Robots helping you purchase, artificial intelligence assisting in the product selection process, items which materialise directly from our computer screens onto our desk.

Science fiction?

The development of modern technology and the pace of change are strengthening our conviction that the word ‘impossible’ is now nothing more than a myth.

The future of B2B purchasing may be difficult to predict, but who said you can’t try?

In one of our last articles, we wrote about the way in which modern technology influences many aspects of our everyday life – including business relationships. We live in the era of social, mobile, analytics and cloud (SMAC), with these processes having a key influence on our reality.

What if we were to go ten or twenty years into the future?

How will everyday B2B purchasing look then? Which technology and solutions will be used in the future?

Let’s try to take a few leaps forward and analyse the technology which could change the way in which we store goods, ensure supply and identify products.

3D and 4D printing

Modern IT technology has improved the way we order goods, manage supply chains and communicate with clients. However, they still have their deficiencies.

As a company, we are still forced to use universal solutions, which suppliers offer based on the needs of a specific market. While it’s true that we sometimes have the option to select specific product versions, available in different colours, shapes or made of different materials, at the end (or at least in the vast majority of cases) they are still not tailored exclusively to the requirements of our company.

Moreover, one way or another, you have to wait for these goods. We can’t replace a broken office chair in 5 minutes, without driving to the supermarket for one; we can’t replace the broken doors on a microwave without calling a specialist …

Or can we?

This could change in the not too distant future. 3D printing technology will allow us to eliminate all of these problems. Not only can we literally print (yes print!) a chair in a few minutes, without even having to leave the office, but we can also make products which are configured precisely to fit our physique.

Maybe not today, because the vast majority of current 3D printers still need a huge amount of time for this kind of printing process, and the kind of materials you can use to print is still limited, but over the next 10-15 years it should become reality.

A recent report by PWC expects that as much as 40% of the goods delivered by traditional means could be at risk due to this kind of service. And this is just the start of the long road awaiting us with 3D printing solution.

It’s enough just to mention that new materials are lined up that we will soon be able to print with – such as graphene, which despite its flexibility is 100-times stronger than steel; nano printing technology allowing the printing of parts which are smaller than a grain of sand; or so-called “goal-directed design”, which uses the huge processing power of computers to print objects with a shape which solve the specific task assigned.

And if all that wasn’t enough, tests are currently ongoing into 4D printing, i.e. printing materials that will change their shape, state of matter or colour after contact with a particular factor – e.g. water or temperature. In the future, the chair we mentioned earlier will be able to adjust its shape to the person sitting on it, taking into account his/her weight and anatomy.

 

From smartwatches and Google Glass …

Ten years ago, smartphones seemed to be expensive, extravagant toys, intended just for people obsessed with technology. Today, none of us can imagine life without one, even our grandparents appreciate the benefits of the mobile internet and touchscreen technology.

Today, the majority of us have a similar attitude towards so-called “wearable technology” which are all kinds of types of smartwatches or fitness trackers that measure our health, exercise or sleep. Although they may seem like expensive toys today, they could soon become a new form of smartphones, which we will use in every area of our life – including in work and business situations.

Given that, at the current state of technology, a smartwatch is able to count the number of steps we do during a day, then based on our daily activity at work, maybe it could monitor our stress level, give us access to particular rooms at the office or visualise complicated processes?

It seems like it’s just a question of time. Taking into account the progress of virtual technology, augmented reality and holograms, the use of these kinds of solutions for communication, showing 3D objects or understanding the functions of objects shown directly on our wrist or glasses, will make B2B processes considerably easier.

After all, these solutions already exist. The company Active Ants, which deals with e-commerce, was the first in the Netherlands to use Google Glass to process orders at its warehouses.

How?

Orders are shown successively, one after the other, on the screen of the glasses, and therefore cannot be overseen or mixed up.

What are the effects?

Orders were processed 15% faster, and the number of mistakes made fell by 12%. Product visualisation is currently being tested, whereby the identification of products will further minimalize the number of mistakes made.

