Digitalisation is leading to new ways of working that may make older manufacturing and service models obsolete sooner rather than later, says Dr Gopichand Katragadda
In 1995, when I was working with the gas pipeline industry in the US, we developed tools for gas pipeline inspection with enhanced sensors, and also included digitisation and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for defect detection and classification. It took the gas pipeline industry several years, despite having digital tools, to give up printed spools of inspection data that operators would manually scroll through looking for defects. Even when digital records were adopted, the use of operators to scroll through hundreds of miles of pipeline data (now in a digital format) continued. The challenges and excuses were many. The speed of adaptation did not pose existential problems in those years to incumbent companies as there were no native digital challengers.
The exponential growth of computing power and connectivity has led to a democratisation of digital that is driving new definitions of business scale, scope and speed. Designing new companies for digital is a much easier job than reinventing incumbent industrial companies for digital. Incumbent companies are often trapped in competencies, ecosystems, talent and metrics that were developed for the industrial age [i].
In 2012, during a long visit to the US, amongst other very interesting happenings, a highlight was that I got a new job offer! That, hopefully, should not be surprising. What probably is surprising was that this was the youngest person ever to make me an offer — my nine-year-old nephew (a cousin’s son). After talking to me for some time, he looked straight into my eyes and said, “I will hire you.” Before I could recover, he went on to give me an impressive pitch on his social networking site for kids under 13. He wanted me to make movies for kids that would be accessible through one of the tabs on his site. I indulged him and played along. I asked him how much he would pay me. He was quick to reply: “300 dollars”. I said it was too little and negotiated if I could instead get one dollar for every view. He thought over it and came back and said that he did not want to charge the viewers and did not want to change his business model of getting revenues from advertisers. Wow! And I was having this conversation with a 9-year-old! As I travelled across all the time zones in the US, I could smell the return of the entrepreneurial enthusiasm of the late 1990s. No kid wanted to be a rock star — they wanted to be a ‘Mark Zuckerberg’.
That was 2012. As of 2017, the trend of the smartest technologists wanting to be entrepreneurs continues. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the number of establishments less than one year old is recovering towards the peak of 2006 (~700,000), after having fallen to a low of ~550,000 in 2010.
There is a convergence of technology, analytics, demographics and availability of energy that is powering a new age of innovation. Smart machines, analytics, big data and crowdsourcing are the buzzwords that describe this edition of the digital revolution.
The pervasiveness of networked industrial equipment necessitates the combination of computation and brainpower to convert large amounts of data generated into insights for decisions. The ability to work whenever and wherever with a computer or a tablet enables a ‘worker’ to access and deliver job packets online.
As crowdsourcing examples, mturk.com, elance.com (now upwork.com), freelancer.com and guru.com provide platforms for job assignment and delivery of jobs that can be completed in minutes. The final work product may combine the small jobs done by several workers. Collaborative design is in and examples abound — check out quirky.com, shapeways.com, nanosatisfi.com (now spire.com) and localmotors.com. GE’s outage management system is an industrial example where automated call tracking (crowdsourcing) and advanced metering infrastructure (smart meters) are combined with expert analysis (analytics) and logistics (big data) to identify and manage electric outages. The overall potential of the industrial internet (as it is being termed) is estimated at $10-15 trillion based on assumptions of productivity growth [ii].
Examples abound in creative fields as well. Lyricists, musicians and singers are collaborating globally through sites such as soundcloud.com to create fantastic music. A percussion artist uploads a loop of beats, a string instrument player puts up a sweet melody, a lyricist looks up available music for inspiration and signs up a singer. Each artist gets paid for a non-exclusive right to use the work package and you have a composition in place! HD digital cameras and a collaborative environment (example vimeo.com) have brought movie making within the reach of tech-savvy professionals from various fields. Check out my experiment at Soundcloud (iii) and Vimeo [iv]. Social media sites such as Facebook are bringing together hobby actors, directors and cinematographers to produce stunning movies. The future of professional production houses and cinema halls would shift completely to the 3D format. Opportunity for crowdsourcing also exists in labour-intensive creative fields such as gaming and animation.
Newer applications of big data and crowdsourcing will be driven by the scientific strides of recent times in genomics and particle physics. The practical applications emerging from these discoveries require abundant computational power and brainpower to convert data into consumable information. I recently saw the miraculous recovery of a colleague from late-stage cancer using experimental cell therapy to reprogramme his blood cells using his brother’s stem cells! This person now literally has the genetic structure of his brother in the blood flowing through his veins, while the rest of his body is his own. More recently there was a Scientific American report on the successful attempt to store large volumes of data on tiny volumes of synthetic DNA [v]. These are just amazing advances which have a potential to tip the scientific and technical world into a tizzy of new discoveries and applications.
The changes being driven by the digital revolution and the corresponding risks and opportunities are summarised in Table 1.1.
i. The Digital Matrix: New Rules for Business Transformation Through Technology, Feb 2017, by Venkat Venkatraman
ii. GE Reports: http://files.gereports.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/ge-industrialinternet- vision-paper.pdf (verified on September 17, 2017)
iii. Sound Cloud:
iv. Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/52790011
v. Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/tech-turns-to-biology-as-data-storage-needs-explode/