The Future of Mobile Productivity at NRF’s Big Show

The future of retail is mobile. That was a key takeaway from the Panasonic booth at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show in New York City in January 2020, where hundreds of exhibitors, thousands of retailers, and tens of thousands of attendees gathered for the world’s largest retail conference and expo.

“What’s happened with retail is what we call the Amazon effect,” Jim Dempsey, National Director of the Mobility Partner Development Group for Panasonic, said at the booth. “When you’re sitting in your house and you need a new toothbrush, you probably don’t need it within two hours. But because you can order it and get in two hours, you might.”

Dempsey and his group’s job is to relieve the resulting pressure on retailers and manufacturers with new tech that combines Panasonic rugged mobile devices and software from partners in novel ways to get products into the hands of customers faster and at less cost. “We’re looking at all these pieces [of technology],” Dempsey explained, “and trying to figure out, ‘How can I put those things together to solve a business problem?’”

The Panasonic booth showcased the results of that work in three main areas of retail operations, from the factory and warehouse to the last mile of delivery to the customer.

Improving Worker Productivity

It may not seem like much, but seconds spent looking down at a handheld, tapping in commands to find information about items in a warehouse, looking up to find those items on the shelf, and then looking down again to update their status adds up over the course of a day for workers. Not to mention the time spent fumbling with the device while they pick stock that often requires two hands.

That’s why Panasonic came up with a voice-activated, hands-free picking solution, launched just the previous year.

With Panasonic TOUGHBOOK N1 rugged handheld computers attached to their belts and wireless headset on, workers can now speak queries to warehouse software and hear spoken answers without looking down or tying up their hands. The system tells workers where to go to pick stock, accepting verbal confirmations that they have done so. “Now my hands are free,” Dempsey says of someone using the system. “And also my eyes.” That’s important for someone walking through a busy warehouse full of other stock pickers, vehicles, carts, and potentially even mobile robots.

Panasonic’s partnership with JDA software makes this timesaving and accident-prevention innovation possible.

Increasing Process Automation

The world of commerce is moving faster than many distribution centers can keep up. Even as major online retailers spend hundreds of millions of dollars on automated shipping centers, older, smaller hubs built around manual sorting processes can struggle to meet the needs of the on-demand economy.

Panasonic has responded with tablet-based solutions that mount on warehouse forklifts that are connected intoto the warehouse management systems. “This on a forklift tells the drivers where they have to go and what they have to do,” Dempsey explained. “It can also be removed to be used by a dock operations manager or other floor workers, providing an agile, multi-purpose solution.” as he showed off the device. Handheld barcode-scanning solutions such as the voice-activated system Dempsey demonstrated also help warehouse workers save time and move products faster.

The Innovation Suite at the center of the Panasonic booth revealed yet another way the company helps warehouses meet the need for shipping speed. A way that brings more automation into the sorting and shipping processes, without requiring expensive overhauls.

It’s called Visual Sort Assist, Nancy Scala, Solution Sales Mmanager for Panasonic explained. “It’s actually unique,” she said.

Using sensors, specialized software, and Panasonic Space Player projectors, the Visual Sort Assist system enables manual facilities go semi-automated for sorting processes. A demonstration video in the Innovation Suite showed how it works.

The system detects, tracks and projects a sortation decision directly onto the surface of a package as it continues to move along on a conveyor built. Referencing the large, easy-to-read numbers, arrows or other indicators, package handlers quickly sort the packages without having to slow down to scan a barcode and wait for a sort decision or memorize sort decisions based on the shipping address. “The beauty of the solution is that as the package is moving, we’re tracking to that package and continually projecting seamlessly,.” Scala said.

Enhancing Workflow Efficiency

By Dempsey’s estimate, the last mile of delivery—that is, the road from a distribution center to the door of a customer—accounts for up to half of a product’s total transportation costs. So, with its software partner, Elite EXTRA, Panasonic offers a solution to reduce those costs.

Delivery drivers carry a TOUGHBOOK N1 or TOUGHBOOK T1 handhelds or TOUGHBOOK L1 tablet running the EXTRA software. Back at a dispatch center, thanks to GPS and 4G LTE connectivity, dispatchers can keep an eye on where their trucks are at any given moment. “These things are, essentially, bread-crumbing,” Dempsey said. “I can see a moving map of where they are and where they’re going.”

Once a delivery arrives, built-in barcode scanning and signature capture on the devices confirms delivery for dispatchers and shippers.

Looking Ahead

Dempsey also gave conference-goers a glimpse of the future with Panasonic’s vision for predictive maintenance.

Enabled by handhelds and tablets interacting with factory equipment and artificial intelligence still in development, the system will alert technicians to repair machines before they break and cause unplanned, costly shutdowns. “The system will start seeing signals coming in that are similar to when it recognized a failure a year ago,” Dempsey explained. “And it’ll say, ‘Hey, this pattern’s matching. This part’s about to fail.’” Such signals could include data such as high temperatures, abnormal vibrations, and more.

From there, a system will not only alert dispatchers and technicians of the impending failure but also let them know what parts they need to bring to a service call and even provide instructions for replacing the soon-to-fail parts. Then plant managers can plan repairs for the least disruptive times.

There’s no telling what new technologies to support retailers and their suppliers will come to fruition by next year’s Big Show. In the meantime, for more about how Panasonic’s mobile solutions help retailers and warehouse managers, visit