The pandemic is forcing extreme industrial innovation, and humans are coming out ahead
Georgian Bay is a massive freshwater beacon for sunseekers on Lake Huron – one of Canada’s five Great Lakes. So, no surprise, the wealthiest families have snagged more than just a few acres; some have their own island. Yet rich or poor, you still need Internet access, and this was one of Fuad Siddiqui’s first jobs out of university: hiring a boat for himself and a technician to wend their way through the 9,000-square-kilometer bay and make connections from either nearby CDMA towers or point-to-point microwave.
“We grounded the boat,” says Siddiqui, now the Chief Evangelist at Bell Labs Consulting. And not intentionally. “We didn’t know what we were doing, navigating the waters, the cell sites and the radio signals.”
Senior Partner and Vice President,
Bell Labs Consulting
Part of the problem was that his day job was theoretical, seated at a desk, simulating what needed to be done. It wasn’t until he got into the field with a technician who expected him to be an authority that things went awry. It was an ideal learning bubble for a man who today presides over a two-pronged team; one focuses on disruptive techno-economic thinking that informs the future and the other on consulting around new technology and business models with some of the world’s most ambitious telecom and enterprise players.
“By engaging with the technicians, and all sorts of other layers, I think you develop a very good human sense. Human interaction and human collaboration are so important for you to drive towards change. And that has always been an inspiration for me to try and learn from all different perspectives.”
“Human interaction and human collaboration are so important for you to drive towards change”
COVID-19: The great disruptor
That sense of a collective purpose is vital today as we navigate COVID-19, a pandemic which is also forcing a startlingly fast transformation of industry toward digitalization.
Siddiqui would argue that extreme situations are always behind great innovation. Take for example the invention of radar technology using radio waves to see at a distance, which changed the course of World War II by preventing surprise attacks. Or blood banks, initiated during World War I after the discovery of different blood types and refrigeration made it possible to store supplies close to battle sites.
COVID-19 is our modern war, and it’s accelerating the merger of our physical and digital worlds
COVID-19 is our modern war, and it’s accelerating the merger of our physical and digital worlds, integrating human systems with a basket of 5G and related technologies like cloud-integrated networks, AI systems, robotics, and sensing.
That should make up for what industry has so far been deficient in delivering: a way to dynamically reconfigure itself. Consider the alarming absence of manufacturing facilities to produce personal protective equipment which flared up in the early days of COVID-19. If we’d already deployed adaptive, additive manufacturing or the concept of factory in a box – which requires dynamic hardware and software reconfigurability and an untethered wireless setting – flipping from an assembly line of automobiles, say, or kids’ toys to one of N95 masks and ventilators would have been easier.
In the case of PPE, industry has since pivoted, adopting 3D printing and other adaptive manufacturing technologies to customize product designs. In fact, some industries were already starting to digitalize, making them well positioned for the pandemic-induced change. Finance, e-commerce, and the media for example were well equipped from the supply side of the equation, Siddiqui says, calling them “digitally vaccinated.”
“When COVID came, they were very nicely able to address the demand, and create new demand on the back of it.”
Time for transformation
In contrast, physical industries – mining, agriculture, utilities, transportation – lagged significantly. Not surprisingly, ICT investments by this latter group trailed the digitally vaccinated by a Grand Canyon-sized chasm.
It’s not as if these asset-heavy industries were fiddling while their colleagues sped ahead. Rather, the requirements of these physical industries are stringent. Expectations around performance, reliability and latency levels are higher. Plus, many built their own proprietary systems and relied on wired technologies to achieve their six nines of reliability needs. Dropping the odd phone call is annoying; dropping the odd connection between a control center and a moving vehicle could be cataclysmic.
The opportunity now is for the non-vaccinated to catch up, and – mirroring the human vaccination effort – once inoculated, grasp onto the vast realm of opportunity. For these industries, that includes real tangible improvements to safety, productivity, and efficiency.
Siddiqui shares an example of moving heavy equipment on a factory floor. Automated guided vehicles (AGV) or forklifts now do the work, allowing for precision control. In the near future, with 5G and associated technologies, forklifts can move the same equipment or payload three times faster than traditional human operation. And in a dynamic, collaborative environment, the automated forklift can utilize sensor data to adjust its speed up or down – depending on whether there are humans interacting in the same space.
With experience and more 5G and related technology, the benefits should continue to improve. For example, typical AGV travel at about 1.5 to 2 meters per second. To brake at a safe distance and avoid collision, the vehicles are spaced about 1-2 meters apart. Once controlled entirely by a 5G private network, the AGV will be able to sense obstructions, which will speed response times and allow for faster braking and closer parking – improving capacity and safety as a result.
Berth of innovation
Seaports are another bustling environment of change, and Siddiqui says there’s a clear business case for deploying 5G technologies. “If you have to move 20 million containers a year, you better be fast.”
Typically, cranes are operated in either a manual or semi-autonomous manner. They require about 60 seconds per load from ship to truck, emptying about 30 containers per hour. With a 5G private network, fully autonomous cranes can operate 24/7. And more precise control of the unloading avoids the jerky movements that cause the cable to sway and impede progress.
