This morning at Internet of Supply Chain EMEA in Amsterdam, attendees were taken on a whistle-stop tour of cutting-edge technology projects currently underway at Schneider Electric’s Center for Digital Innovation (CODI), presented by the energy management and automation company’s vice president of supply chain innovation, Brian Tessier.
Around two-thirds of Tessier’s working life, he reported, is spent on identifying, vetting and developing new technologies that might bring value to the company’s supply chain.
That supply chain, he added, is “very large and very diverse”. Every day, the company processes around 130,000 order lines, via 94 distribution centers and 209 factories located in 44 countries around the world. Said Tessier: “There are many, many moving parts and as we’ve made our way through our innovation journey, we’ve tried to find ways to bridge the gaps that some of that diversity and complexity introduces to our supply chain.”
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Under Tessier’s management, CODI is a collaborative group at Schneider Electric, where supply chain professionals in the company work alongside members of the information and process organization team (or broadly speaking, the company’s IT team) in a digital laboratory based in Barcelona, Spain.
“Here, we constantly interface with entities around the world. We are the vanguard of open innovation for Schneider Electric. We talk to start-ups, we talk to venture capital firms, we work with universities and colleges around the world. And the goal is to identify opportunities in advanced technology areas that may bring value to Schneider Electric,” he explained.
In addition, CODI is the hub for a rotating portfolio of technology proof-of-concepts, each running on an approximately 90-day clock. “The goal for us is ‘fail fast’: we get out there, find things, try things, bring them inside and then figure out if these things are viable for us,” said Tessier.
The idea is to put an end to the kind of ‘not invented here’ syndrome that makes some companies reluctant to look beyond their own four walls for new ideas. The CODI laboratory provides a “safe and protected” space for experimentation, Tessier explained. “And if [a new technology] flies, only then do we take it into production in our manufacturing and supply chain operations around the world.”
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Robots, drones, blockchains and AI
In 2016, CODI started the year with around 120 identified tech opportunities to assess, and as the team made its way through its validation processes, the number was whittled down until some 25 got the go-ahead to advance to proof-of-concept (POC) phase, based on the center’s resources and Schneider’s priorities as a business. Just a handful of recent and ongoing POCs include:
Sawyer, the collaborative robot from Rethink Robotics. “A collaborative robot is one that is specifically designed to operate in close proximity to humans, without guarding or cages needed,” explains Tessier. One of Sawyer’s biggest attractions is that it’s “super-easy” to program: instead of hundreds of hours of development activity needed to put it into production, Sawyer can be ready to get to work on a specific task in a week or less. “THe way it accomplishes this is that you actually grab the robot by the arm and kinetically walk it through programming the operation. Then you take it to a development environment where you actually complete that particular automation to a much finer degree,” Tessier explains.
LiveShip. This brings together GPS tracking with an internet-connected platform to collect data from sensors, bring it into a distributed ledger based on blockchain and apply artificial intelligence-based cognitive computing capabilities from IBM Watson to predict damage-in-transit events to products in transit to Schneider customers, and decide whether to have them returned or instead send out a field engineer to check on their condition at the customer site. “This is about ready to come out of the lab now,” said Tessier.
Brain-training headset from Halo Neuroscience. Usually used to train athletes, the thinking behind this headset is that its electrical pulse triggers a neuroplastic state in the wearer, in which it becomes easier to build and strengthen brain-muscle connections. But the acquisition and retention of fine motor skills is just as valuable to workers on the supply chain, as it is to athletes, says Tessier, so he’s testing the headset for that kind of role, alongside specialists from the University of Vermont Medical Centre. “So far we’ve seen that this has reduced errors and also has increased speed and skill of our operators [by a factor of 10],” he says.
Air Schneider. By his own admission, this point-to-point drone delivery system is one of Tessier’s favorite projects. “So imagine, if you will, a transportation network solution, like one of your 3PLs [third-party logistics provider], so that when you have a critical shipment to get to a customer, you could make a request via an app, the drone would come to your door and you could load it with the shipment and have that shipment go direct to the customer’s door,” he explained. The drone model currently being tested at Schneider is due to get clearance in the US from the Federal Aviation Authority in 2018, but is already commercially available in South East Asia. Schneider Electric will be testing it further this summer.
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Tessier described CODI as a ‘listening post’, where new ideas are first picked up, but at the same time, he stressed that it’s far, far more than that. It’s a hub for creativity, for imagination, for experimentation. “But having an appropriate listening post for innovation is really what puts fuel on the fire for your business when you’re trying to think the future.” he added.