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Honeywell: Aerospace company or retail powerhouse?

You might be surprised to learn that the company is both

The aerospace and defense leader is venturing into a new frontier: retail (Photo: Honeywell)

When you think of Honeywell, chances are you’re conjuring up images of aerospace and defense technology, of products like jet engines, satellite communications systems and maybe even quantum computers. But over the years, the massive multinational conglomerate has quietly ventured into a decidedly different setting: retail.

In 2016, Honeywell (NASDAQ: HON) decided to split up its Automation and Control Solutions business into two new segments: Home and Building Technologies (HBT) and Safety and Productivity Solutions (SPS). While the HBT division focused on products like building access systems and thermostats, the SPS unit was geared more toward industrial settings and supply chains. But it wasn’t long before the company recognized that supply chains no longer have a clear endpoint.

“The supply chain doesn’t always make it to the store. Sometimes it goes directly to the end user. Most e-commerce is like that,” Karen Bomber, senior director of customer marketing for Honeywell SPS, told Modern Shipper. “But then, when goods do get to the store and they are purchased in traditional ways … are they going to be returned and come back?”

The trends Bomber mentioned are more accentuated than ever amid the e-commerce boom and the ensuing supply chain disruptions. Sometimes, the supply chain bypasses the store entirely. Other times, it goes back and forth between the store and the end user like a ping-pong ball. But one thing is for certain — the store is no longer where the supply chain ends.

“Not everything is picked up in the store,” Bomber continued, “and there’s an element even from the service counter to someone’s car that is still considered supply chain, because there hasn’t been a transaction of ownership.”

While Honeywell has historically centered itself in the aerospace and defense industries, the massive company is quickly becoming a do-it-all force, and retail is at the center of that effort. Despite getting started just half a decade ago, the company’s SPS segment racked up more than two-thirds of the sales of its core aerospace business in 2021.

Honeywell’s retail presence is expanding rapidly, but communication technology is one area within the space where the company is particularly focused.

“I think the need for in-store and employee communications has elevated faster than anybody else thought it could,” Bomber said. “I mean, there’s no tolerance for a customer standing in the aisle while someone goes and checks the backroom or something.”

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Honeywell’s voice picking technology can ensure that never happens. Among other functions, store associates can use their voices to request inventory replenishment, ensuring that store shelves are always stocked and eliminating the need to check the back room.

The technology, which can be integrated with hardware like a headset or software like an OMS, tells store associates exactly where they need to be and what they need to pick, increasing productivity as much as 30% and correcting four out of five picking errors to drive accuracy rates north of 99.99%. The solution even recognizes more than 40 different languages.

“From the shopper experience, it also is beneficial because now you don’t have an associate in your own space as the in-store shopper, asking you to move out of the way as they’re looking for an item,” Bomber explained. “With voice picking, it takes you directly to where the item should be, and improves the accuracy. 

“That same technology can be used in the back room as well,” she added.

Similarly, Honeywell’s voice solution can be integrated into warehouses and distribution centers, directing workers around the facility and guiding the picking process. According to Honeywell, the technology improves worker safety by 20% and can even be used to train new employees, reducing training times by as much as 85%.

But that voice-enabled solution is far from the only retail offering Honeywell has up its sleeve. Take, for example, the company’s FlexRange Scanner technology, which allows store associates to use their mobile devices to scan barcodes as close as a few inches away and as distant as 66 feet.

“Now, a store associate, let’s say a cashier, can scan the bottom of the basket or the bottom of the cart without the need to pick it up or put it on a conveyor,” Bomber explained. “And that same device can also scan upstock without someone climbing a ladder.”

In addition to being able to read damaged or partial barcodes, the FlexRange solution can also link to a retailer’s replenishment, price or checkout systems, allowing associates to identify low stock, alter pricing and complete transactions, all from the palm of their hand.

And just like its voice picking solution, Honeywell’s barcode scanning technology also has a home in warehouses and DCs, where employees can simply point and click to process items, including those on high shelves that would normally require a ladder to reach.

Honeywell’s retail solutions also extend to the point of sale. At the National Retail Federation’s Big Show in January, the company debuted a new contactless checkout service, SmartPay, which will officially launch in March. The service will enable tap-and-go payments using credit cards and other devices with NFC-read capabilities, like smartphones.

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“I think top of mind is what is going to happen at the point of sale,” Bomber said. “We all know that traditional checkout, standing in line, the queue, whatever you want to call it, is drifting. … There is an element of self checkout which is growing rather quickly, but all of a sudden, there is the desire for contactless checkout.”

Tying all three of those solutions –– and others –– together is Honeywell’s Operational Intelligence software, which provides data-driven insights into devices and workflows. With that overarching framework in place, the company is able to drive productivity in several ways, such as by being able to locate misplaced devices.

“The mobility devices used in FlexRange scanning are the same devices used in the voice picking are the same devices used for Honeywell Smart Pay. So now, the mobility device is the thing that becomes essential for an associate to do his or her job,” Bomber explained. “With operational intelligence, we’re actually able to have line of sight and predictive analytics to what’s happening with those devices.”

In addition to device tracking, the Operational Intelligence solution also automates workflows and provides actionable insights and alerts on device performance and workflow productivity, all of which reduce the time workers spend troubleshooting.

Though Honeywell has already accomplished plenty in its short time in the retail space, the company sees plenty more opportunities for continued innovation. In Bomber’s mind, retail trends like digitization and in-store supply chains are aligning perfectly with Honeywell’s offerings.

“One to two, maybe three years out, I do think that there’s going to be machine vision introduced into retail … where we would use our scanning technology to validate the right product was in the right place on the shelf, with the right price,” Bomber cited as an example.

But just as Honeywell looked to integrate technologies like voice picking and FlexRange into warehouses and distribution centers, the SPS division is focused on enabling solutions all the way down the retail supply chain.

“We are very much focused on the retail supply chain, both from a distribution/warehouse perspective, as well as the transportation and logistics perspective,” Bomber explained. “And when you think about our mobility platform, we have these fit-for-purpose devices. So for cold chain storage, you need buttons on a device versus touch screen, and for a DC you need devices that have handles on them.”

Still, the in-store component of SPS won’t be taking a back seat. In the era of e-commerce, quick convenience and consumer choice, having a capable in-store team isn’t an option — it’s a necessity, and Bomber and Honeywell know it.

“As we continue to invest, we’re very focused on the associates and ensuring productivity and efficiencies, because while we want associates to be productive, we don’t want them to be so fast that they miss out on providing good customer service,” she said. “It’s really about empowerment and making sure that they have the knowledge that they need to serve the customer.”

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Jack Daleo

Jack Daleo is a staff writer for Flying Magazine covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel — and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.