Every Company is a Technology Company
By Matt Braun | Feb 24, 2020
“In short, software is eating the world.” – Marc Andreesen
Every company is a technology company, they just may not know it yet. Even yours. I’ve been saying this for about a decade now.
I live in the Midwest, an area historically known as a manufacturing hub in the United States. We have a lot of businesses that have lived and died and some have been reborn to serve the automotive industry.
These are companies who make tools, who make components, who turn raw materials into unfinished and finished goods, who reclaim scrap metal to turn it into raw materials again. These are companies who transform matter.
It’s true that this region (again, the Midwest) is often referred to as the rust belt, because there are so many automotive-adjacent companies who met their demise in the last twenty to thirty years. But there are also companies that are experiencing a renaissance, because they’ve evolved, learned to make do with less, and are deploying technology and software effectively. It’s made competition more fierce, because software tends to introduce efficiencies that trim waste, including eliminating ill-prepared businesses.
Now and then, over the last 15 years, I’ve worked as a software consultant for companies in the manufacturing space.
The thesis here is a continuation in spirit of the one set forth in Marc Andreesen’s 2011 essay1, “Why Software is Eating the World”, which enumerated the ways in which software was being used to replace and optimize systems in everything from entertainment to logistics. Even Dominos Pizza, based in nearby Michigan, considers itself a technology company (and deservedly so2).
Given my geography, where there are fewer social media and entertainment unicorns, my focus for this post is narrower, and though I’ve created technology solutions for industries as diverse as news and media to life sciences to retail, I believe manufacturing is one space that is still coming to terms with the hunger and inevitability of software.
Here are just a few ideas off the cuff about ways manufacturing businesses can use software as a competitive advantage:
Customer relationship management (CRM) software has been around a long time, and most manufacturing companies employ a CRM. But the analysis capability of a CRM is only as good as the data that goes into it. Often only a small snapshot of the opportunity profile of a given customer is available because there isn’t sufficient data being captured. It relies on good old fashioned human intuition, which is a big risk (people leave/die). The knowledge also tends to live in siloes, when companies rely on distributors and outside sales reps. Requiring the use of integrated systems that include speech-to-text, natural language processing (NLP), and sentiment analysis could reveal ways to better meet customer needs and to gain insight into potential revenue streams.
Using machine learning to minimize defects and enhance worker productivity. Computer vision can be used to recognize defects in products on the assembly line faster and more consistently than humans are capable.
Using AI to identify new business opportunities. Rather than an executive simply reading trade publications and gleaning from other forms of competitive analysis, a tireless software agent could be trained for manufacturing industries to find the best times to purchase raw materials, the best avenues to promote and market, and the right time to buy out a competitor. The executives might still need to make the decisions, but at the very least, an intelligent agent could offer confidence inspiring data and recommendations. Compare: Bloomberg terminal, Thompson Reuters, etc., but driven by AI and for more than stock market trading uses.
Blockchain-based supply chain management for production, fulfilment, warranty, and re-ordering3. A company that makes consumables like drill bits could deploy a blockchain system with a distributed ledger and mobile scanning app for its products that provides shipment and receipt tracking, ensures authenticity, and makes re-orders simple.
Extended Reality-based (XR) training materials. Using Virtual Reality, Mixed Reality, and Augmented Reality, a company could streamline its employee training processes4. Training could be made more consistent and measurable, using heuristics defined by observing more senior technicians, and scoring trainees for task mastery against these definitions.
Many of the preceding ideas are already in development or in use. But as William Gibson once said, “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”
Is There An App For That?
As an app developer, I’ve heard my fair share of app ideas. Sometimes the ideas are novel and might have a chance – given enough capital and the right team. Other times the ideas are along the lines of “it’s Uber for carriage rides” or it’s “Airbnb for dogs”. Still other times, the idea has been made already, and made so well that competing would almost certainly be futile.
But there are still myriad opportunities to bring the promise of apps – lightweight, intuitive interfaces for complex systems – to the world of manufacturing. I’d encourage anyone considering taking long odds on making the next Facebook or Youtube to instead think about how you might revolutionize industry. How can you make things better for assembly line workers, for truck drivers, for managers?
The world probably doesn’t need more social media, but it certainly deserves better software. Every company uses and needs software and it’s up to engineers, app and web developers, designers, user experience professionals, data scientists – in short, everyone in the tech industry – to work alongside the manufacturing industry to make it the best it can be. It’s also up to the manufacturing industry to value technology professionals as potential profit centers and as agents of change.
Not only is software still eating the world, it still has a healthy appetite and a lot left to eat.
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