Be a hero: How to digitize the last mile of your business
Achieving full automation has long been a goal for many businesses, but if you look around your company, you’ll probably notice that it’s not 100 percent automated. Most organizations still use inefficient and error-prone manual procedures that often negate the value of having any automation at all.
Take, for example, a retailer that has a warehouse to store all of the goods it sells in its stores. Each item has a SKU number, and there is an inventory control system that tracks products coming into the warehouse from a supplier, as well as the products that leave the warehouse to go out to the retailer’s stores.
While this process seems automated, it’s really semi-automated. Why? Most retailers don’t have an automated mechanism for tracking the physical movement of products. Instead, those products must be scanned manually, or worse, entered into the system by hand. This leads to a few problems:
- It's slow. If humans have to intervene by entering SKUs into a computer system, the process takes far longer.
- There's a higher error rate. From time to time, SKUs are entered incorrectly, leading to errors in inventory records.
- Employee morale takes a hit. Workers don’t like repeat work, and if there's a need to enter hundreds of numbers an hour into a computer system, humans have to do it. It becomes the worst job in the warehouse.
The last mile
The challenge retailers and other companies face is digitizing the “last mile” of their business—that is, the processes they have yet to automate that cause overall latency. In the retailer example above, an inventory system that requires human intervention is only as fast as the time it takes humans to enter SKU numbers.
So how do you solve that problem? First, you need to look at the technology options. In the case of our retail warehouse, the owners could employ radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to automatically enter in SKU data from products that are entering and leaving the warehouse.
RFID uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects. Those tags contain electronically stored information, such as SKU numbers. Unlike a barcode, the tag need not be within the line of sight of a reader, so it can be embedded in the tracked object. Thus, entire trucks can be scanned in an instant, without having to unload and scan each object in turn. A last-mile solution such as this should remove all latency from business processes by removing any manual or semi-manual activities.
RFID technology was introduced decades ago as the first generation of the Internet of Things (IoT). Moving forwards, we’ll leverage newer IoT technology, such as sensors on a plant floor that monitor machine maintenance.
Drones and water
Drones can help digitize the last mile for agricultural companies that want to get the most food yield out of an acre of land at the lowest possible cost. These companies must currently monitor ground saturation manually to determine watering schedules and amounts. This means humans must walk around the fields and use moisture meters to understand which areas are drier and which are more wet, and then program the irrigation systems accordingly.
Cheap and easy-to-operate drones can do the job more efficiently. They can fly over the field and gather thermo-data to determine moisture levels in the ground. This information is automatically transmitted back to a central server for analysis. Based on the data, a watering program automatically generates the appropriate amount of irrigation.
As with our RFID and warehouse examples above, agricultural companies are removing humans from the last mile of data gathering. Drones that automatically launch themselves each week can determine in minutes what humans would take hours to detect by walking around a field. Moreover, the data gathering is more accurate, and provides farmers the data they need to identify leaky water pipes and other maintenance issues.
Funding your own last mile
So you want to be a hero? Great. Your mission is to locate processes that have not yet been automated, automate them, and digitally enable the entire business. Here are some likely targets:
- Data gathering. For years, companies have had humans input most of their data because there were few alternatives. Today, we have many data integration technologies at our disposal.
- Using data to avoid extra costs. We can use data to drive alerts, such as in the case of our drone example above, where the ability to see issues with water pipes, automatically turn off the water, and dispatch a repair person can save unnecessary expense.
- Predictive analytics. Up-to-date and reliable data allows us to create a single source of truth for business processes and confidently embed it directly into operational business processes to make strong predictions, such as inventory needed for sales over the next six months.
The issue here is not the ability to solve the problem; that’s just a matter of finding and leveraging the right technology. Rather, it’s a matter of identifying areas that can be automated, understanding that most targets will be small and tactical in nature.
Business automation is nothing new—it’s pervasive and widespread. However, the remaining 10 to 20 percent of business processes that are still operating with human intervention ensure that a business cannot operate at peak efficiency, nor gather and use data in more meaningful ways.
The shame of it all is that the solutions are available, and they’ve been available for some time and are relatively cheap. Some IT hero needs to raise the last-mile issue and get the funding to fix it this year. That hero could be you.