Devices for the Digital Economy: Frugal Innovation

Danielle Beurteaux

Basic Utilities

Millions of people around the world still lack consistent access to the basics of modern life. They also lack resources to build conventional infrastructure in order to obtain essentials such as water and a consistent supply of electricity. Enter frugal innovation—a process for simplifying complex technologies so they are less expensive to produce and operate. Two startups have devised affordable systems that give people access to essential utilities.

Waterpoint Data Transmitter

About 780 million people, mainly in rural locations, don’t have indoor plumbing. Instead, they rely on hand pumps to access groundwater. Sooner or later, these hand pumps break and often aren’t fixed due to lack of parts and know-how. By some estimates, one-third of pumps aren’t functioning at any given time.

OxWater, a startup launched from Oxford University, has a solution that incorporates basic cell phone technology. The Waterpoint Data Transmitter is a monitoring device that communities deploy to track pump usage. If a pump stops working, a local, trained repair team receives a notification to fix it. The device also provides predictions of which pumps are likely to break and reports low water levels. A pilot project in Kenya showed a dramatic reduction in repair times, from an average of 37 days down to just two.

Quad

Solar power has become an important technology for people living in off-the-grid rural environments. But once the sun goes down, or during spells of cloudy days, the solar panels may not generate enough electricity. That often means a return to inefficient and unsafe solutions, such as kerosene lamps for lighting.

Azuri Technologies has developed a simple, independent system that enables solar users to adapt the amount of power they use according to the amount of energy they generate. The Quad is a small wall-mounted unit that’s wired to a solar panel that comes with a USB port for mobile phone charging. The system uses the company’s HomeSmart technology to monitor local weather patterns and learn consumers’ energy usage. Then, based on available energy, it automatically regulates the amount of power used for lighting (by, for example, adjusting brightness) and battery charging.

A 5-watt system costs about US$156, which users can pay off weekly using a mobile money account. Once they own the unit, they can generate power at no cost. Since its launch in Kenya in 2011, 90,000 Quads have been purchased in 12 African countries.

Digital Rescue

Preventing disasters and delivering aid when they do hit are difficult in isolated locations, where there aren’t enough services that enable quick reaction. Complexity and cost can also keep aid from reaching its targets. These startups are using frugal technology in imaginative ways to issue alerts of impending problems and deliver help to people in need.

Pouncer

Disaster relief is an uphill race against the clock. Whether responding to a natural disaster, war, or famine, aid workers must assemble and deliver supplies, navigate around natural obstacles, avoid thieves, and stay safe. Windhorse Aerospace has developed POUNCER, a disposable drone, to address these problems.

Designed for takeoff from a C-130 Hercules military transport plane and guided using a built-in GPS, POUNCER can be launched from up to 40 kilometers from its destination, with a landing accuracy of within 7 meters. The drone can carry enough food and water rations for 50 people. What’s more, every part is reusable and disposable. For example, the frame, which has a 3-meter wingspan, can be used for shelter or burned for fuel (Windhorse is meanwhile looking to develop an edible frame). Because the entire unit is designed for on-site use, there’s also no cost or peril involved in recovering it from the disaster area.

Lumkani

Many of the world’s poor live in shacks that are built very close together, and they lack electricity. As a result, they rely heavily on open flames for light, heat, and cooking, creating a high risk of fire. But conventional smoke detectors can’t be relied on in places that are already smoky. One devastating fire in Cape Town, South Africa, prompted a group of local university students to design a fire detection device specifically for these environments.

The Lumkani detector is a small wall-mounted unit that runs on batteries and, instead of being triggered by smoke, detects fires by monitoring temperature increases. The detectors use basic radio frequency technology to link all units within a 60-meter radius to a mesh network, which enables early warning alerts for the surrounding inhabitants. The $7 device also stores GPS coordinates, sends warning texts to residents, and can self-monitor the operating health of the whole linked system. Lumkani is working on a way to send real-time data to local emergency response units.

Data at the Digital Frontier

Do you own the land you’re farming? When will the next rainstorm hit? These are basic questions, but for some people living in emerging economies, they’re not so easy to answer. Startups are using clever designs and simple interfaces to provide the information that rural communities need to thrive.

FarmSeal

For millions of small landowners around the world, verifying a legal claim to their land is a complex, expensive, and practically insurmountable process. And without documentation that proves that they own their land, protecting their property rights is nearly impossible, as is getting loans to expand their land holdings and businesses.

Landmapp, based in Amsterdam and operating in Ghana, has developed a mobile platform to make mapping and filing claims accessible to small landowners. The company educates farmers about property rights and then, for a small fee, uses its own platform to record and legally validate land ownership. Landmapp uses geospatial technology and cloud data on a tablet, meaning they don’t need fancy and expensive surveying equipment. FarmSeal, Landmapp’s first product, serves farmers; the company is also launching HomeSeal, for homeowners, and CropSeal, for sharecroppers and landowners. The startup’s platform incorporates local government, legal, and traditional community agreements, and is customizable for different locales.

