Industry 4.0: Digital Transformation In Manufacturing

Sandeep Raut

Manufacturing companies have traditionally been slow to react to the advent of digital technologies like intelligent robots, drones, sensor technology, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and 3D printing.

Industry 4.0 has changed manufacturing. At a high level, Industry 4.0 represents the vision of the interconnected factory where all equipment is online, and in some way is also intelligent and capable of making its own decisions.

The explosion in connected devices and platforms, combined with the abundance of data from field devices and the rapidly changing technology landscape, has made it imperative for companies to quickly adapt their products and services and move from the physical world to a digital one.

Today, manufacturing is transforming from mass production to an industry characterized by mass customization. Not only must the right products be delivered to the right person for the right price, the process of how products are designed and delivered must be at a new level of sophistication.

The first step in digitization is to analyze the current state of all systems, from R&D, procurement, production, warehousing, logistics, and marketing to sales and service.

The digitization of manufacturing impacts every aspect of operations and the supply chain. It starts with equipment design and continues through product design, production process improvement, and ultimately, monitoring and improving the end user experience.

Digital transformation revolutionizes the way manufacturers share and manage product and engineering design specs on the cloud by collaborating across geographies.

Downtime and reliability are critical when it comes to the operation of equipment on a shop floor. Big Data analytics offers quick and easy access to operation, production, inventory, and other quality data, which enables managers and operators to adjust machines as needed across the enterprise.

Quality and yield are directly related to manufacturing processes, as the way that raw materials are used, inspected, manufactured, and integrated really determines product quality. Cognitive computing helps manufacturers identify quality issues more efficiently, increases production yield, and reduces problems that lead to service and warranty costs.

Implementing smarter resource and supply chain optimization strategies improves the cost efficiency of resources like energy consumption, worker safety, and employee resource efficiency.

Service excellence is also an important element of a manufacturing company’s digital transformation strategy. Connected devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) are changing how after-sales service is delivered. Here are a few examples from industries such as industrial equipment, power generation and HVAC providers:

  • Push service notifications
    • How is your asset health?
    • How is your asset usage?
  • Predictive/preventive maintenance
  • Breakdown assistance
  • Usage-based billing
  • Spare parts fulfillment

General Electric’s jet engines combine cloud-based services, analytics, and online sensors to report usage and status and help predict potential failures. The result is improved uptime and lower cost of ownership.

Additive manufacturing (3D printers) for prototyping help shorten the iteration cycles in the design process and help turn innovation into value. 3D printing is also quickly gaining ground in low-volume commercial manufacturing of customized products.

Smart machines integrated with forklifts, storage shelves, and production equipment are able to take autonomous decisions and communicate with each other to drive material replenishment, trigger manufacturing, and much more.

Industry 4.0 allows manufacturers to have more flexible manufacturing processes that can better react to customer demands.

For more on the impact of digital transformation in manufacturing and other industries, see Live Product Innovation, Part 3: Process Industries, IoT, And A Recipe For Instant Change.

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Digitalist Flash Briefing: IoT And Connected Infrastructures

Peter Johnson

Today, we’ll talk about the Internet of Things and how it can help create connected infrastructures and develop more smart cities.

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Peter Johnson

About Peter Johnson

Peter Johnson is a Senior Director of Marketing Strategy and Thought Leadership at SAP, responsible for developing easy to understand corporate level and cross solution messaging. Peter has proven experience leading innovative programs to accelerate and scale Go-To-Market activities, and drive operational efficiencies at industry leading solution providers and global manufactures respectively.

The CIO’s Cheat Sheet For Digital Transformation

Richard Howells

You didn’t sign up for this, but your company needs you—desperately.

As CIO, you figured you’d merely lead your IT department. You’d purchase equipment and create new systems. You’d implement policies and procedures around device usage. You’d protect your enterprise from dangerous cyberattacks.

But with new, groundbreaking technologies emerging every day—from the Internet of Things (IoT) to machine learning—your role within the organization has changed. In fact, it’s growing in importance. You’re expected to be more strategic. Your colleagues now view you as an influencer and change-maker. You’re looked upon to be a driving force at your enterprise—one who can successfully guide your company into the future.

