More than 1 in 3 companies plan major resiliency investments over next year

Matthew Lamons’ tiny hometown in the Midwest had no more than 250 residents, yet over the past three decades these small towns went from “being in the middle of nowhere to being in the middle of everywhere” due to technology. 

Or at least that was the state of affairs until the coronavirus pandemic hit early this year, Lamons said. The past six months have essentially been a real-time “global business stress test” as business leaders have had to shift their thinking to immediate needs and devising quick, practical solutions, right now, on the fly. 

Lamons, managing partner of the Intelligence Factory, an artificial intelligence consulting firm based in St. Louis, is just the kind of guy who can sort out some emerging trends that are rapidly playing out amid the pandemic — which is why the Iowa Association of Business and Industry sought him out. 

In a virtual keynote presentation during ABI’s Advanced Manufacturing Conference last week, Lamons likened the U.S. economy to a sprinter running at full speed before having the equivalent of a heart attack in the form of the massive unemployment with the nationwide shutdown of Main Street America this spring. 

Using artificial intelligence tools to sort through how businesses’ priorities have shifted due to COVID has been very revealing, Lamons found. 

A contextual analysis by Boston Consulting Group — using an AI search of 150 million business news articles — dug up a list of the top five business terms in 2019. Just six months later, Lamons noted, that list has shifted substantially with just one subject area remaining the same — artificial intelligence/machine learning.  

“The new topics are much more practical and timely, with immediate, shorter-term time frames in terms of their impact on a company,” he said. “How are they doing, and how can they do better, now,” are the focus of applications, with telemedicine and other no-touch technologies that incorporate 5G capabilities being key. 

Amid the tumult, “the expectations for mass customization and personalization of goods and services are surviving,” Lamons said. “In fact, they’re actually doubling down. Our response to COVID-19 has been to accelerate our desire to be in a 4.0 world. And so Industry 4.0 technologies are being chosen as a strategy to combat COVID-19.” 

The response to COVID-19 has dramatically broken down barriers to adoption of digital technologies, Lamons said.  

Before COVID-19, global consulting firm McKinsey & Co. was estimating more than 2 million jobs were going to be created from Industry 4.0 innovations, Lamons noted, “and that innovation comes from the process of digital transformation,” he said. “What you get from digital transformation is new, agile manufacturing technologies, because what you’re going to be asked to do is offer a greater product variety with accelerated cycle times. More customization across the board — that’s the general trend of Industry 4.0.”  

Additionally: “You’re going to be turning data into data-driven insights, and you’re going to be turning that data into new revenue,” he said. “And that has been one of the response strategies, actually, that we’ve seen in response to COVID-19. Obviously, nothing is free, and digital transformation is going to require in some cases upgrading plants, equipment and your teams for this digital readiness.” 

How do you gain value from these emerging technologies? It comes principally from developing a strong business-use case, Lamons said. 

Data quality and availability are key considerations for tackling that task, however. “Do you have the data — or can you start collecting the data — that is important to the process that you’re looking to improve? Because of these [resource] factors, the perceived risk of failure is high.” 

From Lamon’s perspective, one of the most interesting takeaways from a survey of U.S. businesses regarding the effects of the pandemic: Sixty percent said that COVID-19 has inspired them to innovate, to look at their processes and to figure out a better way to do things, or to put in the forefront activities that had always been on the project list, but have now become a priority. 

“They really have a focus now on their teams to do the things that they really want to do, and take charge of the situation, and I think that’s fantastic,” he said.