3D-Printed Weather Stations

Weather data drives numerous economic and public safety decisions. But in many countries, a scarcity of weather stations means no data about vast geographic areas. Unfortunately, conventional weather stations are expensive, costing upwards of $20,000 per unit. In emerging economies, governments and rural communities don’t have the resources or training to buy and maintain them.

At the nonprofit university consortium University Corporation for Academic Research, researchers are leveraging 3D printing to fill the weather gap. They’ve devised a weather station that local government agencies can install in rural communities. The units use off-the-shelf, basic sensors, store data on a small computer, and run on energy generated by a single solar panel. The local agencies have 3D printers to create other parts, including the frame and wind gauges, which can be easily customized or replaced.

The cost? About $300. And beyond letting communities know when, for example, rain is on the horizon, the unit can also be a first alert for natural disasters, like floods.

Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.

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Creators: Zipline Offers Drone Aid to Remote Health Clinics

Stephanie Overby

Keller Rinaudo, co-founder and CEO, Zipline
Image Credit: Flickr CC: TED Conference

Drones get a bad rap. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), first introduced decades ago, have a largely negative connotation in modern life—from the Predator drones used to conduct targeted killings to law enforcement drones engaging in potentially unwarranted surveillance to mishandled consumer drones menacing the public.

Credit: Zipline

Keller Rinaudo, co-founder and CEO of Zipline International, sees the technology instead as a lifesaving mode of transport. In 2016, the Half Moon Bay, California, based drone delivery service signed its first partnership with the government of Rwanda to make the last-mile delivery of blood to transfusion facilities throughout the country. In August 2017, the company signed a larger deal with the government of Tanzania to provide 2,000 medical deliveries a day to its far-flung health facilities.

But Rinaudo’s drone dreams are even bigger: to enable on-demand, low-cost delivery of medicines and other products for the planet.

Pivotal Pivots

Rinaudo earned a degree in biotech from Harvard, where he built DNA computers. After spending a few years on the professional rock-climbing circuit, he shifted to robotics. Rinaudo was particularly interested in how smartphone components could open up new doors for robotics, ultimately launching the company Romotive in 2012 with the Vegas Tech Fund.

Romotive raised some US$7 million and spent more than two years developing an app-controlled robotic toy for iOS devices before Rinaudo determined he wanted to do something more impactful with robotics. Robots are really good at repetitive tasks, so Rinaudo spent a year exploring seemingly mundane tasks that were ripe for disruption, ultimately settling on an area where he thought robots could have the most impact: medical logistics and delivery.

The Last-Mile Problem

Zipline’s aircraft, called “Zips” can fly 10 times the distance of existing commercial UAVs. Credit: Zipline

In 2014, Rinaudo traveled to Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania, where he met a grad student working to digitalize part of the country’s medical supply chain. The student had built a mobile alert system that enabled health workers to text requests for emergency blood and medical supplies for critically ill patients. However, owing to the country’s difficult topography and its slow and inefficient medical supply chain, there was no way for the government to deliver many of these materials.

Browsing the growing backlog of medical supply requests that the student had collected, Rinaudo says he realized he was looking at a “database of death.” More than 2 billion people around the world lack adequate access to essential medical products, according to the World Health Organization, often due to challenging terrain and gaps in infrastructure. Over 2.9 million children under age five die every year and up to 150,000 pregnancy-related deaths result from lack of access to safe blood.

Robotic aircraft could solve the problem. Rinaudo established Zipline and moved to develop the Zip, a first-of-its-kind drone delivery service, as the final link in the medical supply chain for problematic geographies.

An Inside Job

Zipline’s team of 60 includes seasoned aerospace engineers recruited from companies like SpaceX, Google, Boeing, and NASA. “They’ve been drawn to the mission,” Rinaudo says, “using cutting-edge technology to save lives.”

The fixed-wing aircraft that Zipline has developed are capable of flying farther on less power and in more variable weather than the multirotor machines typically referred to as drones. The Zips can fly 10 times the distance of existing commercial UAVs. The company has built the robotic systems for launching and landing their Zips, as well as the algorithms in the flight computer and air traffic control software, in-house. “Off-the-shelf quadcopters can’t get the job done,” Rinaudo explains. “We need a purpose-driven vehicle capable of making deliveries at a national scale.”

Rwanda’s Leap of Faith

Zipline began its deliveries in Rwanda, which is known as the country of a thousand hills. The topography makes for a striking landscape but challenging logistics. “The government was ready to step forward and make a national commitment to expanding healthcare access with technology,” Rinaudo says. Because Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, with a land area the size of Maryland, Zipline could serve almost half of the nation’s population from its single distribution center. (Ultimately, the Rwandan government has said it wants to ensure that delivery of essential medical supplies is no more than 30 minutes away from all 12 million Rwandans.)

“Millions of people across the world die each year because they can’t get the medicine they need when they need it. It’s a problem in both developed and developing countries.We can help solve it with on-demand drone delivery.”

