Adoption of tablet computers among consumer and enterprise customers is growing at an incredible rate across the globe. Though the concept of tablet computing was introduced unsuccessfully in the early 2000s with the Microsoft Tablet Computer, the launch of the original iPad in 2010 ushered in the boom era in which we’re currently living. Computer industry giants and young upstarts alike design and sell tablets in an ever-increasing variety of shapes and sizes, with features ranging from basic touchscreen functionality to complex integrated networks of sensors and input/output options, and at a wide variety of prices.
As the rate of tablet adoption and usage climbs, so too does the need for testing, screening and repair of these devices. Current implementations of in- and out warranty service models suffer from myriad reverse logistics inefficiencies that result in increased costs associated with processing returns and getting back into the market. The issues involved range from front-line customer support challenges, to costly testing, screening processes to the geographic distribution of quality repair facilities.
In a new market research study of OEMs, Retailers and Wireless Carriers in the tablet repair market; respondents highlighted key factors in selecting a tablet repair vendor. In the following pages we discuss how the booming tablet market makes choosing a 3rd Party Reverse Logistics vendor critical to increasing associated forward and reverse logistics velocities and cost efficiencies, which ultimately affect the bottom line. We emphasize the market and benefit of “optimized” screening and cleaning for retailers and wireless carriers (with generous customer returns policies), as well as the manner by which functional testing can augment the speed and quality of the return, repair, and/or replacement, of tablets. Additionally, we describe the characteristics of the ideal tablet 3rd Party Service Provider (3PSP) and the business benefits with this approach. Finally, we take a look at the multi-tablet testing system, global facilities and IT infrastructure of one particular vendor, CTDI, illustrates some of these concepts.
THE TABLET COMPUTER MARKET
The Tablet Computer market is young, already large, and very much still growing. Even in North America, which leads the world in early adoption of tablets, the market is far from saturated. Tablet computer shipments in North America will have nearly doubled between 2012 and 2014, to almost 120 million units shipped this year. North American Tablet Installed Base is on a similar trajectory, doubling from 104 million in ’12 to a projected 220 million this year. Continued rapid growth is projected over the next several years, as well, with the installed base projected to double again to more than 320 million units in 2017.
We can trace this exponential growth to a number of trends in the consumer and enterprise spaces, including the continued evolution of both technology and usage habits away from desktop machines and towards mobile devices. As tablets become cheaper, better and faster, users are replacing aging PCs with sleek new slates. This trend is now commonly referred to as the dawning of the “Post-PC era.”
As this so-called Post-PC era evolves, manufacturers are experimenting with varied tablet computer sizes, feature sets and price points. Major software vendors focus more on developing tablet-specific platforms and applications, as well resulting in the development and deployment of Tablet Computers in vertical market applications like Point of Sale, Supply Chain, and Healthcare. With more hardware and software applications to fit more and more use cases, tablet adoption has moved from leading edge early adopters to mainstream consumers. And the early adopters are upgrading to newer models. Refresh cycles for both hardware and software are being established and, as such, the distribution between new vs replacement tablet shipments is a key data point to understanding the overall market.
CURRENT SUPPORT MODELS
Organizations involved in the tablet support market are first and foremost affected by the high return rate currently associated with retail sales. Generous return policies often allow buyers 15-30 days to return a tablet even after opening the box and using the device. As such, buyers’ remorse has become a significant cause of return. Often times tablets returned due to buyers’ remorse exhibit little or no defects - however small - but become liabilities due to insufficient reverse logistics supply chains. This is because these units still need to be processed so that the seller (i.e., retailer, carrier, OEM) recovers maximum value.
Another problem with the current tablet support market is a lack of front-end screening and diagnostics to resolve end-users technical issues and challenges with the devices. Sufficient telephone-based or remote screening of tablet problems would greatly reduce the number of units returned through the reverse logistics supply chain, often as easily as walking the end-user through some simple knowledge-acquisition to “fix” their device problems. Similarly, not enough troubleshooting occurs post-return, before the units are shipped back to the manufacturers or their authorized repair providers. Roughly, consumers return 5% to 10% of all new tablets sold in North America, with retailers usually sending those units directly back to the manufacturers without screening or diagnosing the units themselves.
