AT&T mixes industry verticals and digital tech to brew-up new supply-chain magic
The supply chain links the whole Industry 4.0 movement. For higher-grade operational intelligence to be brought to bear across the wider industrial market, the supply chain needs to mesh-in with the various stages of production and delivery. It has to be integrated in order to be optimised.
AT&T knows this. The US operator has pivoted part of its business around the vagaries of supply chain functions. Departments for manufacturing, transportation and consumer packaged goods have been grouped into a single sales and marketing division, which considers them separately and together through the wrapper-like prism of supply-chain functions.
David van Dorselaer is general manager for these three parallel industry functions within AT&T Business. “Manufacturing, transportation and consumer packaged goods companies are looked at in a similar way because of the trends we see through the supply chain. We’ve grouped our customers with the supply chain in mind – end-to-end,” he explains.
AT&T, like others, used to structure its sales operation geographically; now it is organised along vertical industry lines. “By combining the teams under one vertical, it allows them to go deep, and understand their customers’ businesses,” he says.
Enterprises in each of these vertical sectors want greater visibility into their supply chains, he says. Transportation, of course, covers a major discipline within supply chains, linked with logistics. AT&T is packaging solutions for managing goods by air, rail and truck.
They also want greater control over the quality of goods and reporting, and fuller transparency across every link and transaction. “The need for quality control across the industries forced us to group those customers in that way… Companies are still struggling with that visibility.”
There are commonalities between these sectors, he points out. “There is replication – companies have the same problems across these industries.” And for both sides, customer and supplier, a standardised solution-set means solutions can be more easily mapped across new lines. “We’re forced to drive replication across the industry. Grouping these together means we’re better able to build… when something works for one company.”
Van Dorselaer splits-out each stopping point in the supply chain, starting with the manufacturing process itself. “We’re seeing a big shift in discussions around OT/IT,” he comments. “They’re trying to improve the production and efficiency, the equipment they have and the overall machinery and safety… to get that visibility into their operations and really improve throughout the supply chain.”
The same principles – efficiency, productivity, and incalculable promise of new data insights for new business opportunities – govern digital transformation of the transport sector. “We’re seeing similar needs around the ability to track, provide patterns of where things are going, and even predict some events through things like the weather and what’s happening in the industry overall.”
Besides, federal mandates dictate tracking and logging devices are employed by truckers and the like to ensure they’re following the hours of service (HOS) law, limiting their hours on the road
For consumer packaged goods, internet-of-things (IoT) technologies are being used for both centralised warehousing and stock at retail locations. “IoT is one of those key areas we look at to focus. It’s much more than asset tracking and connectivity… It’s giving retailers the ability to predict and perhaps even redirect their product shipments to meet local demands.”
IoT is key. AT&T will support low-power wide-area (LPWA) IoT sensors with its twin LTE-M and NB-IoT networks. Its LTE-M functionality is live in the US and Mexico; its NB-IoT network is scheduled to rollout to the same territories in short order. “IoT is really the most significant thing that I’ve seen from a digital technology perspective that has had the largest impact on supply chain so far,” says van Dorselaer.
The combination of sensors and analytics with IoT-native networks puts new powers into the hands of supply-chain operatives, he says. In particular, LTE-M is is well suited for cellular LPWA applications to go on the open road; where NB-IoT is better for low-power, as a fit-and-forget tech, LTE-M is geared for mobility.
He references a deal with UK firm RM2 to provide connectivity to reusable pallets. Traditional wooden pallets, porous and less robust, pose challenges for logistics operators because they risk contamination and are liable to fail, and need replacing. RM2 produces reusable pallets from composite materials. AT&T is embedding an LTE-M based track-and-trace module in them.
Supply chain operators benefit from new information about how pallets and inventory move through multiple, interrelated supply chains. A connected and reusable pallet can be used 162 times before it reaches end of life, reckons AT&T, resulting in a per-trip cost up to 20 per cent lower than non–reusable alternative.”
There is a line of interested parties, reckons van Dorselaer. “We’re working with companies, innovators, that would like to bring those solutions to the supply chain.”
IoT sensors and connectivity create a gateway to other technologies, and a springboard to other operational advances. The potential application of blockchain in industry is clearest for supply-chain transactions. “Blockchain is starting to come together around those three industries,” comments van Dorselaer.
AT&T has developed a suite of blockchain solutions to track the origin and movement of goods through factories, and on through retail to their final destination – “from creation to delivery to the customer”. The idea is goods are monitored at every turn, from inception, to raise quality, reduce wastage, and bring performance gains in the supply chain.
Its blockchain suite is designed to work with IBM’s ‘blockchain platform’ and Microsoft’s Azure-based blockchain technology. Azure supports a broad set of enterprise ledger protocols including Ethereum, HyperLedger Fabric, Corda, Quorum, and Chain. Integrations with AT&T’s IoT platforms aim to bring additional transparency and accountability.
“Companies are dealing with so many third parties as they go through the supply chain. Blockchain will help them to safely share that data,” he says.
Do enterprises get it, or is blockchain just a nebulous buzzword, which requires technologists to translate and explain? “Companies are looking to understand, to see the impact. Some large enterprises interested. But it’s early in the cycle.”
Of course, the other major enabling-tech is 5G, which AT&T is currently rolling out – in one form or another – to consumers in the US. But contemporary 5G offers little of the transformative power of incoming versions, slated for some time after 2020.
“5G will eventually help businesses gain those efficiencies and really help their workforces drive innovation,” says van Dorselaer. 3GPP’s Release 16 specifications prescribe ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC) as a function of 5G NR. It is this flavour of 5G, combined with advancing LTE-based services, that offer most promise to the industrial set.
AT&T and Samsung have set up a 5G ‘innovation zone’ at Samsung’s semiconductor factory in Austin, in Texas. The goal is to provide a “real-world understanding” of how 5G can impact manufacturing and provide insight into the future of a smart factory. It will test the facility of 5G for 4K video security, environmental and equipment sensors, and certain location services.
“The goal of this is to provide a testbed for real world use cases and how 5G can impact the manufacturing business. When you kind of bring all those things together, it touches IoT, blockchain, 5G and innovation in companies that are looking to go to market with new technologies that are built to solve the business problem.”
Van Dorselaer goes back to this idea of uniting distinct elements in order to create a whole, whether a market or a solution, which is greater than the sum of its parts. Just as AT&T has restructured its sales and marketing, the technology solutions at its disposal are combining in a more expansive toolset. “The vision for the long term is all of these disparate technologies talk together and work together cohesively,” he says.
“You have to be able to help customers see what’s available today and delineate that from what’s available in the future. You’re building solutions that can give them long term capabilities.”
This smash-up of market disciplines and technology solutions will create magic, which brings industrial revolution. Analyst house ABI issued a report early 2019 that revenues generated by technology in the global supply chain will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 11 per cent over the next five years, reaching $440 billion by 2023.
Among emerging technologies, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) will have the most profound impact. In the end, AI is the fire and the spoon, which enables this magic potion to brew. For AT&T, as a telecoms operator, it is in the game of sense-making from the massive data-flows on its networks already.
He references an open-source AI platform, called Acumos, it is developing with Tech Mahindra. The idea is to standardise the infrastructure stack and components to run an out-of-the-box general AI environment, and free data scientists and model trainers to focus on their core competencies. “We see this as an ecosystem play, to really make it accessible to everyone.”
But AT&T is well placed, he concludes, not just to harvest the data, but to stir it up and make it potent. “In terms of the pure network data we’re bringing… we have so much information that we’re seeing around the data that’s being utilised.”