Zipline launched its first blood drops from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, late in 2016. The company flies 15 planes (which weigh about 14 kilograms fully loaded) simultaneously, using data provided by GPS and Rwanda’s Civil Aviation Authority to guide the flights. Powered by lithium-ion battery packs and twin electric motors, the Zips don’t have to be refueled.

To make deliveries, the planes fly about 40 feet above what Zipline calls the “mailbox” near a clinic (an area approximately the size of two parking spots) and drop the packages to it. The clinics do not need to install any infrastructure. To begin service to a new site, Zipline performs a survey flight to map the area and can start deliveries within two days.

One of Zipline’s central innovations is the aircraft landing system at its distribution centers. “We need to take off and land from the same place with limited space,” says Rinaudo. Mimicking the wire and tailhook systems the U.S. Navy uses to snag jets onto its carriers, Zipline engineers developed a pair of robotic arms that hold a wire. On approach, the plane sends a signal to the robotic arms, triggering them to raise the wire to the right height for the plane to snag it before stopping on an inflated landing mat nearby. The solution enables the planes to decelerate from 100 kilometers an hour to zero in half a second with no runway.

Developing the technology to operate and land the UAVs safely and effectively was easy, Rinaudo says, compared to integrating with Rwanda’s national health system. There were challenges with back-end systems integration. Zipline has also had to consider local air traffic and health regulations and develop education and training for distribution center workers. “We work hand in hand with military and civil aviation authorities, the national blood center, clinics around the country, hospital staff, and members of the surrounding community,” Rinaudo says. “All of them have a key role to play. And building those relationships while strengthening the overall operation takes time.”

Reverse Innovation

A healthcare professional collects air-delivered supplies. Credit: Zipline

Last summer, the government of Tanzania signed a deal with Zipline to develop the largest national drone delivery service in the world with four distribution centers and more than 100 drones. The initiative aims to serve 10 million Tanzanians (approximately the population of the U.S. state of Georgia). Zips in Tanzania will deliver not just blood but also emergency vaccines, HIV medications, antimalarial drugs, and critical medical supplies like sutures and IV tubes.

Although Zipline is focused on its East African operations, its approach could prove valuable anywhere. “Millions of people across the world die each year because they can’t get the medicine they need when they need it. It’s a problem in both developed and developing countries,” Rinaudo says. “We can help solve it with on-demand drone delivery. And African nations are showing the world how.”

The company has worked with the U.S. government to explore tests of medical supply drone delivery to remote communities such as Smith Island in Maryland, Pyramid Lake Tribal Health Clinic in Nevada, and the San Juan Islands in Washington. It plans to expand within the United States in 2018.

Taking Drones to New Heights

Rinaudo’s focus on using drones to deliver items that have a significant impact on someone’s life has attracted prominent funders, including Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and former Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang.

It’s not clear yet whether drone delivery cuts costs. A report published in 2016 by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center noted that using UAVs to deliver vaccines in low- and middle-income countries may save money and improve vaccination rates. Zipline executives have reported that its deliveries for routine restocking are more expensive than standard trips by road, but responding to emergencies costs less.

To evaluate Zipline’s impact, global health researchers from the Ifakara Health Institute and the University of Glasgow will assess how deliveries from one of its planned distribution centers affect the clinics the company serves.

The value in lives saved is clear, says Rinaudo, and that is fueling development. Costs will come down over time, he adds, and the practical use cases within healthcare will expand. Eventually, Rinaudo envisions, Zipline’s approach could be practical for a range of possibilities beyond medical supplies. Meanwhile, the success of companies like his could serve as a springboard for a new category of aircraft more reliable and durable than cheap consumer drones but less expensive than multimillion dollar unmanned military aircraft. D!

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Digital Transformation Making Steady Inroads In Healthcare

Andrea Kaufmann

Breakthrough technologies and digitization that have impacted almost every industry in the last few years are now also starting to bring about sweeping digital transformation in healthcare. Feeling the pressures of accelerated change, healthcare organizations are recognizing the importance of digital transformation and slowly—but surely and methodically—piloting new programs. They are realizing that current organizational capabilities to integrate and leverage data to drive better decisions are not sufficient to stay competitive and drive continuously improving quality care; they need to implement new technology systems and platforms that can deliver value, solve business challenges, and transform their traditional business models.

According to a recent study by SAP Center for Business Insight, conducted in collaboration with Oxford Economics, healthcare organizations agree on the fact that digital transformation will bring positive changes, such as driving down costs and improving patient outcomes. The survey, based on a study of 400 global C-level healthcare executives, identified the impact—and progress to date—of digitalization efforts. In addition, healthcare organizations offered insights into the key technology investments in use today as well as their anticipated investments in the next two years.

The findings from the study reveal interesting trends about the state of digital transformation in healthcare. While some results were predictable to insiders and providers in the healthcare industry, others were a bit more surprising. Here’s a look at five key findings from the data.