The first step in making this transition from IT leader to company leader is to team up with others in the C-suite—specifically the COO—to drive digital transformation.

Increase CIO-COO collaboration and prepare your enterprise for the digital age

The precise roles and responsibilities of a COO are difficult to pin down. They often vary from company to company. But two things about the position are generally true:

  1. The COO is second in command to the chairman or CEO of an organization.
  2. The COO is tasked with ensuring a company’s operations are running at an optimal level.

In other words, the COO role is vitally important. And as technology continues to become more and more essential to a company’s short- and long-term success, it’s crucial for the COO to establish a close working relationship with the CIO. After all, the latest innovations—which today’s CIOs are responsible for adopting and managing—will unquestionably aid an organization’s operational improvements, no matter their industry.

Take manufacturing, for instance. The primary duty of a manufacturer’s COO is to create the perfect production process—one that minimizes cost and maximizes yield. To achieve this, the COO must ensure asset availability, balance efficiency with agility, and merge planning and scheduling with execution. This requires using a solution that provides real-time visibility. It involves harnessing the power of sensor data and connectivity. It encompasses capitalizing on analytics capabilities that enable businesses to be predictive rather than reactive.

And there’s one particular platform that makes all of this—and more—possible.

Experience the sheer power of IoT

In a recent white paper, Realizing IoT’s Value — Connecting Things to People and Processes, IDC referred to IoT as “a powerful disruptive platform that can enhance business processes, improve operational and overall business performance, and, more importantly, enable those innovative business models desperately needed to succeed in the digital economy.”

According to IDC research:

  • 80% of manufacturers are familiar or very familiar with the concept of IoT.
  • 70% view IoT as extremely or very important.
  • 90% have plans to invest in IoT within the next 12 to 24 months.
  • 30% already have one or more IoT initiatives in place.

So while most manufacturers appear to be on the same page about the importance and urgency of adopting IoT technology, there are stark differences in the kind of value they believe it can provide.

Nearly one-quarter (22%) of companies view IoT as tactical, meaning it can solve specific business challenges. Nearly 60%, however, see IoT as strategic. These organizations believe the technology can help them gain competitive advantages by enhancing the current products and services they provide, reducing costs, and improving productivity.

One thing all businesses can agree on is that IoT is essential to spurring enterprise-wide digital transformation—particularly as it pertains to reimagining business processes and products.

Innovate your organization’s business processes

Companies are constantly on the lookout for ways to run their operations smarter. In recent years, IoT has emerged as one of the most formidable methods for achieving this. It paves the way for increasing connectivity and business intelligence.

So what’s the endgame to all of this? Process automation.

While fully automated business processes remain a pipe dream for many companies, plenty of manufacturers are already making great strides in transforming their existing business processes with IoT.

Here are just a few ways IoT is enabling process improvements:

  • Predictive maintenance: IoT offers manufacturers real-time visibility into the condition of an asset or piece of equipment through wired or wireless sensors. By taking a proactive rather than reactive approach to maintenance, businesses can reduce asset/equipment downtown, minimize repair costs, and increase employee productivity.
  • Real-time scheduling: IoT technology empowers manufacturers to evaluate current demand and capacity availability in the moment. This allows businesses to continuously modify production schedules, resulting in higher throughput levels, lower unit costs, and greater customer satisfaction.
  • Environmental resource management and planning: IoT-enabled sensors provide manufacturers with the ability to capture and analyze energy use. By applying cognitive technology across the enterprise, companies can take the proper steps to reduce energy consumption and promote more sustainable environmental practices.

Develop and deliver innovative products

Creating smarter business processes isn’t enough for companies today. They must aspire to develop more intelligent products, too. This capability can help modern-day enterprises provide greater value to consumers, increase revenue, and separate themselves from the competition.

IoT is tailor-made for helping businesses build innovative products. With greater connectivity between organizations and goods, manufacturers can go beyond merely producing products to producing products and selling as-a-service add-ons.

