Our world is shaped by technology. From the second we wake up until the moment our heads hit the pillow at night, we are constantly interacting with technology to manage our lives, to get us from point A to point B or to check in on our loved ones through social media. We interact with Artificial Intelligence (AI) so often that most of us don’t even realize that we’re doing it. And if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to get distracted or overwhelmed by the new, flashy inventions that seem to be released daily. AI makes our lives easier, can even make a person’s life safer and in some cases, it can extend it.
I’m currently seeking my nursing degree and in my Essentials of Nursing class, it was discussed that in the US alone, 50% of all adults are living with at least one chronic disease. These illnesses not only have an impact on a person’s overall health and their independence, but it can also pose an enormous financial burden. In 2015, the total national health expenditures were $3.2 trillion and those costs are continuing to increase, especially as our population ages. Within 10 years, the population of people above 65 years of age will exceed the number of children under five for the first time in human history.
The Hackett Group, in conjunction with Symphony Ventures, recently published a whitepaper regarding Robotics Process Automation (RPA). (You may recall that Symphony Ventures conducted an excellent RPA proof of concept at the SIG 2017 Spring Summit with American Honda.) In this whitepaper, the authors provide a blueprint for selecting sourcing opportunities appropriate for RPA. Any sourcing professional worth their salt, should be considering RPA as a viable strategy after reading this statement, "Individual tasks of such processes may be fully automated with RPA, eliminating 100% of labor and up to 90% of cost. The total efficiency improvement achievable through holistic transformation using RPA across end-to-end transactional process can add up to 50% to 75% of baseline cost."
Mary Zampino, Senior Director of Global Sourcing Intelligence, SIG
Let’s discuss accretive manufacturing. What? Haven’t heard that term yet? That’s because accretive manufacturing is just a fancier name for 3D printing. You may never hear it referred to as accretive manufacturing, but mark my words…the supply chain industry is about to be disrupted to an unrecognizable extent by it. In 2016, Honda released a single-seat “micro-commuter” vehicle with the body and majority of the panels having been 3D printed. In the meantime, Boeing expects to shave $2 to $3 million off each 787 Dreamliner's manufacturing costs by 2018, thanks in part to 3D-printed titanium. So if Boeing can now 3D print parts to an airplane and auto manufacturers are now 3D printing dashboards—and even entire vehicles—how long do you think it will be until we require almost no inventory because we can 3D print on demand any item we desire?
At home if I break a spatula, I can now 3D print a replacement. Granted, I am only printing with plastic and lack the tools to print an exact replica, but when it only takes an hour to print with specifications that are available for free online at a cost of only 15 cents (plus a little electricity)…isn’t it worth considering? Even Amazon Prime same day delivery (not available where I live) can’t beat that timeline and price.
As I sit here at my desk listening to the glorious whirl of robotic process automation taking place at my feet (my Roomba is vacuuming diligently), I think back to SIG's last Global Summit in Amelia Island and how RPA was at the forefront of our discussions.
Now, of course not everyone is as fond of certain types of automation. My dogs for instance, who are getting old, a little deaf, a little blind and a little senile, get spooked occasionally by this little disruptive digitalization in their lives. And my 4 year-old daughter thinks it's cool, (calls it her puppy) but if it gets too loud or in her way, its process quickly becomes terminated prematurely.
As I write this my Roomba signals with its happy little tune that it has completed cleaning the room and silence almost ensues, except for the faint hum of my newly installed ceiling fan (it’s a truly glorious sleek modern contraption) and it occurs to me that this too, a more common example of process automation, also brings me great joy, convenience and comfort. At one point both these items were the newest technology and people doubted their need and also questioned how many jobs would be lost at their hands. Not unfortunately, these days you do not find too many personal fanners (picture Cleopatra being fed grapes and giant palm fronds), but in its stead fan designers, engineers, installers, repair servicemen and salesmen. And whereas only a small minority of the population could afford a professional fanner back in those days, ceiling fans are common place and found in abundance due to technology and manufacturing improvements, making them less expensive and more easily accessible.
It was recently announced that full tests of driverless cars will take place on UK roads (including motorways) within the next two years. The UK is lagging in this area behind some other countries, especially the USA, where the likes of Google have been taking automated cars out on public highways for several years. However, it's another landmark for technology which looks set to utterly transform human transportation over the next couple of decades.
At the same time, as I walk along my local High Street the windows of employment agencies are plastered with signs calling for drivers - of vans, minibuses, HGVs; indeed, one agency has only these jobs on display.
Obviously, any transition to automated vehicles (especially the large ones on which the logistics industry relies) will take time (how much time has yet to be seen, and many issues remain to be decided before the shift can fully take place); however, it seems both interesting and unsettling that anyone approaching an employment office wondering which roles might be most in demand would come away with his or her thoughts pointed towards an industry on the verge of radical transformation involving the eventual removal of exactly those roles currently being yelled for.