1. Digital transformation is critical to survival

Anyone in healthcare will admit that the industry has been slow to adopt new practice models, business processes, and technologies to adapt to rapidly evolving regulations and shifts in payment models, making digitization a slow grind. Patient records jumpstarted the first wave of transformation in the industry, as most have moved from their paper-based origins to electronic health records (EHRs).

Now, other pieces in the healthcare value chain are following suit. “Digital transformation in healthcare is making forward progress but it is a long journey,” says Martin Kopp, global general manager, healthcare providers, SAP Health. “Healthcare organizations are increasingly open to pulling in the best practices found in other sectors and realizing that they have to run operations in a more data-driven fashion. Doing so will help them manage value and improve the quality of care.”

The survey showed that healthcare executives know that digital transformation is necessary and will have a great impact on the success of their organizations. Digital transformation is seen by the greater percentage of companies to be important or even critically important (61 percent) to their survival today. In two years, that importance climbs to 76 percent. In five years, it rises to 86 percent.

“Healthcare organizations are looking for new care delivery models and cost-effective services they can provide to patients in hospitals and beyond their borders,” says Dr. Anette Grossmeuller, expert precision medicine, SAP Health. “These models require the reimagination of existing business processes and depend on new types of digital technologies driving the access to many new data sources”

Regarding long-term growth, most healthcare organizations (58 percent) believe that digital transformation has helped to increase their profitability and allows them to readily enter new markets. Digital transformation is also believed to help them attract and retain talent.

2. Technology investments are increasing

The survey showed that technology is clearly viewed as essential to healthcare organizations’ growth, retaining competitive advantage, and improving customer experience. The organizations believe that their greatest competitive advantage in the digital economy will come from using the latest technology (82 percent). The organizations also expect to see more value coming from their existing investments.

Technology spending will be shifting somewhat over the next two years, with organizations investing in Big Data and advanced analytics, cloud, and mobile. The shift to connected digital health networks is also elevating the need for improved security investments. Several emerging technologies will get a booster shot, as healthcare organizations plan to invest in Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning/AI, robotics, and virtual reality (Learn more about this survey finding).

These technologies are part of the digital transformation prescription aimed at improving patient care. “The major health organizations are collecting and sharing all types of digital patient data, including imaging and genomic information,” explains Enakshi Singh, senior product Specialist, SAP Health. “Healthcare organizations are starting to get insights from these data sets that they didn’t have before. New technologies can cleanse, harmonize, and analyze data.” She notes that the next step in digitization is to integrate applications that provide the analytics needed for real-time clinical decision support.

3. Healthcare organizations are in the early stages of the digital transformation journey

Despite progress, healthcare organizations are still in the preliminary phase of increasing investments in technology. Many are only planning or piloting digital transformation initiatives at the departmental level to bring about the changes they perceive to be critical to their ability to compete and thrive. Very few healthcare organizations in the survey (2 percent) responded that their digital transformation was mature across the enterprise.

Some of the early successes in digital transformation have come from centers focused on treatment of a particular disease, such as cancer. “Cancer care is a unique trailblazer, as it has genetic components and is a molecular disease,” says Singh. “By using analytics platforms, healthcare providers can better evaluate the role of genetics and drug interactions on particular types of cancer. As we get more and more data, we can start to better understand cancer and its causes and treatments.”

4. Digital transformation is a core business goal

While healthcare lags behind other industries in digital transformation, it is starting to catch up. “Healthcare organizations are actively considering how to compete in the new world. They are moving to digitalization to help measure and improve the quality and value of services delivered across the continuum of care,” says Kopp.

The survey showed that the percentage of total budgets dedicated to digital business initiatives will rise during the next two years, and several factors are fueling this increase.  In the survey, 63 percent of companies said their digital transformation efforts allow them to compete more effectively with large companies. And 60 percent said that digital transformation is a core business goal.

5. Digital transformation is necessary for the shift to value-based care

Digital transformation is helping healthcare organizations raise their reputation and visibility in their communities. In the next two years, healthcare organizations expect technology investments to provide value in customer satisfaction and engagement and innovation.

“Digital innovation will fuel the next wave of breakthroughs in healthcare and accelerate the broader shift toward data-driven care for health organizations,” says Kopp. “Unlocking actionable data insights in real time is critical for the future success for value-based care.”

Delivering value with digital transformation

Healthcare organizations recognize the potential cures brought about by digital transformation. With increased cost pressures, healthcare organizations are striving to standardize and streamline administrative processes for greater efficiency and improved operations. They also have an increased focus on providing value, which can be achieved with new technology platforms.

With aging demographics and the rise of chronic diseases, healthcare organizations are investing more in digital transformation technologies that can support improved decision-making by providing data-driven insights for personalized clinical treatments and optimized patient outcomes.

Want to learn about how SAP Health is helping healthcare providers on their digital transformation journey? Download the “The Future of Digital Health” white paper.

