Mobile Industrial Tech: The NEXT startup frontier?

The last five years have been all about mobile consumer tech. Could the next five bring that energy to the infrastructure that supports our quality of life?

A few weeks back, I ordered myself a new iPhone 5s the day they went on sale in the UK. I upgraded from my old iPhone 4, but stayed with my network – 3 – and was pleasantly surprised to see that it was still in stock, and would be with me early the following Monday – just three days away. “Job done,”, I thought, and got on with my day.

Late that evening, an e-mail from 3 arrived, telling me that they were out of stock of the phone, and that I should expect one in two weeks’ time. I was startled – this felt suspiciously like a bait and switch – so I spent a while extracting an answer from first the Twitter support account (which was useless) and finally by calling the helpline, where I got the answer I needed:

The website was not directly connected to the stock system, and thus had no way of knowing when then phone went out of stock. My experience of the latest, greatest Apple phone had been sabotaged – by shoddy, antiquated stock control tech.

Getting Industrial

It left me wondering: are we holding back the benefits digital technology could bring to our lives by obsessively focusing on the sexy consumer tech that we all love? We’ve done a good job of hiding away the industrial and logistics infrastructure our standard of living depends on. But it’s critical to our lives, and we in the tech business would do well to pay more attention to it.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to attend the IFS World conference in Barcelona. IFS makes industrial control systems of various sorts – and gave me a glimpse into a very different technology world to the one I’m familiar with. There’s a world of people working on offshore drilling rigs, servicing wind farms in the oceans and diving deep into mines whose work can be eased by technology. If their work is eased, our lives improved.

One company, for example, presented a case study of how use of a Microsoft Surface Pro tablet – yes, that much derided device – had made a massive difference in their ability to deal with defective parts and keep the assembly line running. Mobile tech can make a massive difference in warehousing, logistics and manufacturing – because manual information gathering can be replaced by doing it on the go. There’s no more writing it down and inputing it later – you can do it there and then. That saves time, and makes the information available in real-time.

The NEXT Industrial Revolution

The two most recent NEXT conference have given us hints of how application of modern tech ideas and startup culture might change our future. Our startup winner at the main conference was Linemetrics, whose product is targeted at improving industrial processes. And Alexander Baumgardt’s talk at NEXT Service Design was an intriguing peer into a future when we’re gathering and using data about critical things like aircraft parts availability and location in real time. If his work with GE leads to faster plane maintenance and few delayed flights, there are all sorts of positive benefits to both business and personal lives that make the availability gate-to-gate electronic device use look trivial. (Although, I am looking forward to carrying on reading my Kindle on takeoffs and landingsā€¦)

A real-time stock system on the 3 website, linked to the warehouse, would have given me both a realistic expectation of the arrival date of my phone and regular, easy updates on the progress of the delivery. (Ironically, once the phone was in the hands of the delivery driver, I was able to literally track his progress towards me on a map, thanks to the delivery company’s own website.)

The spread of mobile tech, (very) big data techniques and pervasive connections has the potential to revolutionise the invisible infrastructure that underpins our lives. It elevates the Internet of Things beyond a network of connected toys, to something that profoundly changes the way all business operates, with positive benefits to all our lives.

It’s time to face the unexpected truth: industrial tech is sexy again.

Photo by Paul Wilkinson and used under a Creative Commons licence