Mobile smartwatches are also used to moderate different goods and logistics processes in warehouses by Manhattan Associates. The software program, which is supplied to managers, allows them to take a virtual walk through the warehouse and view not just the details about the products on the shelves, but also statistics about the effectiveness of the employees.

… to bio-implants

But do we really need a wearable mobile device for this kind of thing?

Could we – no matter how much this sounds like objectifying – as objects, which are able to carry different kinds of sensors, not become this kind of device? Is it not a further step in the development of the “internet of things” except that instead of “things”, here we’re talking about the human body?

The literature and films about cyberpunk are based precisely on this assumption, whereby people can connect to the internet without needing external devices, merely using technology implanted in their bodies.

Is it fantasy?

The work being done by the American company 32M is showing that it might not be fantasy, and by perfecting this technology in the future many of us may have such implants. The company was the first in the world to implant chips (the size of grains of rice) into its employees using RFID and NFC technology, which allow them to log in to the computer systems, make purchases in the company shop without needing physical money and gives them access to specific areas of the office.

The company’s Chief Executive, Todd Westby, had the following to say about the new technology, We foresee the use of RFID technology to drive everything from making purchases in our office break room market, opening doors, use of copy machines, logging into our office computers, unlocking phones, sharing business cards, storing medical/health information, and used as payment at other RFID terminals.

Robots and artificial intelligence

Does a future in which our bodies have technological improvements sound ominous?

In that case, let’s focus on intelligent technology around us. All the tests and trends indicate that they will take the form of robots and artificial intelligence.

According to tests at the University of Oxford, in the next 25 years, 47% of jobs in the USA may disappear from the market.

The reason?

Production automation.

Today, this trend is evident in particular in industrial manufacturing – e.g. automated car factories in Japan – but more and more often it is also being applied in other sectors of the economy.

An example from e-commerce could be, for example, the automated warehouses of Amazon, which uses robots from Kiva Systems to operate and transport goods much faster than people – a robot can supply products to an employee in 30 seconds. To ensure the continuity of this technology at its distribution centres, Amazon has purchased the whole company producing this type of robot.

How about something closer to our everyday lives?

Maybe the Waymo self-driving cars from Google?

I’m sure we’ve all heard about the internet giant using them to take pictures for Google Street View. Their mass production is planned soon under the slogan: “a new way forward in mobility”.

Although today, robotic solutions largely resemble the appearance and behaviour of traditional machines, along with the development of new kinds of materials, touch sensors and the processing power of computers, the probability is increasing that, in the not-too-distant future, they will become more similar to humans, not just in appearance but also in their ability to learn.

International Data Corp’s recently published a study, which shows the direction that the development of robots is going. It is expected that by 2020, 60% of robots will learn thanks to solutions based on the use of “internet clouds”, thereby implementing new skills and programs.

By 2019, 35% of the leading logistics companies, medical corporations and companies from the electrical-energy sector will use these solutions to assist them in their everyday activities. And the e-commerce sector, 45% of the leading companies will follow Amazon’s lead towards automation.

There is virtually no limit to the ways that intelligent machines could be used, allowing the elimination of mistakes and threat associated with working in dangerous conditions, carrying heavy products or receiving orders and managing deliveries at warehouses.

Taking into account the development of artificial intelligence, known for example from the Spike Jonze film ‘Her’, or Apple’s Siri which is being continuously worked on, the relationships between human and machine will become much closer.

In the near future, the responses typically searched for in Google could be replaced by answers provided to us by a digital assistant. It may not have a human face straight away, but the fact that it will accompany us in our everyday work is very likely.

In closing, just three decades ago Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had to convince people that one day, every one of us will have a personal computer. Nowadays, we are not just using them to read articles about the developments in the B2B sector, but we are also doing business on them.

Our society is getting older from year to year, and soon work in a warehouse or in logistics will no longer be the domain of just young people. Modern technology will certainly ensure that this type of employee will receive suitable support from machinery.

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