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Andrea Kaufmann

About Andrea Kaufmann

Andrea Kaufmann is the global head of marketing and communications for SAP Health. She is responsible for the development, planning and execution of the marketing and communications intiatives for the SAP Health division.

The Blockchain Solution

By Gil Perez, Tom Raftery, Hans Thalbauer, Dan Wellers, and Fawn Fitter

In 2013, several UK supermarket chains discovered that products they were selling as beef were actually made at least partly—and in some cases, entirely—from horsemeat. The resulting uproar led to a series of product recalls, prompted stricter food testing, and spurred the European food industry to take a closer look at how unlabeled or mislabeled ingredients were finding their way into the food chain.

By 2020, a scandal like this will be eminently preventable.

The separation between bovine and equine will become immutable with Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, which will track the provenance and identity of every animal from stall to store, adding the data to a blockchain that anyone can check but no one can alter.

Food processing companies will be able to use that blockchain to confirm and label the contents of their products accordingly—down to the specific farms and animals represented in every individual package. That level of detail may be too much information for shoppers, but they will at least be able to trust that their meatballs come from the appropriate species.

The Spine of Digitalization

Keeping food safer and more traceable is just the beginning, however. Improvements in the supply chain, which have been incremental for decades despite billions of dollars of technology investments, are about to go exponential. Emerging technologies are converging to transform the supply chain from tactical to strategic, from an easily replicable commodity to a new source of competitive differentiation.

You may already be thinking about how to take advantage of blockchain technology, which makes data and transactions immutable, transparent, and verifiable (see “What Is Blockchain and How Does It Work?”). That will be a powerful tool to boost supply chain speed and efficiency—always a worthy goal, but hardly a disruptive one.

However, if you think of blockchain as the spine of digitalization and technologies such as AI, the IoT, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles, and drones as the limbs, you have a powerful supply chain body that can leapfrog ahead of its competition.

What Is Blockchain and How Does It Work?

Here’s why blockchain technology is critical to transforming the supply chain.

Blockchain is essentially a sequential, distributed ledger of transactions that is constantly updated on a global network of computers. The ownership and history of a transaction is embedded in the blockchain at the transaction’s earliest stages and verified at every subsequent stage.

A blockchain network uses vast amounts of computing power to encrypt the ledger as it’s being written. This makes it possible for every computer in the network to verify the transactions safely and transparently. The more organizations that participate in the ledger, the more complex and secure the encryption becomes, making it increasingly tamperproof.

Why does blockchain matter for the supply chain?

  • It enables the safe exchange of value without a central verifying partner, which makes transactions faster and less expensive.
  • It dramatically simplifies recordkeeping by establishing a single, authoritative view of the truth across all parties.
  • It builds a secure, immutable history and chain of custody as different parties handle the items being shipped, and it updates the relevant documentation.
  • By doing these things, blockchain allows companies to create smart contracts based on programmable business logic, which can execute themselves autonomously and thereby save time and money by reducing friction and intermediaries.

Hints of the Future

In the mid-1990s, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, we had no idea that the internet would become so large and pervasive, nor that we’d find a way to carry it all in our pockets on small slabs of glass.

But we could tell that it had vast potential.

Today, with the combination of emerging technologies that promise to turbocharge digital transformation, we’re just beginning to see how we might turn the supply chain into a source of competitive advantage (see “What’s the Magic Combination?”).

What’s the Magic Combination?

Those who focus on blockchain in isolation will miss out on a much bigger supply chain opportunity.

Many experts believe emerging technologies will work with blockchain to digitalize the supply chain and create new business models:

  • Blockchain will provide the foundation of automated trust for all parties in the supply chain.
  • The IoT will link objects—from tiny devices to large machines—and generate data about status, locations, and transactions that will be recorded on the blockchain.
  • 3D printing will extend the supply chain to the customer’s doorstep with hyperlocal manufacturing of parts and products with IoT sensors built into the items and/or their packaging. Every manufactured object will be smart, connected, and able to communicate so that it can be tracked and traced as needed.
  • Big Data management tools will process all the information streaming in around the clock from IoT sensors.
  • AI and machine learning will analyze this enormous amount of data to reveal patterns and enable true predictability in every area of the supply chain.

Combining these technologies with powerful analytics tools to predict trends will make lack of visibility into the supply chain a thing of the past. Organizations will be able to examine a single machine across its entire lifecycle and identify areas where they can improve performance and increase return on investment. They’ll be able to follow and monitor every component of a product, from design through delivery and service. They’ll be able to trigger and track automated actions between and among partners and customers to provide customized transactions in real time based on real data.

After decades of talk about markets of one, companies will finally have the power to create them—at scale and profitably.

Amazon, for example, is becoming as much a logistics company as a retailer. Its ordering and delivery systems are so streamlined that its customers can launch and complete a same-day transaction with a push of a single IP-enabled button or a word to its ever-attentive AI device, Alexa. And this level of experimentation and innovation is bubbling up across industries.

