“Computing at the Edge”: Distributed Computing Will Accompany the Internet of Things

By Robert Handfield, Oct 25, 2016

I had the opportunity to hear George Moakley, formerly the Enterprise Architect and Strategic Planner at Intel, who is now one of the founders of the new Intelligence at the Edge for Supply Chain Lab at Arizona State University. George spoke to a group of executives at the CAPS Roundtable at IBM in RTP recently, and shared some of his ideas about what’s in store for the future of the IoT.

George emphasized that “A different conceptual framework is required. Technology is both evolutionary and revolutionary. Evolutionary technology is about doing things better; revolutionary technology is about doing better things. Doing things better is where most of the technology changes will occur, and this will come in the form of novel services which enable novel platforms.” George also noted that “People think the IoT is about collecting data at the edge and throwing it into a data center and crunching it. But developers need to think differently about how the IoT will be used, because the true innovators will be computing at the edge of their supply chains, not at the center.”

He used the example of the cell phone. “When smart phones came out, people first discovered they could use a browser. But recall the first time you used a browser on a phone: it was awful! So we became smarter about designing websites so browsers could be used more easily – and that in turn led to Apps, which are a better way to use smart phones. So the evolution of the service platform led to revolution platforms, which is how technologies will enable platforms.”

The digitization of the supply chain is coming, but no one is certain as to how it will unfold. Along with this evolution in how technology impacts our daily lives, one of the biggest changes will be in the “internet of things”, which will drive “computing at the edge”. This is also known as “distributed computing” and “distributed analytics”, which involves computing data at the source of collection and will increasingly be in machines and equipment. Smart sensors are emerging in the sub-$5 range that will capture data on shipments’ temperature, location, and velocity.

A great example to consider is the collection of tire pressure on a moving truck. Sensors in the tires will capture tire pressure every millisecond – but there is no need to dump all of this data into a centralized data center! Smart sensors combined with distributed computing on the truck will collect first-pass data, and generate summary statistics, such as the fact that the tire will last 362 miles before a flat. Sensors combined with a local computer can provide key analytics, and when multiple sensors interact, they can provide clues as to what is happening in the supply chain. For instance, vibration sensors combined with the tire sensors may have a strong correlation with theft, and analysts can determine that if they know what they are looking for.

In another case, a truck pulling up to a loading dock in a distributed computing model will interact in the cloud with systems at the loading dock. A notification will be sent regarding the number of loads ahead of them at the dock, and the driver may be notified to slow down, burn less diesel, or take a break for a meal, as their slot at the dock has been pushed back. These types of interactions will require that cloud edges need the ability to discover each other and communicate. For this to occur, standards will need to be established, just like Ethernet cables and internet protocol standards were agreed on for telecommunications.

Such technological evolutions will create service provider niches that will form the basis for commercial platform creation, (“evolution”), but also the potential for extinction of existing service providers through disintermediation and reintermediation. New technology has the potential to drive innovation and new platforms, but waves of digitization can also cause creative destruction of existing players that are too slow to keep up. In other cases, lawyers are quick to object with security concerns – just as they were with Personal Computers, personalized apps, and voicemail. Waves of digitization will continue to re-shape the environment we live in.

How will digitization change your life?

This post originally appeared in Robert Handfield’s Supply Chain View from the Field

About the author

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Rob Handfield is the Bank of America University Distinguished Professor of Supply Chain Management at North Carolina State University, and Director of the Supply Chain Resource Cooperative. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor with the Supply Chain Management Research Group at the Manchester Business School.

The SCRC is the first major industry-university partnership to integrate student projects into the MBA classroom in an integrative fashion, and has had 15 major Fortune 500 companies participating as industry partners since 1999. Prior to this role, Handfield was an Associate Professor and Research Associate with the Global Procurement and Supply Chain Benchmarking Initiative at Michigan State University from 1992-1999, working closely with Professor Robert Monczka.

Handfield is the Consulting Editor of the Journal of Operations Management, one of the leading supply chain management journals in the field, and is the author of several books on supply chain management, the most recent being Biopharmaceutical Supply Chains, Supply Market Intelligence, Supply Chain Re-Design and Introduction to Supply Chain Management (Prentice Hall, 1999, 25,000 copies sold, and translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Korean). He has co-authored textbooks for MBA and undergraduate classes including Purchasing and Supply Chain Management 5th revision (with Robert Monczka) and Operations and Supply Chain Management 2nd revision (with Cecil Bozarth).

Handfield received the Emerald Citation of Excellence award in August 2011, for an article cited as one of the top 50 articles from the 300 top management publications worldwide that have had a proven impact since they were published. In 2009, he was nominated as an Honorary Fellow of Contract & Commercial Management (FCCM) by the International Association of Commercial and Contract Management. This honour is bestowed on individuals who have made exceptional contributions in the field of contracting and commercial management. Handfield is regularly quoted and has published op ed pieces, and is quoted in blogs and global news media such as the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Spend Matters, Microsoft Live, Ariba Live, Inc., CIO, CFO, the Supply Chain Management Review, and other media.