Exponential technologies like 3D printing, artificial intelligence, digital assistants, networks, blockchain, and many others are transforming the world we live in faster than we ever imagined. Recently, I joined a panel discussion about digital innovations and their impact on the transportation and logistics services industry. In fact, the discussion inspired me to start this new series of blogs, not just to share my thoughts but to challenge us as (digital) leaders by asking: Are we thinking radically enough? How do exponential technologies and the digital transformation impact our industry? Are we really making the most of digital innovations?
3D printing: It’s now or never
One of the questions the panel discussed was how 3D printing affects business. Interestingly enough, this turned out to be quite controversial.
Many companies are not taking 3D printing seriously. Some don’t see any need to engage with it, and others think it does not offer use cases for their business. Other companies clearly understand the benefits, such as being able to print spare parts for rolling stock. This becomes particularly relevant for older assets for which it is hard to obtain spare parts. Printing the parts they need, right where they need them, means companies can avoid supply-chain and logistics complexity, speed delivery, and potentially lower the costs of manufacturing and shipping.
Though I agree with this argument, I felt that the discussion lacked another angle to move it on to common ground. I asked whether it would be an option for companies to incorporate 3D printing into their core business or even to create a new business by offering 3D printing themselves or via a partner. That would give them an extended production workbench for customers and differentiate them from the competition in multi-modal transport. Companies could think about that model, regardless of any existing leading companies, competitors, or new kids arriving on the block.
The reason for this question is, for each new technology, I first ask myself whether it is likely to affect one or all three of the fundamental pillars of a business: the business model, the business processes, and the way we work. And in the case of 3D printing, I can confidently say that I see that all three pillars are affected.
To summarize the discussion around 3D printing, while I fully understand both perspectives, I have a different standpoint. For years, many transportation and logistics services companies have been providing value-added services like warehousing for their clients and charging premiums on top of the pure transportation service, which is a commoditizing market with declining margins, despite a growing transport volume. Why not extend this now to become an even bigger contributor to manufacturers’ value chains by starting a 3D printing division, closely connected with logistics and, potentially, with warehousing services as well?
A related option is to use outsourcing and leveraging partners, i.e., to work with companies specializing in 3D printing through a dedicated network.
There are already some transportation and logistics companies that are actively using 3D printing, like UPS. Why should printing a sneaker for a consumer differ from printing spare parts for a business customer?
Big Data, predictive analytics, and the Internet of Things: Untapped opportunities
Another interesting topic is how Big Data and predictive analytics are being used and how both will develop. Limiting the conversation to Big Data and predictive analytics is too narrow, unless you combine them with sensors and Internet of Things scenarios. Consider the example of a sensor attached to a container that uses signals, geofencing, and transmission into an analytics-based UI to track containers anywhere at any time. Imagine how much value this could bring to transportation and logistics services providers and to the shipping and receiving companies.
By knowing where a given container is at any time, companies can take action to prevent problems such as not meeting the contracted expected time of arrival (ETA); security problems such as intrusions or high-risk routes; or incorrect handling of the containers (such as temperature irregularities or physical shocks). In addition, these technologies can enable companies to save on operational costs by optimizing logistics to better handle empty transport resources. Sensors that can track, analyze, and predict relevant data could be a solution in all these scenarios.
Not everyone is convinced that these technologies are the way forward. You may hear comments like: “Our customers would not pay for this, and we are operating with very low margins.” Others might complain about the high costs associated with such an approach. While these concerns are understandable, I think they are short-sighted when considering the future impact on business and services. Sensors are now much cheaper, and adding them to a cloud solution that receives, streams, and interprets the data before displaying it on a user interface, and even adding machine learning and prediction algorithms, can be done very fast.
You cannot argue only from a cost perspective. Especially when it comes to ETA as a key metric for transportation companies and the risks of not meeting the contractual agreement. Would you prefer paying unreasonably high compensatory costs instead of installing a system that would help you avoid costly delays?
By decreasing the risk of insurance events, companies can negotiate better rates. Especially when combined with blockchain, technology can put all key data (contracts, IoT and geo-signals, payments, etc.) into a secure, transparent, auditable, and risk- and fraud-minimizing blockchain. And, with the right proposition, why should a customer not be willing to pay a few cents more for better service? Why not leverage this to set yourself apart from your competitors?
Last but not least…
In a world driven by exponential digital technology advances, the average life span of a Fortune 500 company has shrunk from 75 to 15 years over the past 50 years. There are more digital-native and digital technology companies in the Standard & Poor Top 12 ranking than ever before. Startups are popping up everywhere, driving change, and chasing and partially taking over markets that were owned by established companies for years. And companies are realizing that their existing organization might not be capable of changing fast enough, so they are creating digital venture funds and startup programs to drive those new business models and processes, sometimes with ideas that even disrupt themselves. In this world we always need to ask ourselves: Are we thinking radically enough?
Source: Digitalist Magazine, “Transportation And Logistics Services: Is It Moving Radically Enough?“. (http://www.digitalistmag.com/digital-supply-networks/2017/12/07/transportation-logistics-services-is-it-moving-radically-enough-05600228). Juergen Roehricht, December 7, 2017.
Image source: Digitalist Magazine