Consider manufacturing, where the IoT is transforming automation inside already highly automated factories. Machine-to-machine communication is enabling robots to set up, provision, and unload equipment quickly and accurately with minimal human intervention. Meanwhile, sensors across the factory floor are already capable of gathering such information as how often each machine needs maintenance or how much raw material to order given current production trends.

Once they harvest enough data, businesses will be able to feed it through machine learning algorithms to identify trends that forecast future outcomes. At that point, the supply chain will start to become both automated and predictive. We’ll begin to see business models that include proactively scheduling maintenance, replacing parts just before they’re likely to break, and automatically ordering materials and initiating customer shipments.

Italian train operator Trenitalia, for example, has put IoT sensors on its locomotives and passenger cars and is using analytics and in-memory computing to gauge the health of its trains in real time, according to an article in Computer Weekly. “It is now possible to affordably collect huge amounts of data from hundreds of sensors in a single train, analyse that data in real time and detect problems before they actually happen,” Trenitalia’s CIO Danilo Gismondi told Computer Weekly.

Blockchain allows all the critical steps of the supply chain to go electronic and become irrefutably verifiable by all the critical parties within minutes: the seller and buyer, banks, logistics carriers, and import and export officials.

The project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018, will change Trenitalia’s business model, allowing it to schedule more trips and make each one more profitable. The railway company will be able to better plan parts inventories and determine which lines are consistently performing poorly and need upgrades. The new system will save €100 million a year, according to ARC Advisory Group.

New business models continue to evolve as 3D printers become more sophisticated and affordable, making it possible to move the end of the supply chain closer to the customer. Companies can design parts and products in materials ranging from carbon fiber to chocolate and then print those items in their warehouse, at a conveniently located third-party vendor, or even on the client’s premises.

In addition to minimizing their shipping expenses and reducing fulfillment time, companies will be able to offer more personalized or customized items affordably in small quantities. For example, clothing retailer Ministry of Supply recently installed a 3D printer at its Boston store that enables it to make an article of clothing to a customer’s specifications in under 90 minutes, according to an article in Forbes.

This kind of highly distributed manufacturing has potential across many industries. It could even create a market for secure manufacturing for highly regulated sectors, allowing a manufacturer to transmit encrypted templates to printers in tightly protected locations, for example.

Meanwhile, organizations are investigating ways of using blockchain technology to authenticate, track and trace, automate, and otherwise manage transactions and interactions, both internally and within their vendor and customer networks. The ability to collect data, record it on the blockchain for immediate verification, and make that trustworthy data available for any application delivers indisputable value in any business context. The supply chain will be no exception.

Blockchain Is the Change Driver

The supply chain is configured as we know it today because it’s impossible to create a contract that accounts for every possible contingency. Consider cross-border financial transfers, which are so complex and must meet so many regulations that they require a tremendous number of intermediaries to plug the gaps: lawyers, accountants, customer service reps, warehouse operators, bankers, and more. By reducing that complexity, blockchain technology makes intermediaries less necessary—a transformation that is revolutionary even when measured only in cost savings.

“If you’re selling 100 items a minute, 24 hours a day, reducing the cost of the supply chain by just $1 per item saves you more than $52.5 million a year,” notes Dirk Lonser, SAP go-to-market leader at DXC Technology, an IT services company. “By replacing manual processes and multiple peer-to-peer connections through fax or e-mail with a single medium where everyone can exchange verified information instantaneously, blockchain will boost profit margins exponentially without raising prices or even increasing individual productivity.”

But the potential for blockchain extends far beyond cost cutting and streamlining, says Irfan Khan, CEO of supply chain management consulting and systems integration firm Bristlecone, a Mahindra Group company. It will give companies ways to differentiate.

“Blockchain will let enterprises more accurately trace faulty parts or products from end users back to factories for recalls,” Khan says. “It will streamline supplier onboarding, contracting, and management by creating an integrated platform that the company’s entire network can access in real time. It will give vendors secure, transparent visibility into inventory 24×7. And at a time when counterfeiting is a real concern in multiple industries, it will make it easy for both retailers and customers to check product authenticity.”

Blockchain allows all the critical steps of the supply chain to go electronic and become irrefutably verifiable by all the critical parties within minutes: the seller and buyer, banks, logistics carriers, and import and export officials. Although the key parts of the process remain the same as in today’s analog supply chain, performing them electronically with blockchain technology shortens each stage from hours or days to seconds while eliminating reams of wasteful paperwork. With goods moving that quickly, companies have ample room for designing new business models around manufacturing, service, and delivery.

Challenges on the Path to Adoption

For all this to work, however, the data on the blockchain must be correct from the beginning. The pills, produce, or parts on the delivery truck need to be the same as the items listed on the manifest at the loading dock. Every use case assumes that the data is accurate—and that will only happen when everything that’s manufactured is smart, connected, and able to self-verify automatically with the help of machine learning tuned to detect errors and potential fraud.

