An industrial estate in Slough isn’t necessarily everyone’s first choice as a center for technology and innovation. But for the staff at drainage and utility specialist Lanes Group plc, stepping inside their award-winning virtual reality (VR) training theatre opens the door to a whole new world of immersive training.
Instead of classroom-based learning, wastewater engineers are immersed in a VR simulator that helps engineers develop skills and knowledge for dealing with mains drain blockages, site safety, confined space entry and traffic management — and all without having to get their boots dirty.
Nearly five thousand miles away in the US, ConGlobal — the intermodal container company that moves freight between rail depots, ports and road hubs — is using remote-controlled or ‘teleoperated’ trucks and forklifts to shift containers.
They still need drivers to operate the vehicles — but they don’t necessarily need to be on site. Brett Rogers, VP, of Advanced Solutions, ConGlobal, said:
Teleoperation means that remote operators can be located at the same site as the truck — or thousands of miles away.
This flexibility allows us to recruit and retain employees including those who might not traditionally think of themselves as heavy equipment operators, allowing us to better serve our customer needs and remain resilient now and in the future.
Firms like Lanes and ConGlobal are among a growing number of companies pushing the boundaries of digital innovation within a sector that has all too often been overlooked by the tech industry.
Digital innovation is becoming a cornerstone in physical operations
And they’re not alone. Samsara’s recent State of Connected Operations report found that a majority of all leaders (56%) — and an even greater majority of Connected Operations Leaders (66%) — report that improving workforce productivity with new technologies is a critical priority for their organization this year, with automation leading the way.
By 2024, nine in ten (91%) say they will be harnessing automation to modernize their operations as they look to increase efficiency.
What’s more, there is an urgency to invest, with 42% saying that testing — or adopting autonomous technology — is a ‘critical priority’ for their organization in 2023.
Half (51%) are already using — or plan to use — autonomous vehicles and equipment this year. And by the end of the decade, it’s expected that autonomous vehicles and equipment will be widespread across their organizations. And that includes the use of artificial intelligence (AI).
AI is already making an impact in physical operations
Business leaders are well aware that AI can organize and analyze massive amounts of data from sites, vehicles, assets, and employees.
For instance, AI is already speeding up and automating manual processes as they replace outdated pen-and-paper processes with easy-to-use digital workflows.
AI-powered dashcams can detect safety hazards and risky behaviors — such as using a mobile phone behind the wheel. And instead of merely recording such incidents, these AI-enabled camera systems can identify risky behavior with real-time in-cab nudges while drivers are on the road.
Keren Carajal, from multinational construction and engineering group Techint based in Mexico, said:
AI helps us quickly identify deviations and other infractions on the different roads where our vehicles travel.
We are also implementing automation to send alerts to drivers and supervisors as they occur, so they can take action and prevent these infractions from recurring.
While behind the scenes, operations and logistics leaders are harnessing AI to organize and analyze data across their operations to unearth new insights. This could range from improving the visibility of vehicles and machinery to identifying areas to increase operational efficiency.
Digital transformation is key
For a sector traditionally underserved by the kind of technology platforms that most businesses in the service sector take for granted, buying into a cloud-based platform is a major step forward. But it also takes leadership to understand the importance of digital transformation and to convince traditionalists that it's a necessary step towards a secure future.
A case in point is US-based Mohawk Industries - the world’s largest flooring manufacturer - which realized recently that its system of choice for monitoring its fleet of delivery trucks simply wasn’t up to scratch.
Instead of creating a workaround, it decided to call time on its existing supplier and opt for a new cloud-based platform capable of monitoring the needs of its entire 800-strong fleet of trucks. And it’s a decision that is already paying dividends.
Shane Faulkner from Mohawk Industries explained:
The impact of Mohawk’s technology initiatives has been significant, leading to improved customer service, increased driver morale, and the establishment of a strong foundation for future growth and innovation.
These positive results have not only had a direct impact on the company’s results, but they have also created a culture of innovation and progress within the organization.
Innovation, it seems, isn't just about technology. It’s also about a willingness to embrace the new despite the heritage of a business and organization. It’s about embracing enterprise-scale technology platforms that deliver meaningful operational insights which could help to decarbonize fleets, improve safety — and ultimately even lay the foundations for digital twins within physical operations.
That may be a few years away yet. But it is being discussed. Wherever you look, innovation is making its mark in the world of physical operations. And it’s happening at pace. You just need to know where to look.