Everyone likes an inspiring story. In 1961, President John F Kennedy announced the US would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. At this point, there was the vision, but no real plan. The Apollo project was born. More than 400,000 people across the US came together to accomplish this seemingly impossible task. They would use rockets not yet designed, alloys not yet conceived, navigation and docking systems not yet devised, and a host of related innovations, all without the aid of robots or microcomputers.
The Saturn V rocket alone had more than five million parts. I reckon that’s a story of achievement.
If you turn to page 44 of your Haynes Apollo 11 Owner’s Workshop Manual you will see the mind-boggling cutaway diagram of the rocket’s engineering specification. Prompted by my fascination for space travel, my son bought me the manual as a present. He’d linked it jokingly to the Haynes manual he’d seen for my first car. The Ford Anglia.
A basic car designed in the 1950s totally unfamiliar with technology, but very familiar with the hard shoulder of most motorways. I would use the manual extensively to conduct servicing and roadside repairs. This is not possible in today’s world – the manual and my socket set are now dust-covered relics.
Now imagine you are mooching around a car dealership in a reverie of motoring through Europe – top down, shades on, sumptuous leather seats, personalised controls, your favourite music on the surround-sound system.
Sensing they’ve got a lead, the sales person throws open the Haynes Workshop Manual. “Check this out. Look at the wiring specification and get a load of the fuel delivery system…”
There’s a time and a place for the Haynes, and this is not it. What I want to know is how this vehicle is going to fulfil my dreams and transform my life.
Let’s face it –we’re all a bit cautious when it comes to investing in big-ticket projects, so why do the technology companies insist on using their equivalent of the Haynes Manual in sales pitches with jargon such as “multi-faceted modular platform”, “edge-to-edge exchange capability” or “self-sufficient machine learning-based ecosystem”?
Tell me a real-life story about a real-life business to which technology made a real commercial difference: increased sales and margins or enhanced productivity and profitability.
Maria’s Story: E-commerce and digital in an analogue world Maria is the proprietor of a wholesale distributor to corner stores based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “We supply a wide range of goods to small stores in our city, which are normally family run. They often lack access to finance and expertise, and many have low literacy and communication skills. We are using technology to aid this communication.
“There was a range of things happening before we launched our e-commerce store. For example, historically, some customers would have to get an Uber to pick up their goods from us.
“They would leave the Uber running while they collected their order, load it and take it back to the shop,” she said.
“Now, we let them order online and deliver to them. We took some time searching for an e-commerce provider that properly understood our needs as a supplier to businesses.
“This ruled out the big players like Shopify and Big Commerce as they are primarily for transacting with consumers and don’t have all the functionality we need. Our customers work from smart devices, so it was important that we had a solution that linked the app and the website.
“With the literacy issue, being able to populate with product details and images was also important, and we needed a fast response to range changes.
“We needed dynamic pricing based on order volumes to enable us to encourage our customers to trade up and be rewarded for loyalty. We needed to build in reward triggers, such as free stock, for specific actions.
“The majority of our customers are used to paying in cash, so a simple, flexible and smooth electronic payment experience was vital. This had to include the capability for payments on account and full invoice tracking. Of course, a debt-management module offering a full view of aged debt with alerts to potential problem clients to support a credit-control function.
“What confirmed our choice as provider was their ability to supply their solution in our native Spanish.
“In our country, B2B hadn’t really adopted e-commerce, so we were pioneering. Now I would say that six out of 10 customers are using our app.
“They spend more and order more often. We’ve seen our sales grow by 28% and our margins by more than 3%. We are definitely winning business from our competitors.”
Ben’s Story: Warehouse robotics changed my businessBen owns a foodservice wholesale company with two units based in Sydney, Australia. “We have two facilities serving vibrant hospitality communities – most notably the harbour front. Business took a hit in 2020, but started to move forward again strongly in 2021.
“There had been a shift away from walk-in customers and more towards delivered. I was fine with that as we had the e-commerce and transport to support the trade,” he said.
“However, the cost to serve our customers had increased substantially and it became apparent we needed to make savings. My mind turned towards warehouse efficiency and the possibility of using robotics.
“As I searched the technology providers it became clear I would need to consider the issue of ‘dark stores’ versus a hybrid operating model. I was being advised to go the dark-store route.
“This suited the business, as one of our warehouse units was low turnover, and not ideally located for a walk-in operation. I decided to convert it to a dark store and use it as a dedicated delivery hub. The advantages are numerous. The inventory is easier to track without customers taking stock during picking, dark stores can accommodate more volume per square foot, can operate in lower-cost locations, the picking accuracy is improved and stock rotation is easier to manage.
“I quickly realised this was going to be an operations management challenge as much as a technology solution.
“All the elements of the operation required engineering in such a way with the potential fail points designed out. Discipline and rigour applied in all areas. I would need to rethink the facility around workflows: a fast-pick zone for the volume movers on pallets, a stock-bin area for slow sellers and a separate location for break packs.
“There could be no room for slow sellers, dead stock or discontinued lines. Machines would drive the inbound ordering system with forecasting an essential component. Goods received would have to be regimented, properly accounted for and located on a timely basis with the following-up of stock shortages relentless.
“A perpetual inventory checking regime would be essential. Only after all this work was in place would the operation be ‘robot ready’. It transpired the installation of robots was the relatively straightforward part of the project.
“There have been teething problems, but I am reaping the rewards, which include a massive improvement in stock accountability, reduction in waste and a significant increase in productivity. The delivery hub has enabled the business to target and secure sales in new locations. I reckon I will have a return on my investment inside four years.”
These two stories articulate real-life benefits flowing from technology, without all the jargon. It really isn’t rocket science.