no cloud processing involved, which makes it both simple to onboard and easy to secure data. And all the front-line worker then must do is point and center the device camera on the desired text and OCR Wedge does the rest. In mere seconds, the right characters are recognized for the application and everyone in the organization benefits from the near real-time movement of the captured information through workflows.
Mark: But if Zebra engineers hadn’t looked at OCR from a different perspective, if they had dismissed it as “dated technology” like so many others in the industry, then front-line workers wouldn’t have a better way to check in customers, process rental car returns, or confirm the viability of tires before selling them without taking several minutes to complete manual data inputs. They would be constantly bogged down with typing tasks and making sure they didn’t make a mistake.
John: And in supply chain environments, anything that slows down the movement of goods is considered damaging to the entire supply chain and to end customers. Manufacturing, transportation and logistics are even more time-sensitive operations than retail operations. They are also more negatively affected by poor records management, especially when it comes to inventory control. That’s why they are now asserting their commitments to RFID technology, vision systems and anything in that same vein that can automate data capture. They can’t run their businesses the right way without accurate information coming in from workers or about inventory and customers in near-real time.
Stephan: Going back to the point you made earlier, Mark, about loss prevention. Being able to keep better tabs on tires and vehicles via TIN and VIN checks to prevent or identify theft situations would make modernized OCR software like this very valuable, I would assume.
John: Absolutely. They want to keep tabs on their inventory, and if their options for doing that based on their current technology stack is either to use OCR Wedge on their deployed Zebra mobile computers or trust that workers are manually checking and updating systems, of course this would be an investment they would want to make. The licensing fee is nominal in the scheme of things.
Mark: Similarly, they don’t want to lose customers. So, if they can check in or check out customers faster using OCR Wedge, then they can save more sales. And in the case of product recalls, they can more quickly notify customers impacted if the TIN from the tires or VIN from the vehicles they sold were accurately documented in business systems. We haven’t talked about this much yet, either, but OCR Wedge could even be used to capture driver license information for customers at rental car facilities, which are basically retail service centers. So, there are lots of potential use cases for OCR Wedge, and very few could be addressed using any other technology today.
The OCR Wedge software, which is part of Zebra’s Mobility DNA, is now available on all Zebra enterprise mobile computers. To learn more about OCR Wedge and how it can help you automate data capture specific to TINs, VINs, license plates and even ID cards, visit our website, contact your local Zebra rep or watch this video: