by Minda Zetlin
A manufacturing company has 50 forklifts at its warehouse that it uses constantly to move products and components around. A failed forklift can affect the entire supply chain, so the company has employees physically check the state of the forklifts on a daily basis. They fill out a paper form showing whether the forklift is operational, when it was last serviced, and how many hours it’s been running since then. Back at the office, they enter this information manually into their Oracle’s JD Edwards EnterpriseOne system to update the forklift’s maintenance schedule.
A more modern approach might eliminate the handwriting, allowing employees to carry a scanner that would capture information from the forklift’s sensors and then bring that information back to the office. But wouldn’t it be best if this task could be eliminated altogether?
Now it can be. New JD Edwards software from Oracle allows a device such as a Raspberry Pi to be mounted on the forklift. It can read the information from the forklift’s sensors and wirelessly enter that information directly into the JD Edwards system, automatically keeping the maintenance and usage schedule up to date and sending out an alert if a forklift is in need of attention. It’s a specific but powerful innovation for Oracle’s JD Edwards customers, and it’s the first new product to emerge from JD Edwards Labs, the research and development (R&D) group within Oracle’s JD Edwards division that is devoted to expanding the capabilities of JD Edwards solutions, creating business value while effectively employing the very latest technologies.
The creation of JD Edwards Labs is just one result of some big changes within Oracle’s JD Edwards division. “As an organization, we’re going through a massive change that we started about a year ago,” explains Lyle Ekdahl, senior vice president and general manager of Oracle’s JD Edwards product family. The purpose, he says, was to follow the same advice we give our customers: do whatever’s necessary to become a more agile organization. “What does it mean to be a modern development environment?” Ekdahl asks. “How do we take our customer interactivity to a new level to inform us about the products we should be building? To meet those goals, we pretty much remade everything from top to bottom.”
One result of these efforts is JD Edwards’ mobile strategy, Ekdahl says. It began with complementary apps that extended some of JD Edwards’ desktop applications to tablets and smartphones, but quickly moved into a mobile-first paradigm. “Now we have extended that into the next big thing,” he says, “which is how we interoperate with alternative platforms—what people refer to as the Industrial Internet, or the Internet of Things.”
The difference between a great idea and a product is the ability to conceptualize and develop it.”–Gurbinder Bali, Director of JD Edwards EnterpriseOne Development, Oracle
JD Edwards Labs was created in 2014 with the goal of bringing the newest modern technology into the stable ERP system that thousands of Oracle’s JD Edwards customers have come to rely on. “We started with the recognition that the pace of technology was going so fast that a mature product line like ours could run into trouble,” says Gary Grieshaber, vice president of product strategy at Oracle and head of JD Edwards Labs. The lab provides a place where engineers can explore emerging technologies—everything from the Internet of Things and wearables to new uses for smartphones and tablets, 3-D printing, and anything else coming down the pike. “There’s a plethora of areas we wanted to research, find their applicability to JD Edwards solutions, and then decide what goes into a product’s development lifecycle and what is not as relevant,” Grieshaber says.
The JD Edwards Labs team, a research group focused on customers using Oracle’s JD Edwards solutions, is like “the Lewis and Clark of our organization,” says A.J. Schifano, senior principal product manager at Oracle. “They are the risk-takers and pathfinders who clear the way for us in product development to synthesize emerging technologies into enterprise-class solutions.”
Finding the right projects to pursue isn’t always easy, especially given the heavily industrial customer base for Oracle’s JD Edwards products. “In the past, we had opened it up to all of the JD Edwards team to talk about what kinds of projects we could do,” says Gurbinder Bali, director of JD Edwards EnterpriseOne development at Oracle. That didn’t work out because some of the ideas were simply too impractical. “The holy grail would be cold fusion, right? It would solve the world’s energy needs, but we know that technically it’s not possible. So you need to temper your enthusiasm with what’s practical, and how much something is going to cost.”