A couple of weeks ago, I published a blog entitled ‘Automation and the Human Touch’, looking at some of the challenges the automation revolution is set to throw our way regarding future employment opportunities and the education and training of our next generation(s). That blog provoked some very interesting thoughts from readers:
The mini-supermarket at the bottom of my road is closed for a couple of weeks for refurbishments (this may seem like an incredibly mundane topic with which to start a blog, but bear with me). The signs announcing this closure were only put up a couple of days beforehand, and somewhat surprised I asked the cashier - with whom, like many in my neighborhood, I have a friendly relationship – what was behind the chain. The shop is part of a very large national chain, but has a "local" atmosphere unlike, in my experience, most such establishments. She replied that the shop is being redesigned to include several self-serve tills - and was, of course, unwilling or unable to answer when I inquired if that means job losses amongst the current staff.
An elderly man being served next to me then said something which got me thinking: "It's computers, isn't it? Everything will be run by computers soon, and there'll be nobody left to talk to." In this particular instance, at least in the short term, that gentleman was of course being premature - that shop will still have a complement of human staff, and won't be entirely based around self-serve points of sale (POS) - but there as everywhere else in the country, technology is driving vast change in the retail sector, with ramifications that go far beyond that industry and which have the potential to affect the whole fabric of society.
For the past 60+ years, the standard joke about Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been that it is “the future.” In 1950, Alan Turing questioned whether machines could think like humans…and less than ten years later, Marvin Minsky founded the AI lab at MIT. For decades, people tinkered, pondered and philosophized about robotics. Factories installed automation to remove workers from redundant tasks…but advancements in office settings didn’t progress at the same level. People hypothesized about flying cars, but few could imagine cognitive computing. I think it’s finally safe to say that the future is now. AI and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) are no longer conceptual ideas…they are business strategies that will continue to impact our lives in radical ways.
A recent Forrester study predicts that by 2021, 6% of U.S. jobs will be replaced by robots. While it may not sound like a lot in the grand scheme of things, consider that it represents growth from 250 million in 2016 to 2.9 billion in 2021. Sure…we’ve all dealt with AI and technological advancements already: call centers that put us through a series of (irritating) steps before you can finally talk to a human; travel aggregators that find the best deal across all airlines…ads that stalk you online after one quick search for a new printer…but until recently, it was hard to see how it would really affect the world of sourcing and procurement.
The word “revolution” gets thrown about a fair bit at present (not least by me…) when discussing the new wave of automation technologies which are transforming the way organizations do business. But are we talking about “revolution” or “evolution” – sudden and dramatic, or gradual change? Well, it’s a bit of both: the technology itself is evolving. We can trace, for example, the evolution of IBM Watson back to the Deep Blue chess computer which beat Gary Kasparov back in the mid ‘90s...which can in turn be seen to have evolved from its predecessor Deep Thought...which itself was a successor to ChipTest (developed in the 1980s at Carnegie Mellon University)...and so on, back to Turing and beyond. While there have been revolutionary moments along this path – the transistor, the integrated circuit etc. – it’s clear that this is an evolutionary sequence, at a pace which may seem very far from “gradual” to those who’ve been alive to observe it but which, nevertheless, consists of successive advances built upon what’s gone before.
The build out of the “internet of things” will drive the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours, according to IBM. That means that every time you go to bed for the night, an entirely new amount of information has flooded the world. It wasn’t that long ago that robots were only part of huge factories. Now they have them available for purchase at local retailers for less than $50. Robots are more than mechanical machines…in today’s world, they are incredibly advanced tools that have the ability to automate everything, including driving.
As sourcing professionals, it is necessary that we all understand the new world we are living in, and how it impacts not only our organization, but our daily job. Do you have a knowledgeable understanding of:
How you are going to source these new products?
How you will negotiate contracts for technologies that didn’t exist last month?
How you will incorporate these products into your work?
How contracts will be crafted to protect IP?
Do you have the knowledge, skills and competencies to fully grasp the future that is here and expanding exponentially?
Education is the answer…and there are a few simple things you can do to support your own education:
Make sure you are reading a book a month. That’s an investment of only 15-20 minutes per day. If you don’t know what to read, (I have this problem) ask someone you trust, explore the internet (trusted sites) and determine what the most successful people are reading. Make sure these books are not just about your industry or current role, but about business, innovation, creativity and other areas of focus. By reading a variety of books, you will gather different insights and uncover different views on the changing world.
Teach. When you teach others, you learn. You have knowledge others want and they have insight you need. Learning is a mutual relationship.
Mark Pollack, Vice President, SIG University and Chief Strategy Officer, SIG
At dinner recently, a guest held us all entranced as he described his current work: a post-doc at a prestigious London university, he has been working for nearly two decades in artificial intelligence (AI), specializing in trying to teach computers how to teach other computers. While much of his work is simply too esoteric to explain here (that's my code for "it went right over my head"), what was very obvious to me was the extent to which things have advanced since we first met - as he was just setting out upon his journey in this field - and how rapidly theoretical advances are becoming practical innovations which then, in turn, move out into the mainstream. Problems he and his peers were wrangling with only a few years ago now seem like ancient history, he said, and while "the future is always infinitely far away, tomorrow seems closer than ever."
If any of us at the table had had any doubts before that we're on the verge of tremendous social change as a result of automation and smart technology - and I don't believe anyone did have such doubts (as one would have to have had one's head thoroughly buried in the sand not to be aware of the whirlwind approaching us), they would have been thoroughly dispelled by the end of our companion's passionate and impressive address. But, of course, how to react to the automation revolution is immeasurably more difficult than simply to assert that it's coming...