Monday, November 25, 2019

Coming of Age with the Future

As a student of history I’ve often wondered if people that were alive during the transition between one cultural/economic age and the next realized they were witnessing a critical evolution in the human experience. Did Johannes Gutenberg realize that even though he would be given the credit for the first use of movable type (a technology that had been developed years before). His marketing choice to print the Bible encouraged church to sponsor widespread literacy that ultimately led to individual property ownership and the science and technology of the Age of Enlightenment. History can be very obscure if you happen to be living in the middle of it. Now as we stand at the twilight of the Industrial Age and the rising Information Age, can we use our historical experience to choose the smoothest transition.

Product development in the information age

 Starting with the fundamentals, what’s the difference between the industrial age and the transition we are now in to the information age. In its simplest form products developed for the industrial age were generally focused on capacity and manufacturing efficiency in a specific technology. In the information age product development has to focus on the integration of critical data and functional translation across technology lines. Sometimes that concept is a little difficult to visualize but in the information age everything from pictures, to airplanes, to cars, to fashion is visualized, stored and manufactured in digital form. So in the information age the synergy of products, manufacturing, marketing and purchasing occurs in real time in a digital stream.

Integration vs Specialization

Dealing with this transition means that ideas, concepts and physical products have to focus not so much by building barriers to entry for their competition but, to create market power and profits by integration with manufacturing and communications systems. This means that any product development needs to be aware and if possible to embrace all four pillars of the information age. Let’s examine those four pillars one by one; first, the one we are all familiar with, is the real-time instant communication over the Internet. This ability to communicate, influence, decide, transact and even harm individuals and organizations anywhere in the world in real time is a dimension of our life that most of us have not yet learned how to safely and effectively use. The second pillar of the information age AR is just coming into its own, whether you call it Augmented Reality or virtual reality it is the ability to communicate at personal sensory level that transmits imagination and future reality in real time. How we use this requested or intrusive sensory experience has yet to be determined. There is no question however that represents a fundamental tool for marketing ideas, influence and products in the information age. The third pillar of the information age is Artificial Intelligence (AI) or the ability for digital machines to remember, learn, infer and ultimately decide based on more information than most humans can process in real time. In other words, AI allows us to distill and use much more information than we can normally process in the human time continuum. Most of us who visit the Internet have experienced websites that help us decide we want to buy, who we want to talk to or even which “ facts” we want to believe. As we’ve all experienced in the last few years weighted AI can drive huge herds of individuals and the direction of specific products, ideas or actions. Finding a way to understand and control the weights that are applied to this elementary use of AI is one of the first conundrums of the information age. As AI becomes more sophisticated it will drive even the machines that we make that in turn, make the things we buy. This ability leads us to the fourth pillar of the information age, the sophistication of Digital Manufacturing. Digital manufacturing is not limited to the antiquated industrial age concepts of automation. Traditional factories were built primarily based on efficiency and capacity so the idea of automation was to do individual tasks more accurately and efficiently than humans.  Digital manufacturing is the integration of AR, AI and Internet communication to transform Virtual Inventories into individual physical products.  Products can be customized, individualized by order or focused by demand and are manufactured in real time from a virtual inventory of digital information.

The Unintended Effect

If we examine the impacts and imbalance of the development of each of the basic components of the information age it is easy to see why the development of integration technology is more important at this point than the development of individual technology. One of the clearest examples is the development of the Internet as an economic engine without the co-development of the matching digital manufacturing technology. Even though digital printing has developed a rapid rate the integration of digital coloration of apparel and textiles or the integrated development of 3-D printing of toys, auto parts and tools has lagged behind as a viable economic engine. The economic focus of the Internet has been in support of traditional manufacturing, outsourcing and the search for cost savings. In the future this omnipresent communication tool has much to offer including the increase in marketing reach, product focus and merchandising and manufacturing consumer customization. Today's reality is however, growth of the Internet without synchronization with the other pillars of the Information Age has in turn increased the waste, pollution and labor abuse caused by the stockpiling, clearance and dumping of traditional mass-produced inventories.

Using the new digital tools

Synchronizing individualized offerings through micro merchandising, while limiting on hand inventory through demand sourcing and matching production with sales through digital manufacturing will become the profit ensuring norm of the information age. Using AI to offer targeted product over the Internet, while offering the augmented AR experience of visual try on and tailoring measurement in store will begin to restore personal value instead of just tolerating almost the right product based on price value. For the basic products that the store must stock in order to preserve its market positioning merchandisers and buyers will use AI-based learning algorithms to predict the individual on hand inventory lifecycle of each SKU by store location. This demands sourcing will take advantage of the pollution free 3 to 5 day replenishment available through the close proximity digital manufacturing. Using these new tools to create a seamless path synchronizing selling and manufacturing will create smaller, but responsive on hand inventories through distributed micro-factories tied directly to profit making products.