Prepare for the coming tech disruptors

Prepare for the coming tech disruptors

If you’re concerned about what you’ve been hearing with regard to “disruptive technologies” and the dramatic changes they are capable of bringing, you should be. In fact, a number of them are already among us, quietly changing traditional behavior across a wide spectrum of activities. What’s more, the most chilling aspect of these disruptors is, for some companies, it may already be too late to change.

What exactly is a disruptor? In short, it's technology that's so innovative that it upheaves the market and shakes up the structure of the top players. 

Here are a few familiar examples of where disruptive innovation utterly altered the competitive landscape: Netflix and Blockbuster, Amazon and Borders, iPhone and Kodak, Uber/Lyft and taxis. Going back further in recent history we could add iTunes and Tower Records. Tower Records was a dominant player in the retail music industry for more than 40 years but was bankrupt within three years after the launch of iTunes.   

A post-mortem on each of the above would reveal a common cause: the displaced companies either didn’t see the disruptors coming or were simply too slow to adapt.

Some key disruptive technologies driving business model changes today, all associated with the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” include the following in alphabetical order — and this does not represent a fully comprehensive list:

  • Additive manufacturing (3D printing)
  • Artificial intelligence (both machine learning and expert systems)
  • Big data and advanced analytics
  • Blockchain
  • Industrial internet of things (IIoT)
  • Robotics

And as mentioned, not only are they already here, but like a perfect storm, they are emerging together at the perfect time.

I recently attended the first annual NextGen Supply Chain Conference in Chicago. The goal of the conference was to offer a better understanding of how emerging technologies will be crucial toward maintaining a competitive advantage in corporate supply chains.

The two-day event featured representatives from a variety of companies — from innovative startups to Fortune 500 multinationals — each sharing examples of leading-edge applications and lessons learned.

As a provider of global trade and transportation execution solutions, my objective for attending was two-fold: to receive affirmation as to what I was already aware of and to gain visibility into new trends or innovative applications. I wasn’t disappointed.

Each technology presented was defined and explained within the context of its respective disruptive capabilities within the digital supply chain. Take an example provided by Johnson Controls on the IIoT, where “smart” air conditioning units perform self-diagnostics to identify pending failures and send automated alerts to apps on portable devices that schedule pre-emptive repair calls.

Another example shown was how digital manufacturing is turning the transportation model on its ear by eliminating the need for traditional offsite/offshore parts manufacturers.

One of my personal favorites was the presentation on artificial intelligence and robotics. No other technologies stimulate the imagination or cause as much fear as these two. From picking machines within distribution centers to fully autonomous vehicles, what was just a compelling idea three years ago is now becoming integrated into daily operations. But are the fears of robots replacing humans warranted?  

Interesting case studies showed that when robots were introduced within traditional pick-and-pack operations, instead of humans being displaced, companies instead were able to train the employees on other tasks that actually expanded their roles and responsibilities.

It was also quite interesting to hear how employees were interacting with the robots. Instead of viewing them as threats, employees came to see them as co-workers, or “co-bots.” Human and machine were seamlessly working side-by-side, and the humans were giving their co-bots names and even talking to them.   

At the end of the day, these companies are learning how to maximize and retain their human resources, especially in areas where pools of available labor are shrinking and are achieving a primary mission of digital transformation, which is to improve labor productivity.

But just as there were multiple examples of real-life success stories in applying one or more of these technologies, there was also a warning: most companies are behind the curve.

The clearest and most wide-ranging suggestion to come from the event was for companies to form a Digital Supply Chain Innovation group as a first step in assessing current operations and discovering opportunities. Don’t be surprised if your very first discovery is that you lack the personnel with the right skill sets to even know where or how technology could be applied.

In summary, the disruptors are here, and companies must quickly begin to adapt. Or to paraphrase Charles Darwin, “It is not the most intellectual or strongest of the species that survives, but the one that is able to adapt and adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

Jerry Peck is the vice president of global trade and transportation for QAD Precision, a provider of global trade management, transportation execution, and multicarrier shipping software solutions. Contact him at j2m@qad.com or 469 400 5402.