So what the hell is it?
A handheld battery powered terminal with Display, Keyboard, WiFi, RFID and Barcode scanners.
What would I use it for?
Anything that requires data capture (RFID, barcode or numeric input) shops, warehouses and factories are good environments for this.
Well since you ask, almost every factory and Production Facility in the world from large to small would benefit from extending their office production system onto the factory floor where real time updates and status changes can save time on QC checking and prevent data duplication.
For example at my customers winery in New Zealand, job sheets are written and printed by the winemakers in their office and given out to the supervisors. Supervisors then assign the work to an operator and signs the job on and off for QC purposes. The job sheets are usually hand written on with tank levels and additions made etc and then returned to the winemakers to update stock and inventory systems and ultimately the financial systems. Bar codes and RFID tags are used extensively to identify paperwork and assets such as barrels and tanks, but they are not utilised as much as they could be to prevent errors.
In an ideal system every operator and every supervisor would be issued with a data collection terminal so in our winery example:
- The operator scans the job barcode to check the job is still the correct status, as this is real time the office staff can un-issue the job and prevent it going any further.
- If the job is OK the operator can then scan the tank or barrel RFID/Barcode and the system will confirm they have the correct tank, this will provide a padlock unlock code to them
- Connecting pipes between tanks are used for transfers and are barcoded, these can be scanned to ensure the correct path is in place before transferring wines
- Additives to be added to tanks are in barcoded bags, these can also be scanned before the padlock codes are issued
- The tank levels at the end of the job can be entered in real time.
Each terminal also knows who its user is as it is activated and assigned from the office, so each issued terminal can have a different set of permissions or programs, eg a normal operator can have a different program to a lab technician who will be able to enter temperatures or analysis results.
Similarly in the storeroom and warehouse the storeman could scan the product barcodes and real time enter new stock counts.
Note this wont be a finished project in the way others may be, simply for the reason that any final software and firmware will need to be highly customised to the system it will be used on, it will be a fully developed hardware system with a set of simple demonstrations on how it will connect to one of my clients systems, specifically to show everyone out there that none of this stuff is rocket-science and to give others the confidence to attempt it.
The thing that has stopped this is current barcode enabled data terminals have been really expensive and cheap ones poorly documented, Proper Industrial grade mobile terminals with bar-code scanners are upwards of US$1000, they generally run Windows CE or mobile or Android and have custom software written for whichever OS and application required. If you break these devices (and rugged devices still break quite easily) the repair is generally in the high hundreds as are all spare parts such as batteries. Clever people have tried with various degrees of success to use cheap android touch screens but these have a lot of drawbacks:
- They are generally not ruggedised
- Most do not have bar code scanners and RFID. Some people have tried to get cameras to read the barcode but it is rarely seamless or intuitive for operators.
- Tablets/Phones generally have a production lifespan of 6 months to a year before they are replaced as are the spares which are generally not easy to find and end-of-life'd regularly
- The Operating system is also subject to updates which may or may not break the device.
- There is a lot of temptation to steal these for home use if they have other uses such as web browsing
- They have to be extensively locked down to prevent abuse such as private internet browsing or running games
- They do not have the correct drivers to use printers, label printers, SQL databases and therefore you are generally restricted to running it in a web browser to a remote server.
As well as this both types of system generally have almost no information on the hardware and firmware for them, in fact generally everything below the operating system layer is secret which means you are stuck with the operating system and once the manufacturer withdraws support you generally have no choice but to upgrade.
Small software houses generally cannot compete with the big boys on this, eg if you are a small team providing factory production software to a dozen customers you may know your system inside out but be intimidated by the above steps to try and support mobile devices on your system.
below is the original concept, the main goal was to get the BOM below $100
I achieved this by ensuring that very little processing takes place on the actual terminal, in this way we do not need any form of drivers for databases, printer etc. we can move this complexity into the server and we simply need a program which sits in the background and interprets very simple messages to and from the terminal and turns them into actions
- Low cost per unit means you can have 10 units instead of 1
- No operating system means instant (sub 1 second) on and nothing to distract the operator from their job.
- Open source libraries for a C programmer to easily get started on and manufacturers documentation for all hardware
- Upgrade path for obsolete hardware if required. Just change out components and rewrite driver!
- Lowest cost replacement parts, buy them direct and fit them yourself
- Good battery life. (I hope!) One of the stretch goals of the project is to reduce the power consumption to get several days use out of it, the first version should be easily good for a day or two
- Potential increase functionality and/or lower costs further as improvements to hardware and software occur.
- No restrictions on reselling any hardware, software or systems you create.
- You will probably need to build it yourself. I should have some spare hardware in a few months for early adopters or people who think they can contribute to the project.
- Some of the parts are cheap but only in MOQ of 50, the MT700 barcode engine is $70 in 1 off quantities but this goes down to $38 when buying 50 units and to about $32 for a 1000, other barcode engines have similar pricing schemes, if enough people express an interest I can bulk purchase and spread the love.
- You will need to understand and be able to interface to your current production system. If you or someone you know cannot write an interface to it now don't expect to be able to get anything useful from this project.
- Still in design and nowhere near completion
This is also going to be a learning curve for me, while I'm pretty experienced and don't see any issues, there are quite a few areas I've never practically applied before such as very low power management which will mean I may go through a few iterations to get things right.
I have posted several more pages about component selection and early prototypes on my home page (www.rodyne.com) some of this information is out of date as the scope of the project has changed over time.
Note on enclosure design
As this will be going into customer facing use it is very important for me to present a unit that at least looks like it is professionally made. As a small time player, getting enclosures made has to date been the biggest headache. The final case I am using is not as good as I had hoped but if I did not make a decision at some point the project would go on forever! Note the cases I am using have been manufactured with a custom overlay and cost about $25 each for a MOQ of 50, there are several cases which come very close to fitting all my components but unfortunately no amount of PCB design was going to work.