Here are few ways manufacturers are creating smarter products and experiencing greater business success with IoT:

  • Remote management: IoT enables businesses to continuously monitor the health of their products. With remote management, organizations can identify problems, implement corrective actions, and increase customer satisfaction.
  • Quality feedback loop: IoT-connected products keep design and service teams loaded with useful data. Based on the information they collect, manufacturers can continue to refine products and prevent potential product recalls.
  • Product as a service: IoT technology presents organizations with myriad revenue-generating opportunities. Selling as-a-service add-ons with products allows manufacturers to take advantage of more continuous revenue streams throughout product life cycles.

Forget best practices—embrace next practices

When it comes to a company’s digital transformation, the buck stops with its CIO. After all, the CIO is responsible for adopting and managing the cutting-edge innovations that enable organizations to fuel business growth and stay competitive.

But to achieve this, CIOs need to forget about best practices and instead embrace next practices.

IDC describes next practices as “innovative processes that enable businesses to remain successful in the evolving industry landscape and at the same time prepares them for future challenges and disruptions as the scale of innovation speeds up.”

Today, there’s no better way for a company to stay innovative and competitive than by adopting game-changing IoT technology.

Want to learn more? Download the IDC white paper.

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About Richard Howells

Richard Howells is a Vice President at SAP responsible for the positioning, messaging, AR , PR and go-to market activities for the SAP Supply Chain solutions.

Primed: Prompting Customers to Buy

Volker Hildebrand, Sam Yen, and Fawn Fitter

When it comes to buying things—even big-ticket items—the way we make decisions makes no sense. One person makes an impulsive offer on a house because of the way the light comes in through the kitchen windows. Another gleefully drives a high-end sports car off the lot even though it will probably never approach the limits it was designed to push.

We can (and usually do) rationalize these decisions after the fact by talking about needing more closet space or wanting to out-accelerate an 18-wheeler as we merge onto the highway, but years of study have arrived at a clear conclusion:

When it comes to the customer experience, human beings are fundamentally irrational.

In the brick-and-mortar past, companies could leverage that irrationality in time-tested ways. They relied heavily on physical context, such as an inviting retail space, to make products and services as psychologically appealing as possible. They used well-trained salespeople and employees to maximize positive interactions and rescue negative ones. They carefully sequenced customer experiences, such as having a captain’s dinner on the final night of a cruise, to play on our hard-wired craving to end experiences on a high note.

Today, though, customer interactions are increasingly moving online. Fortune reports that on 2016’s Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that is so crucial to holiday retail results, 108.5 million Americans shopped online, while only 99.1 million visited brick-and-mortar stores. The 9.4% gap between the two was a dramatic change from just one year prior, when on- and offline Black Friday shopping were more or less equal.

When people browse in a store for a few minutes, an astute salesperson can read the telltale signs that they’re losing interest and heading for the exit. The salesperson can then intervene, answering questions and closing the sale.

Replicating that in a digital environment isn’t as easy, however. Despite all the investments companies have made to counteract e-shopping cart abandonment, they lack the data that would let them anticipate when a shopper is on the verge of opting out of a transaction, and the actions they take to lure someone back afterwards can easily come across as less helpful than intrusive.

In a digital environment, companies need to figure out how to use Big Data analysis and digital design to compensate for the absence of persuasive human communication and physical sights, sounds, and sensations. What’s more, a 2014 Gartner survey found that 89% of marketers expected customer experience to be their primary differentiator by 2016, and we’re already well into 2017.

As transactions continue to shift toward the digital and omnichannel, companies need to figure out new ways to gently push customers along the customer journey—and to do so without frustrating, offending, or otherwise alienating them.

The quest to understand online customers better in order to influence them more effectively is built on a decades-old foundation: behavioral psychology, the study of the connections between what people believe and what they actually do. All of marketing and advertising is based on changing people’s thoughts in order to influence their actions. However, it wasn’t until 2001 that a now-famous article in the Harvard Business Review formally introduced the idea of applying behavioral psychology to customer service in particular.