In addition, load and unload times are improving, allowing for more ships to enter and leave the harbor. Here, even a five-second gain is significant. Seaports can stretch for kilometers and house multiple shipping companies and hundreds of berths. Shenzen alone has 15 ports for international tourists or goods to enter or exit China, including an aviation port, railway port, six road ports, and seven ferry terminals.
“You’re not taking humans out of the equation. You’re augmenting human capability to interact with machines”
Moving human effort ‘behind the windowpane’ through augmentation can be significant in many ways. Safety improves. Cycle times for certain functions drop. And job classes and applicant pools widen. The focus now is not on displacing workers, but skills transfer.
“Now you train workers on software simulation, augmented systems and augmented machinery. You are not taking humans out of the equation. You are augmenting human capability to interact with machines and that's a big change in terms of our productivity level.”
This is where Siddiqui’s early experiences began to pay off. By marrying Bell Labs future-focused technology with on-the-ground domain expertise, the use cases became clear.
“As opposed to ramming in technology options, we are starting with the current construct of that business. Not only is there safety, productivity, efficiency and resiliency gains, there is an underlying economic incentive. We are still at the early stages of these conversations, but the more we act together and share knowledge, I think it will become easier for physical industries to migrate and adopt some of these new capabilities in a much more accelerated fashion,” he says, advising that enterprises view incremental steps in alignment with future goals to protect investments and stay on track.
A new nervous system
To get these new industrial networks – with the kind of performance, reliability and latency numbers that keep operations humming – massive technological advancement is needed, with 5G technologies the “nervous system that glues and stitches this all together,” Siddiqui says.
“As we digitize our physical world it's an opportunity for humans to extend our senses to realize greater productivity benefits. And that allows this nice, happy symbiosis of sorts, because by solving the industrial problem, we will be solving a human problem as well. We'll be able to interact and manipulate industrial systems and processes remotely, through gesture or haptics, which we were not able to do before.”
There is an opportunity here for communications service providers (CSPs) to evolve their business models in synch with this latest industrial revolution and move up the stack in terms of value creation. Enterprises possess the domain knowledge and can certainly lead their own digital transformation but partnering with a CSP can provide access to an even greater ecosystem of expertise.
“Future networks will be a layered architecture,” says Siddiqui, “meaning the network is virtualizing itself, offering itself as a service. No enterprise or application provider can reasonably process and program the underlying capabilities and complexities of the 5G networks. So 5G, over time, will have to offer itself as a platform. Where CSPs start to better understand the needs, and the use case requirements for industries, there is an opportunity for us to create that alliance, if you will, that each brings their own strengths to the table to drive for meaningful productivity growth.”
A great equalizer
For CSPs in developing countries, the opportunity to leapfrog is tantalizing.
“For countries or regions who traditionally lagged, they can catch up in terms of their competitive positioning, opening new markets, creating new alliances, driving for more autonomy. The future of technology is going to be highly distributed,” Siddiqui predicts. “It will be local because we'll be running distributed local and proximate architecture. It will be software centric. This actually creates an equal playing field.”
Though, that playing field remains highly contingent on individual countries driving local policies and incentives as well as re-skilling and educating their labor forces. Done well, they may avoid the 20- to 40-year lag period seen in previous generations of technologies, something which becomes more critical during a pandemic when supply chains tighten and food shortages loom.
“We are now entering a period of a great reset, and I think that's where there is an opportunity to equalize”
Past the pandemic
Many people may feel like they’ve been living in a groundhog hole since the pandemic began, but lockdowns will end, and the time will come when we can stick our heads out again. We may be surprised by what we see.
“It might be difficult to feel excited,” says Siddiqui. “But I think the promise is real in terms of what can happen.”
That promise hinges on a couple of imperatives, he stresses, advising that we think collectively. The digital vaccinations of our physical industries must continue because they represent 70 percent of the world’s GDP and employ the majority of our workforce. We must re-skill and hyper augment the workforce so that they are prepared for the future. And lastly, government and policymakers must resurrect policies which allow for the global and local harmonization.
“I think with that value equation, I'm pretty confident,” says Siddiqui. “And we should all be excited because this is the formula that catalyzes growth, purposeful growth, and drives towards economic and social gains in the future.”
Senior Partner and Vice President,
Bell Labs Consulting
Fuad leads a team of futurists looking into global macroeconomics, new market models and value creation strategies. In addition to his global role, he also heads up Middle East, Africa, Asia Pacific and Japan regional consulting practice. He brings more than 20 years of experience spanning markets, shaping industry growth agenda, advising ICT, Enterprise sector clients on diversification strategies and how to win by capitalizing on the digital forces enabled by next technological revolution. He is engaged in studying new business models around automation and has authored ‘Future of Enterprise’ chapter of The Future X Network: A Bell Labs Perspective, where he argues how competitiveness and value vectors are impacted; as disruptive innovation is re-imagined for the digital, AI era.