On the flip side, the Labs team has brought some things to life that others at JD Edwards thought were impossible or prohibitively expensive. “Suddenly, they become projects because people see them in action,” Bali says. “Sometimes the difference between a great idea and a product is the ability to conceptualize and develop it.”Collaboration Is Key
How does an idea like Internet of Things integration go from lab prototype to product? It begins with a research phase, Grieshaber says, and with questions such as, “What’s happening in the industry?” and “What does Oracle bring to the table?” The JD Edwards Labs team then starts trading ideas with other R&D teams at Oracle. “It’s amazing how much you can learn from each other, and that just accelerates the whole research phase,” Grieshaber notes.
One such R&D team exists within Oracle’s Applications User Experience organization and is headed by Jake Kuramoto, seniordirector of emerging technologies research and development, who has a standing monthly call with Bali to trade ideas, information, and—sometimes—useful source code. The biggest benefit to this collaboration is the free flow of ideas, Kuramotosays. “A single smart person thinking about something could be productive, but the human mind can only think about so much.Working with these teams has helped us all raise our game and therefore the company.”
The next step is to present the idea to customers. Many of Oracle’s JD Edwards customers rely on heavy machinery, complex distribution systems, or both. When the Labs team went looking for customers to pilot the product, several signed on immediately, he adds. “Some of them were very, very interested. Some were already doing it even without our product, hard-wiring a connection between an Internet of Things device and the ERP. They were doing it the hard way.” With clear customer interest, Oracle’s JD Edwards division went ahead to launch.What’s Next?
What else might come out of JD Edwards Labs over the coming years? The Labs team is looking to offer greater integration and applications for the many new Internet of Things devices arriving on the market, especially wearables.
“There’s a municipality in Canada that has thousands of inspectors who have to inspect buildings and park sites,” Bali says. “The biggest problem they have is that the inspectors cannot track their time properly. They do 10 activities in a day, and most people can’t say how much time they spent in a day on each thing. So we’re working with them to create a wearable application. They can go pick up their work orders for the day and simply tap to start and stop tracking time.”
We believe in going where the pack is going to be. Never where it has already been.”–Gurbinder Bali, Director of JD Edwards EnterpriseOne Development, Oracle
For another wearable project, the Labs team is working on a smartwatch app that would connect directly with JD Edwards EnterpriseOne solutions. Despite the fact that it’s still early days for the Apple Watch, Bali is confident wearables are the way of the future. Recently released research shows that 60 percent of wearables owners find themselves using the devices more than they expected to, he notes.
Creating a killer smartwatch app means rethinking how users interact with JD Edwards solutions, Bali adds. Most users’ biggest smartwatch wish is for notifications and alerts, so that they can receive these in situations where pulling out a smartphone might be impractical, distracting, or even rude. But smartwatches could also interface with JD Edwards solutions to quickly tell a supervisor standing on a factory floor full of machines which of them requires attention. And they could use their near-field-communication capabilities to deliver specific information on a particular machine while the supervisor or technician is near it.
Finding use cases for virtual or augmented reality using eyewear is another project JD Edwards Labs has been working on. Here, use cases might include as-good-as-being-there site tours for both residential and commercial real estate and for training. They could also provide a more efficient way to file site reports.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if the supervisor, instead of writing lengthy notes, could simply do a recording with a headset?” asks Bali. “‘Hey boss, we did this floor, we’re having a problem with this piping.’” Back at the office, the manager could attach a media object in order to get a report within the JD Edwards system, and then put on a headset, actually see the site, and listen to the supervisor’s comments about it.
Though augmented reality and virtual reality show lots of promise, after extensive experimenting, the Labs team determined that Google Glass is not the right device to support JD Edwards functionality—at least for now. “That had a lot of promise, and I still believe it will have a lot of promise because people in warehouses need it,” Bali says. “They perform activities with a handheld scanner, and if the technology was right they could replace all of that seamlessly with a Glass-based wearable interface.” Then there’s the human factor—always crucial to any new technology, he says. “People don’t like to wear it, at least in version one, so that was a dead end.”
And that’s OK. “One of the biggest roles in our mission statement is to evaluate new technologies on behalf of our customers because they can’t always do it themselves,” Bali says. JD Edwards Labs acts as their proxy, always preparing for the new, game-changing technologies on the horizon. “We believe in going where the pack is going to be,” he says. “Never where it has already been.”
Photography by Shutterstock
Minda Zetlin is coauthor, with Bill Pfleging, of The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don’t Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive (Prometheus Books, 2006).