Varlink’s Meet the Manufacturer event is firmly established in the field service calendar. Mark Glover attended the event, held at Leicester City Football Club, to see the latest rugged devices and meet those who play a key role at the gathering...
In 2016 and against all odds Leicester City Football Club provided one of the great stories and, indeed shocks, in world sport by winning the English Premier League. When the Midlands team finally lifted the championship trophy at their home ground, The King Power Stadium in May that year, few could believe their achievement, the feat made all the more remarkable that only 18 months prior they were eyeing a potential relegation to the league below.
As a long-suffering football fan - I support West Ham - Leicester’s plight gave us smaller teams hope; that the goliaths of Manchester City and Chelsea can be overcome; that it’s not all about rich chairman and money; that fairytales do come true. You’ll have to forgive my tenuous diversion here. I’m conscious the focus of this piece is not football but on discovering the venue for Varlink’s Meet the Manufacturer (MTM) event would be the King Power Stadium - an event my editor sent me to cover - then you’ll allow me the misty-eyed opening paragraphs.
That said, in service, there is much talk of disruption and how companies should look to challenge what’s gone before in order to evolve and stay ahead and in a way, Leicester’s title winning season could be seen as the ultimate ‘disruption’ to the league’s status-quo and rigid hierarchy, and while the team haven’t joined the elite ranks of super clubs (Manchester City, Chelsea etc.) they are now firmly established as a Premier League side both financially off the pitch and with their performances on it.
Disruption meanwhile in hardware, specifically hardware in service is not as frequent, which doesn’t mean it’s not evolving; far from it. Service software providers – quite rightly - are extremely reticent in altering their hardware foundation as Mike Pullon CEO of Varlink explains. “A company that writes software for a niche, field service opportunity, whatever it is, is actually far more focused on their own business and the need to change is often driven out of necessity rather than any great desire,” he says. “When you’re writing your software, you’re enhancing your software, you’re taking care of business, you’re looking after your customers. The last thing you want to do is change the hardware platform you use.”
Mike founded Varlink in 2005. The company, a leading distributor of barcoding and data capture and EPOS products, feeds the service industry with rugged devices and hardware. Now in its 14th year, the firm’s annual MTM event serves to bridge the gap between customer and manufacturers, which today includes, among others, Zebra, Honeywell and Data Logic. Given the longevity of the event, I ask why it is so important for customers to see and experience the devices on show.
“Where do they go for their knowledge?” he asks. You go to the internet, you look at some websites and you actually find one product looks much the same as another. You don’t get a chance to feel the weight, feel the quality. It sounds really basic, but you know, until you hold one of those devices...where are the buttons positioned? How tactile is the screen? What’s the robustness? What’s the resilience? What are the charging options? So there are no UK shows that bring as many specialist, some might say niche, manufactures together.”
Mike suggests marketing emails and tweets replacing conversation between manufacturer and a specialist systems company, particularly those in niche verticals – which service tends to operate in – is missing the mark, creating a space for the event. “The communication between a hardware manufacturer and a specialist systems company, somebody providing for a particular vertical, has become stretched,” he says.
“There’s an assumption that email communications are going to carry the message about product, technology, opportunities to a customer base that’s just waiting for that communication. The last few years we’ve seen the slimming down of that conversation.”
Among the larger, big-name manufacturers such as the aforementioned Zebra, Honeywell and Datalogic and Janam Technologies. They produce operating system platforms and rugged hardware which they distribute to a reseller or software house to tailor, for example, a picking or delivery task. Robert Hurt is the firm’s EMEA General Manager and we find a quiet corner, among the beeps of demos and buzz networking, to discuss the company’s philosophy.
“Our approach is to provide people with a business tool that will work for as long as we can possibly keep it going,” he says, “and we’ll provide a service for as long as we’re able to obtain the components in order to do that. The differentiation for us is about providing a level of service.”
Compared to their consumer counterparts, rugged devices have a longer life. Failing batteries which are built in to ubiquitous Samsung and Apple smartphones are the common cause of failure and ring fence the two year turn around in buying habits. Having removable batteries in rugged devices means hardware can last a lot longer and keep the service technician active with the same device. “If you’re out on the road, you might not get to base for a couple of days,” Robert explains. “So we have removable batteries, which means you can take a spare battery and pop in this replacement battery. You can’t do it with an Apple phone and you can’t do it with a Samsung phone because it’s sealed giving it a limited life. We are still servicing and supporting devices we installed 10 years ago. They’re running simple business applications such as receiving a task and taking a signature, but it does the job.”
Janam do the vast majority of their business with re-sellers, who are a key demographic of visitors to MTM. I ask Robert how important the event is to the firm. “Every meeting, every conversation is worthwhile,” he tells me, “Everybody you meet is somehow connected to the industry, either as a supplier or as a customer or a reseller. We’ve been coming for as long as I’ve been at Janam. It’s always an interesting venue and an enjoyable thing to do.”
I shake hands with Robert, turn off my dictaphone and sip the final dregs of my coffee. Heading for the exit, I catch a glimpse of the football pitch, a bright, lush green that looks as smooth as a bowls lawn. Robert’s right. This is an interesting venue and I’m already looking forward to next year’s MTM event. For now, though, I’ll continue to believe that my team West Ham might one day perform the same miracles as Leicester and I have Varlink to thank for giving me that hope!