Of these returns, some 30 to 40% are classified No Fault Found (NFF), and another 40% are Cosmetic Repair. The remaining 20% or so suffer from cracked screen and broken board issues that require more costly repairs. However, the repair yield on defective units is typically in the range of 50% to 60%. For some OEMs, this cost is too great, and results in selling the defective components for scrap value. In other words, more than three-quarters of returned tablets are either fully functional or in need of only minor, topical fixes before being repackaged and placed back in finished goods inventory. But almost all of these units are immediately sent back to a 3PSP where they are screened, tested, cleaned, refurbished, repackaged and then resold. Even when it comes to devices covered under warranty, consumers send their defective devices through the same reverse logistics supply chain in exchange for a new, replacement device. These activities, especially those related to testing & screening, have inherent challenges. For the most part, they are largely an inefficient, in terms of both cost and time as they are often extremely labor intensive and may not take advantage of advanced technology for automating the process.
Furthermore, the time spent transporting tablets to and from centralized return and facilities adds to the overall inefficiencies when processing returned units. The optimal solution is to move towards a regionalized reverse logistics model with several facilities located strategically throughout a region (e.g., North America, Europe, etc.) for screen, clean, and repair. This offers the shortest time between out-of-service tablets and those either returned and in use again; remarketed as is; utilized for maintenance replacement; sold as a refurbished unit or for reclamation, etc. Very few vendors operate multiple facilities across the world, let alone high volume regions like North America. As such, the screening and repair process suffers from reverse logistics inefficiencies based largely on too many devices having to travel too far for problems that could be solved locally.
Volume of tablet returns is expected to rise over the next several years. In turn, the volume of devices needing test, screen, and repair activities will also increase. For 2013, tablet returns in North America were estimated between 7.6-14.3 million units. By 2015 the volume of returns could rise as high as 20 million units. Those numbers will continue to increase in the near-term following 2015.
ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS – PROS & CONS
Clearly the tablet repair market operates inefficiently. As things stand now, everyone loses: retailers, manufacturers, service providers and consumers alike. A variety of alternative solutions to the current methodology offer benefits, but these are not without their downsides as well.
Improved front-end diagnostics is the first line of defense that could aid efficiencies. Diagnosing the problem with a tablet before its returned by the consumer - and subsequently returned to the manufacturer by the retailer - would significantly reduce the number of devices needlessly returned, tested, and repaired. The problem here lies with both retailers’ and consumers’ attitudes towards adding a layer of remote support. Many retailers currently offer a “No Questions Asked” return period of 15-30 days on tablet computers. Consumers like this policy because it gives them the chance to try a new device in their real life workflow with the safety net of getting their money back should buyers’ remorse set in. Retailers, of course, are reluctant to do anything that might drive their customers away to a competitor. This undoubtedly includes revoking existing policies. Moreover, adding a layer of remote diagnostic support will introduce an additional cost to retailers’ tablet sales operations. Even when it comes to in-warranty repairs, manufacturers are more likely to issue an advanced exchange unit then attempt to diagnose the problem remotely. The defective unit is then sent back through the reverse logistics supply chain and added to the costs and liability associated with warranty support.
As suggested earlier, a second way to improve reverse logistics efficiencies is to move the return & repair facilities closer to the customer/retailer through a regional service model. Many 3PSPs currently offer only one, centralized US-based repair facilities. This practice directly contributes to inefficiencies in the reverse logistics supply chain - i.e. Increase time and fuel costs associated with shipping tablets great distances for testing and screening work, and then possibly on to other facilities for refurbishment and liquidation. Performing critical reverse logistic functions in strategically located facilities throughout the United States would cut transit time, resulting in increased velocity associated with turning distressed inventory from a liability into an asset. Of course, the downside associated with this solution is cost. Opening additional facilities on American soil, if ones do not exist already, is costly, both on its own and as compared to running offshore operations.
More effective device testing and screening prior to repair is a potentially viable alternative solution. Various methods of testing exist and, again, each carries with it pros and cons:
• Inexpensive and fast to implement but subject to human error and costly in the long run.
• Automated but reliant on device/API/OS-specific software wrappers. New tests may need to be created with new releases of a device, an API or OS.
BOARD LEVEL TESTING:
• Testing the devices in developer or engineering boot mode. This process can be automated. The problem is that it does not address the problems with the device from an end-user perspective and, as such, real-world functionality problems may be missed.
OPEN UNIT TESTING:
• The device’s screen and cover need to be removed in order to test the board on a bed of nails. This breaks the integrity of the tablet’s seal and adds time to the process, resulting in increased cost.
EMBEDDED DIAGNOSTIC TEST:
• This type of testing can query the hardware, but not stress its functionality.
