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Following the many threads of Digital Transformation

March 31, 2022 | Probably one of the most widely used – some might say “over used” – terms today is “digital transformation,” especially when a company is talking about deploying 5G, a private wireless network or edge compute.

Simply, digital transformation occurs when a new or existing business process goes “digital.” This ranges from the mundane – a restaurant server taking your order on a tablet rather than on paper – to Industry 4.0, which involves adopting a data-driven approach to how a factory works, from suppliers to production lines to distribution (and more).

Data-driven implies the implementation of devices – usually Internet of Things (IoT) sensors – along with software systems to track, gather, analyze, and report. In a factory, sensors exist to track virtually anything – temperature, humidity, vibration, etc.

Device and/or sensor proliferation implies the need for connectivity, compute power and security. This is edge and cloud compute. As Iain wrote in his column earlier this week, there is an ongoing repatriation of data from the cloud to the edge. There are various reasons for this, but two of the major ones involve security and cost.

Data proliferation implies the need for systems that can process the massive influx of data related to production. Often, this discussion leaps immediately to machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) and from there to automation and closed loops so that us pesky humans can focus on other things – like providing training and oversight for the ML/AI.

The end goal of all this data gathering and analysis is to increase efficiency while building, selling, and distributing products that people want (maximize revenue). Obviously, ML/AI can also be deployed on the customer-facing piece to provide that data back to marketing, advertising, product development and design, etc. ML/AI can also be deployed in warehouses to optimize placement of goods and pick order based on where things are being shipped. This is all digital transformation.

Based on these superficial examples alone, it should be clear that every industry will have different approaches to what is digitally transformed first. Therefore, it makes sense for vendors to partner with systems integrators (SIs) and value-added resellers (VARs), among others, who have detailed knowledge of what is important to a manufacturing company producing chemicals versus one producing games.

Providing reliable connectivity, either through a private or public network, is how the cellular industry plans to assist, broadly speaking, in digital transformation. This could involve replacing wires on the factory floor (another example of digital transformation), providing connectivity and location for automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) in a port, warehouse, or factory, or connecting thousands of sensors on a farm monitoring everything from soil health to exactly where, and how well, the automated tractor is plowing the field.

The digital transformation topic is therefore more a tapestry of interwoven technologies than a single topic (e.g., private networks) that can be more concisely defined. But, hopefully, I’ve provided a few threads worth tugging on.

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