The article’s authors, Richard B. Chase and Sriram Dasu, respectively a professor and assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, describe how companies could apply fundamental tenets of behavioral psychology research to “optimize those extraordinarily important moments when the company touches its customers—for better and for worse.” Their five main points were simple but have proven effective across multiple industries:

  1. Finish strong. People evaluate experiences after the fact based on their high points and their endings, so the way a transaction ends is more important than how it begins.
  2. Front-load the negatives. To ensure a strong positive finish, get bad experiences out of the way early.
  3. Spread out the positives. Break up the pleasurable experiences into segments so they seem to last longer.
  4. Provide choices. People don’t like to be shoved toward an outcome; they prefer to feel in control. Giving them options within the boundaries of your ability to deliver builds their commitment.
  5. Be consistent. People like routine and predictability.

For example, McKinsey cites a major health insurance company that experimented with this framework in 2009 as part of its health management program. A test group of patients received regular coaching phone calls from nurses to help them meet health goals.

The front-loaded negative was inherent: the patients knew they had health problems that needed ongoing intervention, such as weight control or consistent use of medication. Nurses called each patient on a frequent, regular schedule to check their progress (consistency and spread-out positives), suggested next steps to keep them on track (choices), and cheered on their improvements (a strong finish).

McKinsey reports the patients in the test group were more satisfied with the health management program by seven percentage points, more satisfied with the insurance company by eight percentage points, and more likely to say the program motivated them to change their behavior by five percentage points.

The nurses who worked with the test group also reported increased job satisfaction. And these improvements all appeared in the first two weeks of the pilot program, without significantly affecting the company’s costs or tweaking key metrics, like the number and length of the calls.

Indeed, an ongoing body of research shows that positive reinforcements and indirect suggestions influence our decisions better and more subtly than blatant demands. This concept hit popular culture in 2008 with the bestselling book Nudge.

Written by University of Chicago economics professor Richard H. Thaler and Harvard Law School professor Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge first explains this principle, then explores it as a way to help people make decisions in their best interests, such as encouraging people to eat healthier by displaying fruits and vegetables at eye level or combatting credit card debt by placing a prominent notice on every credit card statement informing cardholders how much more they’ll spend over a year if they make only the minimum payment.

Whether they’re altruistic or commercial, nudges work because our decision-making is irrational in a predictable way. The question is how to apply that awareness to the digital economy.

In its early days, digital marketing assumed that online shopping would be purely rational, a tool that customers would use to help them zero in on the best product at the best price. The assumption was logical, but customer behavior remained irrational.

Our society is overloaded with information and short on time, says Brad Berens, Senior Fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, Annenberg, so it’s no surprise that the speed of the digital economy exacerbates our desire to make a fast decision rather than a perfect one, as well as increasing our tendency to make choices based on impulse rather than logic.

Buyers want what they want, but they don’t necessarily understand or care why they want it. They just want to get it and move on, with minimal friction, to the next thing. “Most of our decisions aren’t very important, and we only have so much time to interrogate and analyze them,” Berens points out.

But limited time and mental capacity for decision-making is only half the issue. The other half is that while our brains are both logical and emotional, the emotional side—also known as the limbic system or, more casually, the primitive lizard brain—is far older and more developed. It’s strong enough to override logic and drive our decisions, leaving rational thought to, well, rationalize our choices after the fact.

This is as true in the B2B realm as it is for consumers. The business purchasing process, governed as it is by requests for proposals, structured procurement processes, and permission gating, is designed to ensure that the people with spending authority make the most sensible deals possible. However, research shows that even in this supposedly rational process, the relationship with the seller is still more influential than product quality in driving customer commitment and loyalty.

Baba Shiv, a professor of marketing at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, studies how the emotional brain shapes decisions and experiences. In a popular TED Talk, he says that people in the process of making decisions fall into one of two mindsets: Type 1, which is stressed and wants to feel comforted and safe, and Type 2, which is bored or eager and wants to explore and take action.

People can move between these two mindsets, he says, but in both cases, the emotional brain is in control. Influencing it means first delivering a message that soothes or motivates, depending on the mindset the person happens to be in at the moment and only then presenting the logical argument to help rationalize the action.

In the digital economy, working with those tendencies means designing digital experiences with the full awareness that people will not evaluate them objectively, says Ravi Dhar, director of the Center for Customer Insights at the Yale School of Management. Since any experience’s greatest subjective impact in retrospect depends on what happens at the beginning, the end, and the peaks in between, companies need to design digital experiences to optimize those moments—to rationally design experiences for limited rationality.