AUTOMATED TEST EQUIPMENT (ATE) OR “BED OF NAILS” TESTING:
• This type of testing, leveraging the investments the OEM or their contract manufacturers make in end-of-line manufacturing testing, is costly, difficult to duplicate and locate regionally, and may require considerable labor in terms of the finished product and the multiple stages of testing implemented. It is also generally slower, due to it being an end-of-line test, and geared for manufacturing facilities, not repair facilities. Furthermore, Bed of Nails tests the connectivity between components as opposed to their functionality.
As evidenced, current test methods for tablets possess significant shortcomings, though testing on the whole unit does offer efficiency improvement over the “just send it back” handling of returned tablets.
LIQUIDATION IS ANOTHER OPTION.
Liquidating returned tablets for their asset recovery value may seem like the most expedient approach for extracting value out of returned devices. However, it is a money-losing proposition in the long run given the high rate of NFF and cosmetic repairs, combined with the increasing volumes in the industry. Furthermore, it does not address issues associated with defective or failed components. As such, the manufacturer and its 3PSPs loose valuable intelligence that can be utilized to improve the design and/or engineering of tablet devices. Though tablet liquidators persist, this approach in the current market will have limited benefits as volumes increase and consumers hold onto their devices for an extended length of time.
OPTIMIZED TEST & SCREENING SOLUTION
An optimized screening system can maximize efficiencies while avoiding many of the shortcomings exhibited by the aforementioned testing methods. Screening systems able to test 10 or more tablets at a time can offer increase speed and reduce costs associated with testing. Consistency of process and results will also rise thanks to the use of automated and semi-automated testing systems. Thus, “Screen and Clean” promotes the cost effective recovery of good units with minor cosmetic refurbishment to be processed for resale. Additionally, they can be used as maintenance replacements, or for the dispositioning of products into other markets at the best return for the retailer.
Leading-edge screening technology includes application diagnostics and embedded diagnostics that can be loaded onto devices. Tests can be run on devices in user mode as opposed to “developer” or “engineering” mode to ensure that everything works as it should from the end-user’s perspective. Functional testing of device circuits may take the form of “parametric” testing, which leads to an even greater level of reliability and quality of results.
A regionalized approach to testing, screening, and cleaning the units can also speed up the reverse logistics flow. Performing these functions in strategically located facilities in high volume areas within miles of major metropolitan areas will improve efficiencies as described in Section 4 above. Authorizing these facilities to handle key activities like repair, refurbishment, and liquidation will reduce costs for retailers while improving asset recovery values and the speed at which tablets are returned back into consumers’ hands. This increased efficiency has the added value of making retailers’ extended warranty plans more economically viable. Furthermore, the regional model described here will also fulfill OEM’s requirement to minimize costs and deliver superior customer services as measured by repair turn-around time.
VENDOR SELECTION CRITERIA
We surveyed a cross-section of OEMs, Retailers and Wireless Carriers regarding their needs and attitudes towards the tablet repair market. The majority of respondents surveyed indicated that their customers are required to mail in defective units to an Authorized 3rd Party Service Provider (3PSP). Many of these 3SPSs are managed by OEMs and/or their subsidiaries, speaking to the OEM lock on the still-nascent tablet repair industry.
Survey respondents spoke to a number of criteria important in choosing and sticking with a vendor. The most important factors in choosing a vendor, ranked in order of priority, are:
• QUALITY OF REPAIRS
• COMMITMENT TO QUALITY METRICS
• ABILITY TO MEET TURNAROUND TIME
(TAT) REQUIREMENTS (2-5 DAYS)
• WILLING TO INVEST IN TRAINING
• QUALITY & THOROUGHNESS OF REPORTS
• QUALITY OF IT INFRASTRUCTURE
Clearly repair quality is paramount in vendor selection. Qualified vendors must be able to meet OEM specifications and otherwise offer consistently high quality test and repair services. Long-standing, standardized processes across a vendor’s network demonstrate commitment to quality metrics. With turnaround time being ranked second in priority, demonstrated high-velocity forward and reverse logistics is also a key criterion in choosing a vendor. Vendors who operate multiple facilities in high-volume regions and those who offer innovative time-saving services, such as in-field warranty services, excel at meeting and surpassing TAT requirements at scale.
Also indicated are the quality of reports and IT infrastructure. Tablets have become highly complex pieces of equipment, and a vendor’s diagnostic system must be able to test many components, sensors and functions (e.g. Microphone and speaker, Cellular and WiFi connectivity, Accelerometer / Gyroscope / Magnetometer, and so on). The vendor must also offer a thorough and reliable methodology for reporting results in both high-level “Pass/Fail” and granular detail.
