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Bathing in the goodness of what digital transformation’s really all about

We all love the countryside. (Indeed, there’s good evidence that as humans, we really need to be out in it as much as possible—a need the Japanese call forest bathing.) But unless you really are in a completely wild part of the world, what you are often seeing, from England’s green and pleasant land to the Netherlands’ rich tapestry of dikes and polders, is a very carefully managed industrial landscape.

Bathing in the goodness of what digital transformation’s really all about
Written by
Guy Redmill
Published on
21 Nov 2023

Seeing a farm or some wood as a kind of open air factory is not reductionist—we’re not saying this to limit our aesthetic appreciation of what are, after all, incredible achievements over centuries of husbandry and careful tending. From there, it’s not really that much of a stretch—as John Deere, the giant American company that made the first plough designed for Midwestern farmers and which has released no less than 700 tractor models since 1837, is now saying—to see that many of the tech-driven efficiencies you can gain in the factory you run under a roof could work in the ones open to the Sun and rain.

But what’s really interesting is that in this case, the firm’s leveraging its conviction that farming is just outdoor manufacturing in the opposite direction, and using what it’s learned from its successes with things like IoT and sensors in agriculture to improve and optimise its own internal manufacturing processes.

Specifically, it’s now trying to apply precision agriculture techniques like using sensors to collect a heap of data and then using that data to drive improvements in yields and productivity for customers of its machinery. As the manufacturer recently told RCR Wireless News, farming is a process and manufacturing is a process: “You’re talking about seed placement and attributes of placing a seed, and here we’re talking about attributes of placing components and the manufacturing steps to perform that.”

The company also sees how precision agriculture is all about latitude, longitude and time—a matrix that can absolutely be used in the factory context, too. “Maybe the sensor readings are pressure and temperature instead, but you still need to know where something happens, when something happens,” a representative leading this effort is quoted as saying.

Not just a cute parallel

John Deere isn’t just playing with a nice metaphor here; it’s doing serious work with it. For example, it used to organise around product silos, so a team for making combine harvesters, one for the presumed 701st make of tractor, etc. Now, work is instead organised around production agriculture systems so that there is a team dedicated to soybean or corn farmers in the round. “Now,” it says, “we have a similar strategy in our factories—looking at it in a process-centric way instead of machining centre optimisation.”

As the guys say, you end up sub-optimising your whole system if you focus too much on any one step. But the bigger picture here is a more general trend about technological innovations in a focus area in one application area like IoT in agribusiness that are being applied cross-organisation to boost productivity and increase industrial or manufacturing co-ordination or efficiency.

For sure, this is what digital transformation is (was, if it is no longer the term du jour) supposed to be; the integration of digital technologies into all aspects of business operations, not just (as was almost certainly the case pre-Lockdown) your ecomm or contact centre—what McKinsey calls the rewiring of an organisation with the goal of creating value by continuously deploying tech at scale.

Under all the hype, many real success stories did come through from all this: IKEA used new technologies to enhance the shopping experience, partnering with a specialist called TaskRabbit for furniture assembly services and using Augmented Reality in its IKEA Place app for furniture selection, for example.

You might say that’s just IT as a general game-changer, and you’d have a point. McKinsey has a better example, though: Vistra, a huge US power company, is using a neural network model to improve its overall efficiency, improve reliability—and even better, cut emissions. And as it notes, like John Deere, making the most of this new tech was re-orienting itself internally to work better with a more holistic approach to problems: key to the success of this approach, it notes, was building a capability to scale the solutions and new cross-functional teams, including plant operators, data scientists, analytics translators, but also power process experts are now working together to ensure rapid development, high-quality models, and adoption of the models.

This is about a lot more than AI

Without question, AI is a tech being looked at as it’s very trendy, but data science is also a tool many organisations are exploring, too. For example, a UK biotech company called Basecamp Research is all about mapping Earth's biodiversity and is trying to ethically support bringing new solutions from nature into the market. To do so, it has built the planet’s largest natural biodiversity knowledge graph, which has over 4 billion relationships, but that engine is also helping with protein design, utilising a ChatGPT-style LLM (large language model) for enzyme sequence generation.

But of course, 5G is emerging as a huge driver of positive change, too. Fujitsu’s new Private 5G network at its Oyama plant in Japan uses AI and IoT for smart manufacturing, with 5G streamlining field operations, it automates position measurement and route control for guided vehicles, and transmits images for real-time AI analysis; Indian IT services giant Wipro envisages workers equipped with AR/VR headsets connected to (again) a private 5G network roaming across factory floors, detecting potential errors in products being made in real-time through IoT and other connectivity aids.

In a time of societal stress as we now seem to be in—which often focuses on the threat to the natural world—it’s useful to step back and see how much technology is both starting to protect that world (like the smart boxes farmers can buy now to accurately map even the tiniest pollinators on their acreage).

It’s also useful—and we would contend, useful and inspiring—to see how much advanced tech and use of data and communications can benefit all sorts of business sectors, too.

Something to reflect on in your next bout of shinrin-yoku, perhaps—or on your next ramble across those exquisite factories we call farms.

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