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…

Incredible example of rethinking “things” with Internet of Things

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the epitome of the IoT-enabled product: the trash can!

My reader statistics do not indicate this blog has a heavy readership among trash cans, but let me apologize in advance to them for what I’m about to write: it’s not personal, just factual.

I’m sorry, but you municipal trash cans are pathetic!

Dented. Chipping paint. Trash overflowing. Smelly. Pests (ever seen any of those prize city rats? Big!!!) Sometime even knocked over. And, worst of all, you are so…. DUMB. You just sit there and don’t do anything.

BigBelly trash compactor and recycling center

But that was then, and this is now.

I have seen the future of trash cans, and, equally important, perhaps the best example I’ve seen of how smart designers and company strategists can –and must — totally rethink products’ design and how they are used because of the Internet of Things! 

At last week’s Re-Work Internet of Things Summit there were many exciting new IoT examples (I’ll blog others in coming weeks) but perhaps the one that got more people talking was the BigBelly trash compactor & recycling system, high-tech successor to the lowly trash can.

The company’s motto is that they are “transforming waste management practices and contributing to the Smart Cities of tomorrow.” Indeed!

I was first attracted to the BigBelly systems because of my alternative energy and environmental passions: they featured PV-powered trash compactors, which can quintuple the amount a trash container can hold, eliminating overflowing containers and the need to send trucks to empty them as frequently. Because the containers are closed, there’s no more ugly banana peels and McDonald’s wrappers assaulting your delicate eyes — or noses! Equally important, each is paired with a recycling container, which are almost never seen on city streets, dramatically reducing the amount of recyclables that go into regular trash simply because no recycling containers are accessible downtown.  These features alone would be a noteworthy advance compared to conventional trash cans.

But BigBelly wasn’t content to just improve the efficiency of trash and recyclable collection: they decided to make the containers smart.

The company worked with Digi to add wireless communications to the bins. This is a critical part of BigBelly’s broader significance: when the IoT first started to creep into corporate consciousness, of course designers thought about smart versions of high-value products such as cars, but lowly trash cans? That deserves real praise, because they fundamentally re-examined not only the product as it existed, but also realized that an IoT-based version that could also communicate real-time data would become much more versatile and much more valuable.

Here’s what has resulted so far (and I suspect that as the BigBellys are more widely deployed and both city administrators and others become aware of their increased functionality, other features will be added: I see them as “Smart City Hubs!”):

  • heatmap of trash generation in Lower Manhattan using real-time data from BigBellys and CLEAN dashboard

    instead of traditional pickup routes and schedules that were probably based on sheer proximity (or, as BigBelly puts it a little more colorfully, “muscle memory and gut instincts”), they now offer a real-time way to monitor actual waste generation, through the “CLEAN Management Console,” which allows DPW personnel to monitor and evaluate bins’ fullness, trends and historical analysis, for perspective. Collections can now be dynamic and driven by current needs, not historical patterns.

  • For those cities that opt for it, the company offers a Managed Services option where it does the analysis and management of the devices — not unlike the way jet turbine manufacturers now offer their customers value-added data that allows them to optimize performance — and generates new revenue streams for the manufacturers.
  • You may remember that I blogged a while ago about the “Collective Blindness” analogy: that, until the IoT, we humans simply couldn’t visualize much about the inner workings of the material world, so we were forced to do klugy work-arounds.  That’s not, strictly speaking, the case here, since trash in a conventional can is obviously visible, but the actual volume of trash was certainly invisible to those at headquarters. Now they can see — and really manage it.
  •  They can dramatically increase recycling programs’ participation rate and efficiency. As BigBelly says, the system provides “intelligent infrastructure to support ongoing operations and free up staffing and resources to support new and expanded recycling programs. Monitoring each separate stream volumes, days to fullness, and other activities in CLEAN enables you to make changes where needed to create a more effective public recycling program. Leverage the stations’ valuable sidewalk real estate to add messaging of encouraging words to change your users’ recycling behaviors.”Philadelphia is perhaps the best example of how effective the system can be. The city bought 210 of the recycling containers in 2009. On average, each collected 225 pounds of recyclables monthly, resulting in 23.5 tons of material diverted from landfills. Philly gets $50 per ton from the recycling — and avoiding $63 in landfill tipping fees, with a total benefit to the city of $113 per ton, or $2599 per month.

Here’s where it really gets neat, in my estimation.

Because the BigBellys are connected in real time, the devices can serve a number of real-time communication functions as well (enabled by an open API and an emphasis by BigBelly on finding collaborative uses). That includes making them hubs for a “mesh network” municipal wi-fi system (which, by the way, means that your local trash container/communications hub could actually save your life in a disaster or terror attack, when stationary networks may be disrupted, as I explained years ago in this YouTube video).

The list of benefits goes on (BigBelly lists all of them, right down to “Happy Cities,” on its web site). Trust me: if my premise is right that we can’t predict all of the benefits of the IoT at this point because we simply aren’t accustomed to thinking expansively about all the ways connected devices can be used, there will be more!

So here’s my take-away from the BigBelly:

If something as humble and ubiquitous as a municipal trashcan can  be transformed into a waste-reduction, recycling collection, municipal communication hub, then to fully exploit the Internet of Things’ full potential, we need to take a new, creative look at every material thing we interact with, no longer making assumptions about its limited role, and instead looking at it creatively as part of an interconnected network whose utility grows the more things (and people!) it’s connected with!

Let me know your ideas on how to capitalize on this new world of possibilities!

IoT will streamline supply chain, reduce environmental impact

There’s a new Deloitte white paper that echoes a theme I’ve been repeating since 1990: smart businesses eliminate inefficiency by eliminating environmental waste.

I predict that the Internet of Things will speed that trend by allowing real-time data sharing throughout the supply chain, further increasing its efficiency.

The white paper, “The Evolving Supply Chain: Lean and Green,” says that:

“Leading companies are now finding that a green supply chain doesn’t just improve the public’s perception of their company and brand; it can save money by using resources more efficiently and reducing waste. It can also help to manage risk by insulating a company from shortages and price shocks, and by reducing the chances that a supplier will do something that gets them in hot water.”

It continues by identifying five key factors to reduce:

“Leading companies create value by modifying their supply chains to manage five key inputs and outputs: energy, carbon, water, materials and waste. These five resources are ubiquitous throughout the supply chain and thus offer vast potential for improved efficiency and cost reduction. Energy is expensive to use; carbon, in the form of emissions, represents dollars gone up in smoke; scarcity and commodity inflation are driving up the price of water and materials; and waste is a potential profit thrown away.”

In my speeches on the “Zero-Waste Economy,” I used to suggest that executives that were contemptuous of tree-hugging environmentalists and could care less about generating wastes should just substitute the work inefficiencies for waste. What hard-nosed company could justify inefficiency?

It’s great to see that the message is finally getting mainstream acceptance, and I really do think that the IoT will boost supply chain efficiency and thereby reduce environmental impacts by allowing everyone in the supply chain who needs operating data to share it simultaneously and in real time.

So there’s really no excuse any more for not practicing smart environmentalism, is there?

PS: To get the specifics about how to translate smart environmentalism into profits, check out Gil Friend’s Natural Logic. He’s got the operating manual.