This often involves making multiple small changes in the way options are presented well before the final nudge into making a purchase. A paper that Dhar co-authored for McKinsey offers the example of a media company that puts most of its content behind a paywall but offers free access to a limited number of articles a month as an incentive to drive subscriptions.

Many nonsubscribers reached their limit of free articles in the morning, but they were least likely to respond to a subscription offer generated by the paywall at that hour, because they were reading just before rushing out the door for the day. When the company delayed offers until later in the day, when readers were less distracted, successful subscription conversions increased.

Pre-selecting default options for necessary choices is another way companies can design digital experiences to follow customers’ preference for the path of least resistance. “We know from a decade of research that…defaults are a de facto nudge,” Dhar says.

For example, many online retailers set a default shipping option because customers have to choose a way to receive their packages and are more likely to passively allow the default option than actively choose another one. Similarly, he says, customers are more likely to enroll in a program when the default choice is set to accept it rather than to opt out.

Another intriguing possibility lies in the way customers react differently to on-screen information based on how that information is presented. Even minor tweaks can have a disproportionate impact on the choices people make, as explained in depth by University of California, Los Angeles, behavioral economist Shlomo Benartzi in his 2015 book, The Smarter Screen.

A few of the conclusions Benartzi reached: items at the center of a laptop screen draw more attention than those at the edges. Those on the upper left of a screen split into quadrants attract more attention than those on the lower left. And intriguingly, demographics are important variables.

Benartzi cites research showing that people over 40 prefer more visually complicated, text-heavy screens than younger people, who are drawn to saturated colors and large images. Women like screens that use a lot of different colors, including pastels, while men prefer primary colors on a grey or white background. People in Malaysia like lots of color; people in Germany don’t.

This suggests companies need to design their online experiences very differently for middle-aged women than they do for teenage boys. And, as Benartzi writes, “it’s easy to imagine a future in which each Internet user has his or her own ‘aesthetic algorithm,’ customizing the appearance of every site they see.”

Applying behavioral psychology to the digital experience in more sophisticated ways will require additional formal research into recommendation algorithms, predictions, and other applications of customer data science, says Jim Guszcza, PhD, chief U.S. data scientist for Deloitte Consulting.

In fact, given customers’ tendency to make the fastest decisions, Guszcza believes that in some cases, companies may want to consider making choice environments more difficult to navigate— a process he calls “disfluencing”—in high-stakes situations, like making an important medical decision or an irreversible big-ticket purchase. Choosing a harder-to-read font and a layout that requires more time to navigate forces customers to work harder to process the information, sending a subtle signal that it deserves their close attention.

That said, a company can’t apply behavioral psychology to deliver a digital experience if customers don’t engage with its site or mobile app in the first place. Addressing this often means making the process as convenient as possible, itself a behavioral nudge.

A digital solution that’s easy to use and search, offers a variety of choices pre-screened for relevance, and provides a friction-free transaction process is the equivalent of putting a product at eye level—and that applies far beyond retail. Consider the Global Entry program, which streamlines border crossings into the U.S. for pre-approved international travelers. Members can skip long passport control lines in favor of scanning their passports and answering a few questions at a touchscreen kiosk. To date, 1.8 million people have decided this convenience far outweighs the slow pace of approvals.

The basics of influencing irrational customers are essentially the same whether they’re taking place in a store or on a screen. A business still needs to know who its customers are, understand their needs and motivations, and give them a reason to buy.

And despite the accelerating shift to digital commerce, we still live in a physical world. “There’s no divide between old-style analog retail and new-style digital retail,” Berens says. “Increasingly, the two are overlapping. One of the things we’ve seen for years is that people go into a store with their phones, shop for a better price, and buy online. Or vice versa: they shop online and then go to a store to negotiate for a better deal.”

Still, digital increases the number of touchpoints from which the business can gather, cluster, and filter more types of data to make great suggestions that delight and surprise customers. That’s why the hottest word in marketing today is omnichannel. Bringing behavioral psychology to bear on the right person in the right place in the right way at the right time requires companies to design customer experiences that bridge multiple channels, on- and offline.

