True innovation comes when people and technology work in harmony
It was the ancient Greek philosopher Plato that said “Necessity is the mother of invention” and there can be no doubt that the challenges of the pandemic over the past year have forced businesses to rethink the way they operate.
In many cases, it’s probable that these business changes were already emerging trends but that they have had to be accelerated for organisations to remain competitive in a world turned upside down.
The supply chain is one such area. As we moved towards industry 4.0, where processes are digitalised and automated, many production systems had already been embraced. However, other outlying areas, those activities on the edge of the business operation, had yet to feel the benefit of the latest technology solutions.
The Pandemic accentuated the rapid fluctuations in supply and demand that businesses experience and made them recognise the need to change faster. There was a requirement for transparency and real-time information, not just at the heart of the business, but end-to-end across the supply chain. This transparency had become an essential requirement for running an efficient and competitive business in the modern world.
A disconnection between operation and information
Currently, we often still see a disconnection between operation and information at the extremes of the supply chain. For example, when a manufacturer receives materials from a supplier they need to sort it and store it and when necessary they move it to the production site. This operation is still very manual and labour intensive. Often, data is only entered into digital systems, where they exist, once the materials have been received, sorted and stored. This inevitably leads to mistakes and a disconnection between the operation and information.
We are currently working in this area with a major automotive manufacturer to roll-out a supply chain solution to its facilities around the world. The aim is to shorten the time between the receipt of goods and booking onto the Enterprise Resource Planning system, to make parts available for production more quickly as well as optimising labour intensive work to make it efficient. A Visual Sort Assist solution in the first deployment transformed the receipt of goods at the facility with the system processing 300 parcels in 20 minutes – almost regardless of placement, font size, font, or possible previous damage.
From manufacturing to the shop floor
At the other end of the supply chain, business benefits are also being seen by bringing transparency and automating processes. Take the retail sector, for example, where Electronic Shelf Labels (ESL) and integrated price management software can drastically reduce the workload on staff and improve information accuracy and even help increase turnover.
One store we worked with was having to manually make 300 price changes every three weeks. After the introduction of an ESL solution the results were transformational: a 100% reduction in human error, an 80% time saving on label updates, satisfied customers and an estimated increase in future turnover of up to 10%.
We are also seeing many existing technologies, like security cameras, being deployed for new purposes. The introduction of AI and machine learning means cameras can now be used for a host of other smart business applications – from analysing customer needs and preferences as they shop to enable marketing offers to be made to them on time, through to proactively monitoring for health and safety issues in the workplace or social distancing in stores.
Technology and people must work in harmony
But it’s not all down to the technology. Successful new solutions can only be deployed from a deep understanding of the current process – and this level of understanding usually only comes from the employees on the ground – as well as the commitment and enthusiasm of the employees to implement these changes. This innovation comes from technology and people working in harmony. For example, automating price updates on shelves releases the employees to spend more time assisting customers and increasing sales. This is where the true benefits of the solution can be maximised.
Businesses and technology companies must also become ever more agile. Businesses more agile in the way that they adapt and address changes in society and consumer behaviours. Technology companies in the way that they operate. Society and business are changing so rapidly that a single technology company operating alone will never keep up. They must look to collaborate and integrate solutions using an open architecture to quickly bring ideas to business and the wider community.
At Panasonic Business and Industry Solutions, this is precisely where we focus – the collaboration of people and technology to solve problems – and it’s a powerful combination. It’s the motivator that drives me. Seeing how we and the customer can work closely together to apply technology and new processes to solve a very real problem they face today. To me, that is true innovation. Not invention for its own sake but innovation to solve a specific problem.
As the world continues to recover from the issues of the past year, I cannot see business returning to its old ways. I think we will continue to see rapid change and technology providers and customers will need to work closely together to innovate and deploy technology solutions for better business and a better society. The speed of developments means we cannot work in isolation. There will need to be increasingly open technologies as solution providers combine and integrate the best available individual technologies to deliver effective systems for each business. It’s an exciting transformation to be a part of.
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