The Internet of Things Enables Precision Logistics (& Could Save Planet!)

A degree of precision in every aspect of the economy impossible before the IoT is one of my fav memes, in part because it should encourage companies that have held back from IoT strategies to get involved now (because they can realize immediate benefits in lower operating costs, greater efficiency, etc.), and because it brings with it so many ancillary benefits, such as reduced environmental impacts (remember: waste creation = inefficiency!).

       Zero Marginal Cost Society

Zero Marginal Cost       Society

I’m reminded of that while reading Jeremy Rifkin’s fascinating Zero Marginal Cost Economy which I got months ago for research in writing my own book proposal and didn’t get around to until recently.  I’d always heard he was something of an eccentric, but, IMHO, this one’s brilliant.  Rifkin’s thesis is that:

“The coming together of the Communications Internet with the fledgling Energy Internet and Logistics Internet in a seamless twenty-first-century intelligent infrastructure, “the Internet of Things (IoT),” is giving rise to a Third Industrial Revolution. The Internet of Things is already boosting productivity to the point where the marginal cost of producing many goods and services is nearly zero, making them practically free.”

Tip: when the marginal cost of producing things is nearly zero, you’re gonna need a new business model, so get this book!

At any rate, one of the three revolutions he mentioned was the “Logistics Internet.”

I’m a nut about logistics, especially as it relates to supply chain and distribution networks, which I see as crucial to the radically new “circular enterprise” rotating around a real-time IoT data hub. Just think how efficient your company could be if your suppliers — miles away rather than on the other side of the world, knew instantly via M2M data sharing, what you needed and when, and delivered it at precisely the right time, or if the SAP prototype vending machine notified the dispatcher, again on a M2M basis, so that delivery trucks were automatically re-routed to machine that was most likely  to run out first!

I wasn’t quite sure what Rifkin meant about a Logistics Internet until I read his reference to the work of Benoit Montreuil, “Coca-Cola Material Handling & Distribution Chair and Professor” at Georgia Tech, who, as Rifkin puts it, closes the loop nicely in terms of imagery:

“.. just as the digital world took up the superhighway metaphor, now the logistics industry ought to take up the open-architecture metaphor of distributed Internet communication to remodel global logistics.”

Montreuil elaborates on the analogy (and, incidentally, places this in the context of global sustainability, saying that the current logistics paradigm is unsustainable), and paraphrases my fav Einstein saying:

“The global logistics sustainability grand challenge cannot be addressed through the same lenses that created the situation. The current logististics paradigm must be replaced by a new paradigm enabling outside-the-box paradigm enabling meta-systemic creative thinking.”

wooo: meta-systemic creative thinking! Count me in!

Montreuil’s answer is a “physical Internet” for logistics, which he says is a necessity not only because of the environmental impacts of the current, inefficient system (such as 14% of all greenhouse gas emissions in France), but also its ridiculous costs, accounting for 10% of the US GDP according to a 2009 Department of Transportation report!  That kind of waste brings out my inner Scotsman!

Rifkin cites a variety of examples of the current system’s inefficiency based on Montreuil’s research:

  • trucks in the US are, on average, only 60% full, and globally the efficiency is only 10%!
  • in the US, they were empty 20% of miles driven
  • US business inventories were $1.6 trillion as of March, 2013 — so much for “just-in-time.”
  • time-sensitive products such as food, clothes and medical supplies are unsold because they can’t be delivered on time.

Montreuil’s “physical Internet” has striking parallels to the electronic one:

  • cargo (like packets) must be packaged in standardized module containers
  • like the internet, the cargo must be structured independently of the equipment, so it can be processed seamlessly through a wide range of networks, with smart tags and sensors for identification and sorting (one of the first examples of the IoT I wrote about was FedEx’s great SenseAware containers for high-value cargo!)

With the Logistics Internet, we’d move from the old point-to-point and hub-and-spoke systems to ones that are “distributed, multi-segment, intermodal.” A single, exhausted, over-worked (and more accident-prone) driver would be replaced by several. It’s a  little counter-intuitive, but Montreuil says that while it would take a driver 240 hours to get from Quebec to LA under the current system, instead 17 drivers in a distributed one would each drive about 3 hours, and the cargo would get there in only 60 hours.

Under the new system, the current fractionated, isolated warehouse and distribution mess would be replaced by a fully-integrated one involving all of the 535,000 facilities nationwide, cutting time and dramatically reducing environmental impacts and fuel consumption.

Most important for companies, and looping back to my precision meme, “Montreuil points out that an open supply network allows firms to reduce their lead time to near zero if their stock is distributed among some of the hundreds of distribution centers that are located near their final buyer market.” And, was we have more 3-D printing, the product might actually be printed out near the destination. How cool is that?