Companies are already seeing the possibilities of applying this bundle of emerging technologies to the supply chain. IDC projects that by 2021, at least 25% of Forbes Global 2000 (G2000) companies will use blockchain services as a foundation for digital trust at scale; 30% of top global manufacturers and retailers will do so by 2020. IDC also predicts that by 2020, up to 10% of pilot and production blockchain-distributed ledgers will incorporate data from IoT sensors.

Despite IDC’s optimism, though, the biggest barrier to adoption is the early stage level of enterprise use cases, particularly around blockchain. Currently, the sole significant enterprise blockchain production system is the virtual currency Bitcoin, which has unfortunately been tainted by its associations with speculation, dubious financial transactions, and the so-called dark web.

The technology is still in a sufficiently early stage that there’s significant uncertainty about its ability to handle the massive amounts of data a global enterprise supply chain generates daily. Never mind that it’s completely unregulated, with no global standard. There’s also a critical global shortage of experts who can explain emerging technologies like blockchain, the IoT, and machine learning to nontechnology industries and educate organizations in how the technologies can improve their supply chain processes. Finally, there is concern about how blockchain’s complex algorithms gobble computing power—and electricity (see “Blockchain Blackouts”).

Blockchain Blackouts

Blockchain is a power glutton. Can technology mediate the issue?

A major concern today is the enormous carbon footprint of the networks creating and solving the algorithmic problems that keep blockchains secure. Although virtual currency enthusiasts claim the problem is overstated, Michael Reed, head of blockchain technology for Intel, has been widely quoted as saying that the energy demands of blockchains are a significant drain on the world’s electricity resources.

Indeed, Wired magazine has estimated that by July 2019, the Bitcoin network alone will require more energy than the entire United States currently uses and that by February 2020 it will use as much electricity as the entire world does today.

Still, computing power is becoming more energy efficient by the day and sticking with paperwork will become too slow, so experts—Intel’s Reed among them—consider this a solvable problem.

“We don’t know yet what the market will adopt. In a decade, it might be status quo or best practice, or it could be the next Betamax, a great technology for which there was no demand,” Lonser says. “Even highly regulated industries that need greater transparency in the entire supply chain are moving fairly slowly.”

Blockchain will require acceptance by a critical mass of companies, governments, and other organizations before it displaces paper documentation. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue: multiple companies need to adopt these technologies at the same time so they can build a blockchain to exchange information, yet getting multiple companies to do anything simultaneously is a challenge. Some early initiatives are already underway, though:

  • A London-based startup called Everledger is using blockchain and IoT technology to track the provenance, ownership, and lifecycles of valuable assets. The company began by tracking diamonds from mine to jewelry using roughly 200 different characteristics, with a goal of stopping both the demand for and the supply of “conflict diamonds”—diamonds mined in war zones and sold to finance insurgencies. It has since expanded to cover wine, artwork, and other high-value items to prevent fraud and verify authenticity.
  • In September 2017, SAP announced the creation of its SAP Leonardo Blockchain Co-Innovation program, a group of 27 enterprise customers interested in co-innovating around blockchain and creating business buy-in. The diverse group of participants includes management and technology services companies Capgemini and Deloitte, cosmetics company Natura Cosméticos S.A., and Moog Inc., a manufacturer of precision motion control systems.
  • Two of Europe’s largest shipping ports—Rotterdam and Antwerp—are working on blockchain projects to streamline interaction with port customers. The Antwerp terminal authority says eliminating paperwork could cut the costs of container transport by as much as 50%.
  • The Chinese online shopping behemoth Alibaba is experimenting with blockchain to verify the authenticity of food products and catch counterfeits before they endanger people’s health and lives.
  • Technology and transportation executives have teamed up to create the Blockchain in Transport Alliance (BiTA), a forum for developing blockchain standards and education for the freight industry.

It’s likely that the first blockchain-based enterprise supply chain use case will emerge in the next year among companies that see it as an opportunity to bolster their legal compliance and improve business processes. Once that happens, expect others to follow.

Customers Will Expect Change

It’s only a matter of time before the supply chain becomes a competitive driver. The question for today’s enterprises is how to prepare for the shift. Customers are going to expect constant, granular visibility into their transactions and faster, more customized service every step of the way. Organizations will need to be ready to meet those expectations.

If organizations have manual business processes that could never be automated before, now is the time to see if it’s possible. Organizations that have made initial investments in emerging technologies are looking at how their pilot projects are paying off and where they might extend to the supply chain. They are starting to think creatively about how to combine technologies to offer a product, service, or business model not possible before.

A manufacturer will load a self-driving truck with a 3D printer capable of creating a customer’s ordered item en route to delivering it. A vendor will capture the market for a socially responsible product by allowing its customers to track the product’s production and verify that none of its subcontractors use slave labor. And a supermarket chain will win over customers by persuading them that their choice of supermarket is also a choice between being certain of what’s in their food and simply hoping that what’s on the label matches what’s inside.

At that point, a smart supply chain won’t just be a competitive edge. It will become a competitive necessity. D!