Amazon, for example, is known for its friction-free online purchasing. The company’s pilot store in Seattle has no lines or checkout counters, extending the brand experience into the physical world in a way that aligns with what customers already expect of it, Dhar says.

Omnichannel helps counter some people’s tendency to believe their purchasing decision isn’t truly well informed unless they can see, touch, hear, and in some cases taste and smell a product. Until we have ubiquitous access to virtual reality systems with full haptic feedback, the best way to address these concerns is by providing personalized, timely, relevant information and feedback in the moment through whatever channel is appropriate. That could be an automated call center that answers frequently asked questions, a video that shows a product from every angle, or a demonstration wizard built into the product. Any of these channels could also suggest the customer visit the nearest store to receive help from a human.

The omnichannel approach gives businesses plenty of opportunities to apply subtle nudges across physical and digital channels. For example, a supermarket chain could use store-club card data to push personalized offers to customers’ smartphones while they shop. “If the data tells them that your goal is to feed a family while balancing nutrition and cost, they could send you an e-coupon offering a discount on a brand of breakfast cereal that tastes like what you usually buy but contains half the sugar,” Guszcza says.

Similarly, a car insurance company could provide periodic feedback to policyholders through an app or even the digital screens in their cars, he suggests. “Getting a warning that you’re more aggressive than 90% of comparable drivers and three tips to avoid risk and lower your rates would not only incentivize the driver to be more careful for financial reasons but reduce claims and make the road safer for everyone.”

Digital channels can also show shoppers what similar people or organizations are buying, let them solicit feedback from colleagues or friends, and read reviews from other people who have made the same purchases. This leverages one of the most familiar forms of behavioral psychology—reinforcement from peers—and reassures buyers with Shiv’s Type 1 mindset that they’re making a choice that meets their needs or encourages those with the Type 2 mindset to move forward with the purchase. The rational mind only has to ask at the end of the process “Am I getting the best deal?” And as Guszcza points out, “If you can create solutions that use behavioral design and digital technology to turn my personal data into insight to reach my goals, you’ve increased the value of your engagement with me so much that I might even be willing to pay you more.”

Many transactions take place through corporate procurement systems that allow a company to leverage not just its own purchasing patterns but all the data in a marketplace specifically designed to facilitate enterprise purchasing. Machine learning can leverage this vast database of information to provide the necessary nudge to optimize purchasing patterns, when to buy, how best to negotiate, and more. To some extent, this is an attempt to eliminate psychology and make choices more rational.

B2B spending is tied into financial systems and processes, logistics systems, transportation systems, and other operational requirements in a way no consumer spending can be. A B2B decision is less about making a purchase that satisfies a desire than it is about making a purchase that keeps the company functioning.

That said, the decision still isn’t entirely rational, Berens says. When organizations have to choose among vendors offering relatively similar products and services, they generally opt for the vendor whose salespeople they like the best.

This means B2B companies have to make sure they meet or exceed parity with competitors on product quality, pricing, and time to delivery to satisfy all the rational requirements of the decision process. Only then can they bring behavioral psychology to bear by delivering consistently superior customer service, starting as soon as the customer hits their app or website and spreading out positive interactions all the way through post-purchase support. Finishing strong with a satisfied customer reinforces the relationship with a business customer just as much as it does with a consumer.

The best nudges make the customer relationship easy and enjoyable by providing experiences that are effortless and fun to choose, on- or offline, Dhar says. What sets the digital nudge apart in accommodating irrational customers is its ability to turn data about them and their journey into more effective, personalized persuasion even in the absence of the human touch.

Yet the subtle art of influencing customers isn’t just about making a sale, and it certainly shouldn’t be about persuading people to act against their own best interests, as Nudge co-author Thaler reminds audiences by exhorting them to “nudge for good.”

Guszcza, who talks about influencing people to make the choices they would make if only they had unlimited rationality, says companies that leverage behavioral psychology in their digital experiences should do so with an eye to creating positive impact for the customer, the company, and, where appropriate, the society.

In keeping with that ethos, any customer experience designed along behavioral lines has to include the option of letting the customer make a different choice, such as presenting a confirmation screen at the end of the purchase process with the cold, hard numbers and letting them opt out of the transaction altogether.