Trucking is such an emblematic aspect of the 20th-century economy, yet, as with the neat things that Union Pacific and other lines are doing with the 19th-century’s emblematic railroads, they can be transformed into a key part of the 21-st century “precision economy” (but only if we couple IoT technology with “IoT thinking.”

Now let’s pick up our iPads & head to the loading dock!


PS: I’ll be addressing this subject in one of my two speeches at the SCM2016 Conference later this month. Hope to see you there! 


FedEx package…

Digital Twins: the Ultimate in Internet of Things Real-Time Monitoring

Get ready for the age when every product will have a “digital twin” back at the manufacturer, a perfect copy of not just the product as it left the factory floor, but as it is functioning in the field right now. That will be yet another IoT game-changer in terms of my 4th IoT Essential Truth, “rethink products.”

Oh, and did I forget to mention that we’ll each have a personal body twin from birth, to improve our health?

For the first time we’ll really understand products, how they work, what’s needed to improve them, and even how they may be tweaked once they’re thousands of miles from the factory, to add new features, fix problems, and/or optimize efficiency.

Key to circular organizations

Even better, the twin can play a critical role in accomplishing my vision of new circular organizations (replacing obsolete hierarchies and linear processes), in which all relevant departments and functions (and even supply chain members, distribution networks and customers, where relevant) form a continuous circle with real-time IoT data as the hub).  Think of the twin as one of those manifestations of the real-time data to which all departments will have simultaneous access.

GE Digital Twin visualization

               GE Digital Twin visualization

I’ve often remarked how incredible it was that companies (especially manufacturers) were able to function as well as they did and produce products as functional as they were despite the inability to peek inside them and really understand their operations and/or problems. Bravo, industrial pioneers!

However, that’s no longer good enough, and that’s where digital twins come in.  In a WSJ blog post this week, General Electric’s William Ruh, my fav IoT visionary/pragmatist, talked about how the company, as part of its “Industrial Internet” transformation, is making digital twins a key tool:

“Every product out there will have one, and there will be an ability to connect a system, or systems of digital twins, easily. The digital twin is a model of an asset, a product such as a jet engine or a model of the blades in a jet engine. Sensors on those blades pull the data off and feed them into the digital twin. The digital twin is kept current with the data that is run off the sensors. It is in sync with the reality of the blade. Now we can ask what is the best time to change the blade, how the blade performs, options to get greater efficiency.”

Proof of the pudding?

Ruh says they’ve created a wind turbine and twin they call the “Digital Windfarm,” which generates 20% more electricity than a nearby conventional turbine.

PTC is also working on digital twins. According to the company’s Executive VP for Digital Twin, Mike Campbell,:  “It’s a model that uniquely represents a physical occurrence in the real world. This one-­to­one mapping is important. You create a relationship between the digital data and a unique product occurrence from a variety of sources: sensors, enterprise data on how it was made, what its configuration was, its geometry, how it is being used, and how it is being serviced.”


The key to digital twins is GE’s “Predix” predictive analytics software platform, which the company is extending across its entire product line. As always, the key is a constant stream of real-time data:

“weather, component messages, service reports, performance of similar models in GE’s fleets—a predictive model is built and the data collected is turned into actionable insights. This model can perform advanced planning, such as forecasting a ‘plan of the day’ for turbine operation, determining a highly efficient strategy to execute planned maintenance activities, and providing warnings about upcoming unplanned maintenance events, all of which ultimately generates more output and revenue for the customer.”

Digital doppelgängers

Here’s where the really sci-fi part kicks in: Ruh also predicts (Predix??, LOL) that GE’s medical division will soon create digital twins for you and me — at birth!

“I believe we will have a digital twin at birth, and it will take data off of the sensors everybody is running, and that digital twin will predict things for us about disease and cancer and other things. I believe we will end up with health care being the ultimate digital twin. Without it, I believe we will have data but with no outcome, or value.”

And, frankly, there’s also a spooky aspect to what GE’s doing, working with retailers to create psychographic models of customers based on their buying preferences. I’m dubious on that account: I do appreciate some suggestion about what might interest me, especially books, based on my past purchases. On the other hand, a couple of weeks I shopped for — but didn’t buy — biz cards online. Now, I get AdSense ads for these cards everywhere — even on this homepage (sorry for stuff that isn’t IoT, dear reader) Get over it, OK? Count me out when it get’s down to really granular psychographic profiles — too many risks with privacy and security.

I suspect digital twins will become a staple of the IoT, yielding critical real-time info on product status that will enable predictive maintenance and, as Ruh has written elsewhere, speeding the product upgrade process because, for the first time, designers will know exactly how the products are functioning in the field, as opposed to the total lack of information that used to be the norm. Stay tuned.