Groundbreaking technologies took a leap of faith by visionaries to take root. That same leap is now needed for disruptive technologies.

Some of us will remember the days of the first mobile phones (“do I really need such an expensive gadget when there is a phone booth around every street corner?”) or their first email, or their first Internet search (I remember finding myself in front of Google wondering what exactly to search and what to do with it!). It probably says a lot about how visionary I am!

In the corporate world, the arrival of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software created an equivalent disruption. The first implementations took users and management by surprise. Standard screens and process flows were, to some extent, rigid.

ERPs were not fully-aligned with the prevailing ways of working, and with the usual corporate lingo of the company. Plant managers would complain that slightly more data entry work and screens were needed than before, and what had always been called an “item reference” was now renamed “part number”, or “SKU code”, or whatever the new software was calling it.

However, the first corporations that broadly-adopted ERP, in what was back then a leap of faith, quickly recognized four major benefits arising from connection, integration, and synergies. Yes, the plant staff had to change their habits, but data was flowing seamlessly along the value chain.

  • Full real-time transparency was gained. All raw material, work-in-progress, finished goods inventories, client and purchase orders, machine availability status and failure reports were now at their fingertips, worldwide.
  • Productivity was no longer about executing every single task as fast as possible but about the end-to-end systemic performance. Accounting and reporting were automatically up-to-date without the need for clerks to re-enter information about procurement, production or shipping. End-to-end performance went beyond the corporate walls where companies could connect their supply chains and automatically update each other’s inventory and accounting systems, or even automate their billing and financial settlement transactions, system to system.
  • Overall optimization could be automated. Manufacturing Resource Planning modules could ‘see’ inventory levels across factories and warehouses around the world and automatically optimize production plans.
  • Budgeting and planning became a more informed and fact-based exercise as detailed simulations and projections could be conducted at an enterprise level.

Navigating more leaps of faith

The aforementioned benefits can now be achieved in the world of Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), but this will probably require the same type of leaps of faith to be truly realized. With this kind of digitalization technology,

  • Real-time transparency is now enabled by real-time sensors informing about the energy consumption of a building, traffic in a store or a street, the existence of empty parking spaces around the corner, and air quality in the district.
  • End-to-end productivity comes from avoiding human intervention along the value chain.
    • No need to place a three-button cleanliness rating device or send a field technician to check the hygienic state of public bathrooms, or whether the plumbing is working well, when a sensor can automatically do it.
    • No need for a command center in which feedback from users, field technicians, or cameras are received and analyzed by employees who then trigger an action and dispatch an intervention team. The sensors themselves can trigger the proper intervention thanks to AI. For instance, a security camera can detect via image recognition that a critical safety barrier had been removed from a construction site and then dispatch a security team to recover it.
    • No need for physical construction-site inspections or command center staff. Similarly, air quality in chemical plants or the energy consumption of buildings can be monitored in real-time monitored, removing the need for manual data gathering, reporting and inspection.
  • Overall optimization can be achieved if all the sensors and ‘machine systems’ get on the same page. For instance, within a harbor or a third-party logistics warehouse, cranes and forklifts operating for various companies can coordinate their tasks beyond corporate boundaries in order to minimize energy consumption and overall handling costs while optimizing service level.

    In a city, public lighting can be triggered by luminosity and presence detection, while public lamps can host cameras and air quality sensors allowing real-time adjustment of traffic lights, traffic instructions and navigation systems, as well as automatic rescue dispatch in case of any accidents.

    Systems can also perform real-time optimization in a multi-dimensional way: energy, operations, service levels and maintenance activities can be simultaneously considered.
  • Lastly, budgeting and planning can be conducted thanks to digital twins—the digital modelling of equipment and systems. Wear or failure risks can be predicted and avoided by preventive actions: specific vibrations in a lift, or a change in the sound of an engine’s rotor, or even the noise of a liquid flowing in a pipeline are leading indicators of an issue that can be avoided by early action.

    Digital twins also allow more strategic decision-makers to explore ‘what if’ scenarios and decide on capacity increase, contingency plans or refurbishment timing. The reaction of a district to an inflow of residents or a heatwave, or a power outage of one hour, or to the adoption of 10% of electric vehicles by drivers—all these can be simulated in realistic and quantified ways to inform city planners.

These are only a few shallow business use-cases amongst an almost infinite set of possibilities offered by real-time combination of AI and IoT to foster machine-to-machine, ‘no-human touch’ cooperation.

Exploring such use cases will require more and more leading-edge companies, organizations, and governments to take ‘leap of faith’ actions and adopt IoT solutions to unlock network effects and cross-boundaries synergies. In future, 5G can be one of the catalysts of this revolution, but most of the use cases mentioned here are already available for implementation today, waiting to be deployed through bold, generalized decisions.

As is the case of any revolution, first movers will have a chance to shape the future.