“A nudge is directing people in a certain direction,” Dhar says. “But for an ethical vendor, the only right direction to nudge is the right direction as judged by the customers themselves.” D!

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


About the Authors:

Volker Hildebrand is Global Vice President for SAP Hybris solutions.

Sam Yen is Chief Design Officer and Managing Director at SAP.

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

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How Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Tomorrow’s Digital Supply Chain

Alina Gross

Artificial intelligence (AI) may sound futuristic, but it’s a real-life breakthrough that exists in the present. Anyone who interacts with an online search engine, shops on Amazon, owns a self-parking car, or talks to voice-powered personal assistants like Siri or Alexa is using AI.

AI is a field of computer science in which a machine is equipped with the ability to mimic the cognitive functions of a human. An AI machine can make decisions or predictions based on its past experiences, or it can respond to entirely new scenarios. When given a goal, not only does it attempt to achieve its objective, it continuously tries to improve upon its past performance.

Revolutionizing the digital supply chain

Within five years, 50% of manufacturing supply chains will be robotically and digitally controlled and able to provide direct-to-consumer and home shipments, according to IDC Manufacturing Insights. Additionally, 47% of supply chain leaders believe AI is disruptive and important with respect to supply chain strategies, per a 2016 SCM World survey. With that in mind, 85% of organizations have already adopted or will adopt AI technology into their supply chains within one year, according to a 2016 Accenture report.

Supply chains need AI to aggregate their mass amounts of data. In the supply chain, AI can analyze large data sets and recommend customer service and operations improvements while supporting better working capital management. As corporate systems become more interconnected, providing access to a wider breadth of supply chain data, the opportunity to leverage AI increases.

Let’s look at the potential benefits of using AI to link transportation data with order data:

A logistics enterprise ensures the delivery of a product within two days. With AI, the carrier can view past performances from shipping a similar product on a specific day, using a particular route, which reveals there’s a 25% chance the order will arrive in four days, not two. This information supplies customer service and supply chain professionals with proactive alerts of potential fulfillment challenges.

To take this a step further, AI could also compare historical shipping data to the customer’s requested delivery date to provide recommendations on whether this particular carrier’s performance meets requirements, or if you need to consider a different logistics enterprise that is 15% more expensive, but 25% more likely to deliver the product on time.

Step by step to a more efficient supply chain with AI

There are many opportunities to use AI throughout the supply chain, from buying raw materials/components and converting them into finished products to selling and delivering items to customers. Supply chains can also use AI to end repetitive manual tasks and begin automating processes. This can enable companies to reallocate time and resources to their core business, and other high-value, judgment-based jobs, by using AI for low-value, high-frequency activities.

In an AI-driven selling platform, chatbots can manage many of the sales, customer service, and operations tasks traditionally handled by humans, including interacting with buyers, taking orders, and passing those orders through the supply chain. In warehouse operations, AI-capable robotics and sensors can enable organizations to enhance stacking and retrieval, order picking, stock-level management, and re-ordering processes.

Amazon is currently combining automation with human labor to increase productivity by using robots that can glide quickly across the floor to rearrange items on shelves into neatly organized rows, or alert human workers when they need to stack the shelves with new products or retrieve goods for packaging. And Logistics company DHL is using AI and automation to create self-sufficient forklifts that understand what products need to be moved, where they need to be moved, and when they need to be moved.

Supply chain companies see a path forward with AI

Leveraging AI is an important next step for supply chain companies looking to lower costs and improve productivity. It can enable your organization to spend less time on repetitive processes, such as planning, monitoring, and coordinating, and focus more on innovation and growth.

AI still needs careful monitoring, however, as well as experienced and knowledgeable logistics and operations professionals to ensure it’s being used to its maximum potential.

For more on how AI and advanced tech can help boost your business, see Next-Gen Technology Separates Digital Leaders From The Rest.

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Alina Gross

About Alina Gross

Alina Gross is currently pursuing her BA in international business at Heilbronn University. She plans on deepening her knowledge by adding an MA in international marketing. During her six-month, full-time internship at SAP, she has focused on marketing and project management topics within the field of supply chain, especially around event management and social media.