VENDOR SPOTLIGHT – CTDI
One vendor whom we’ve worked with, and regard as a highly capable and qualified service provider, is CTDI. This company excels in all areas of tablet diagnosis and repair, including the specific factors identified as critical by our survey respondents. CTDI brings 39 years of technical expertise, innovation in service models, and global testing and repair capabilities to the market. They have the ability to test more than 75,000 unique model types and offer the most comprehensive repair service portfolio in the world.
CTDI’s NightHawk Test System, an advanced multi-unit tablet tester is a prime example of the company’s commitment to technological innovation in a rapidly evolving sector. NightHawk can test 10 tablets simultaneously, leveraging innovations like front-loading tablet trays that greatly increase test capacity and daily productivity. With NightHawk, CTDI has the flexibility to keep pace with the latest tablet models, operating systems and APIs while also leveraging extreme efficiencies that keep reverse logistics velocities high. NightHawk performs fully functional testing of tablets utilizing CTDI designed and developed Apps tailored to access and utilize the Tablet API’s.
The purpose of these applications is to simulate the end-users tablet experience and will test the following tablet functionality:
• Touchscreen, Buttons, LEDs
• System Information
CTDI’s ability to offer fast, high quality screening and diagnosis of multiple brands and models of tablet devices couples with their OEM authorized repair and excess asset management services to provide a comprehensive portfolio of service offerings. CTDI employs over 350 engineers to develop testing for a variety of OEM technologies, ensuring ongoing innovation to keep pace with this fast-moving market.
CTDI has a network of 69 facilities operating in 15 countries, with 48 facilities in the US alone. This mature, global network allows CTDI to offer high velocity reverse logistics by cutting down on transit time to and from their facilities. The quality of CTDI’s infrastructure is outstanding, and efficiencies are further increased by way of CTDI’s innovative, scalable Web-based testing technology. The company’s proprietary Warehouse Management System (WMS) and eBusiness tools also allow customers to enter and track orders online 24/7. In summary, CTDIs’ state of the art technology, world class processes, and global presence allow for high speed, high quality in region repairs which supports customers’ demands for immediate or very short interval repair or replacement as well as meets the OEMs’ requirements to minimize costs.
SUMMARY AND CALL TO ACTION
The rapid growth of the tablet computer industry has created a demand for a highly efficient approach to diagnosing and repairing returned units. Our research findings show that a majority of tablet computer suppliers (e.g., OEMs, Retailers, and Carriers) waste time and money due to multiple issues in the current flow of reverse logistics. Specifically, too many devices are needlessly returned to the manufacturers’ 3PSP where time and effort is spent on testing the devices instead of screening via phone or at the retailer, and too many devices have to travel too far a distance for quality diagnosis and repair.
Market research surveys confirm that the tablet market will continue to expand by virtually all measures, including units shipped and install base. A byproduct of this growth will be the continued, increased need for in- and out of warranty repair. Our survey of decision makers across the OEM, Retail and Wireless Carrier segment confirmed the need for quality screen and repair service vendors, and also identified the key criteria involved in selecting and renewing relationships with vendors. Factors ranking high on the list of criteria included quality of repairs, ability to meet turnaround time, willingness to invest in R&D and training, and quality of reports and IT infrastructure. The primary methods discussed to alleviate such inefficiencies are: improved front-end diagnostics, moving the return & repair facilities closer to the customer/retailer through a regional service model, and, perhaps most importantly, optimized test and screening that forgoes the costs and slow speeds associated with standard testing.
As analyzed in the vendor spotlight, CTDI is one vendor who meets all of these criteria with their automated multi-unit test systems and deep roster of highly trained technicians and innovative engineering talent. CTDI is also uniquely positioned to leverage their global network of repair facilities, technical competencies, and logistics support services to increase reverse logistics velocities, add value, and drive costs down. Given the huge potential for cost savings, risk protection, and revenue gains, companies should seriously consider building a business case and ROI justification for investment in solution such as the one offered by CTDI.
Michael R. Blumberg is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC) and President & CEO of Blumberg Advisory Group, Inc. His firm focuses on providing strategic and tactical assistance for improving the overall profitability and quality of aftermarket service operations. Mr. Blumberg has established himself as an expert and industry authority on Reverse Logistics and Closed Loop Supply Chain Management.