About the Authors

Gil Perez is Senior Vice President, Internet of Things and Digital Supply Chain, at SAP.

Tom Raftery is Global Vice President, Futurist, and Internet of Things Evangelist, at SAP.

Hans Thalbauer is Senior Vice President, Internet of Things and Digital Supply Chain, at SAP.

Dan Wellers is Global Lead, Digital Futures, at SAP.

Fawn Fitter is a freelance writer specializing in business and technology.

Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.

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Four Retail Technology Trends To Take Off In 2018

Shaily Kumar

Over the past few years, technology has seen a significant shift from cyclical, invention-led spending on point solutions to investments targeting customer-driven, end-to-end value. The next wave of disruption and productivity improvements is here, which means a huge opportunity for digital-focused enterprises – if you are following the right roadmap.

Technology trends have significant potential over the next few years. Establishing a digital platform will not only set the stage for business innovation to provide competitive advantage, but it will also create new business models that will change the way we do business. Technology trends in 2018 will lay the foundation for the maturity of innovative technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning and will prepare both businesses and shoppers to be ready for their consumption.

Like any other industry, retail is being disrupted. It is no longer enough to simply stock racks with alluring products and wait for customers to rush through the door. Technological innovation is changing the way we shop. Customers can find the lowest price for any product with just a few screen touches. They can read online reviews, have products sent to their home, try them, and return anything they don’t want – all for little or nothing out of pocket. If there are problems, they can use social networks to call out brands that come up short.

Retailers are making their products accessible from websites and mobile applications, with many running effective Internet business operations rather than brick-and-mortar stores. They convey merchandise to the customer’s front entry and are set up with web-based networking media if things turn out badly.

Smart retailers are striving to fulfill changing customer needs and working to guarantee top customer service regardless of how their customer interacts with them.

2017 saw the development of some progressive technology in retail, and 2018 will be another energizing year for the retail industry. Today’s informed customers expect a more engaging shopping experience, with a consistent mix of both online and in-store recommendations. The retail experience is poised to prosper throughout next couple of years – for retailers that are prepared to embrace technology.

Here are four areas of retail technology I predict will take off in 2018:

In-store GPS-driven shopping trolleys

Supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s now enable their customers to scan and pay for products using a mobile app instead of waiting in a checkout line. The next phase of this involves intelligent shopping trolleys, or grocery store GPS: Customers use a touch screen to load shopping lists, and the system helps them find the items in the store. Customers can then check off and pay for items as they go, directly on-screen. These shopping trolleys will make their way into stores around the last quarter of 2018.

Electronic rack edge names

Electronic rack edge names are not yet broadly utilized, but this could change in 2018 as more retailers adopt this technology. Currently, retail workers must physically select and update printed labels to reflect changes in price, promotions, etc. This technology makes the process more efficient by handling such changes electronically.

Reference point technology

Despite the fact that it’s been around since 2013, reference point technology hasn’t yet been utilized to its fullest potential. In the last few years, however, it’s started to pick up in industries like retail. It’s now being used by a few retailers for area-based promotions.

Some interesting uses I’ve observed: Retailers can send messages to customers when they’re nearby a store location, and in-store mannequins can offer information about the clothing and accessories they’re wearing. I anticipate that this innovation will take off throughout 2018 and into 2019.

Machine intelligence

The technological innovations describe above will also provide retailers with new data streams. These data sources, when merged with existing customer data, online, and ERP data, will lead to new opportunities. Recently Walmart announced it would begin utilizing rack examining robots to help review its stores. The machines will check stock, prices, and even help settle lost inventory. It will also help retailers learn more about changing customer behavior in real time, which will boost engagement.

Clearly, technology and digital transformation in retail have changed the way we live and shop. 2018 will see emerging technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence using structured and unstructured data to deliver innovation. As technology develops, it will continue to transform and enhance the retail experience.

For more insight on e-commerce, see Cognitive Commerce In The Digital World: Enhancing The Customer Journey.

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Shaily Kumar

About Shaily Kumar

Shailendra has been on a quest to help organisations make money out of data and has generated an incremental value of over one billion dollars through analytics and cognitive processes. With a global experience of more than two decades, Shailendra has worked with a myriad of Corporations, Consulting Services and Software Companies in various industries like Retail, Telecommunications, Financial Services and Travel - to help them realise incremental value hidden in zettabytes of data. He has published multiple articles in international journals about Analytics and Cognitive Solutions; and recently published “Making Money out of Data” which showcases five business stories from various industries on how successful companies make millions of dollars in incremental value using analytics. Prior to joining SAP, Shailendra was Partner / Analytics & Cognitive Leader, Asia at IBM where he drove the cognitive business across Asia. Before joining IBM, he was the Managing Director and Analytics Lead at Accenture delivering value to its clients across Australia and New Zealand. Coming from the industry, Shailendra held key Executive positions driving analytics at Woolworths and Coles in the past.