2014
02.25

It’s all about manufacturing. And it’s about time. It’s one of those moments you are actually proud of your city, your politicians, and you hope that the mission they espouse will actually be fulfilled. When the City of Chicago announced it landed the $70 million Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute I couldn’t help but be excited about what the future would finally hold for domestic manufacturers who had been family-owned businesses whose ownership bloodlines have remained unchanged for decades. And it’s these same companies that revealed from 1992-2002 about 90% of America’s most important manufacturing industries lost significant marketshare to goods produced overseas. So talk of an advanced-manufacturing technology lab for Goose Island with the potential to reinvigorate domestic manufacturers by attracting innovation, investment, and even cachet to Chicago, all while cementing the Windy City as a cutting-edge research hub, has been tragically overdue.

It’s not often the federal government doles out big bucks for research so it’s no surprise Mayor Rahm Emanuel is running around telling anyone who will listen that this is a game-changer for Chicago. While President Obama has stated he intends to award other cities with the same research funds to serve as a digital flagship in the coming year, Howard Tullman of 1871 told me the key to competitiveness is sparking innovation through manufacturing, among other things. The Center will be managed by the University of Illinois-affiliated UI Labs. In fact, a second institute is anticipated to be located in Canton, Mich., near Detroit.

Mayor Emanuel is meeting with Obama today and the President expected to officially announce the initiative at the White House. 

With contributions from more than 70 corporate and university partners, the five-year budget is expected to be around $320 million, if not more, as additional partners sign on. More than 40 companies have already signed on such as Boeing Co., General Electric, Caterpillar, John Deere, Honeywell, Procter & Gamble, Dow Chemical Co., Siemens, and Microsoft Corp., just to name a few.

I have to commend the efforts of all the companies and politicians working to together to spark innovation. Back in 2004 I wrote a book entitled Mending Manufacturing, How America Can Manufacture Its Survival. I couldn’t have stressed enough how critical it is to raise awareness to how vital manufacturing is to economic well-being. If and when we all work together, perhaps Chicago can be the model for rebuilding and mending American manufacturing.

2014
02.18

It can be argued that the weekly patent awards announcement from the USPTO (United Stated Patent and Trademark Office) opens a window on the near term evolution of technology developments as well as the direction of the deployment paths that companies are taking to enhance customer engagement. Some patents better illuminate the path that companies are already on, while others signal the potential for complete course changes down different paths. Some show a desire to walk multiple paths while others provide a glimpse of a response to a competitor’s shadow emerging on its own path forward.

The most interesting patent award of February 11 was 8,646,695 (“Combined HF and UHF RFID Device”) assigned to Disney Enterprises, Inc. Not only is it an example of an illumination of a path Disney has been walking to improve the guest experience at its Parks and Resorts, it is an excellent example of just how difficult the technology development path really is.

This award is a culmination of a series of patents beginning in 2010, each of which describe different aspects of a form factor – a wristband that Disney has branded the MagicBand – that is worn by a guest to a Disney theme park such as Disney World in Orlando. The new patent covers the true magic of the wristband, which is the packaging of HF (high frequency) and UHF (ultra-high frequency) chips and their antennae into a very small space. This wristband was initially deployed in January 2013, and is intended to be the key to an enhanced guest experience at the park.

While at Sony, I had the privilege of participating in the early stages of the wristband project, which was the responsibility of Disney’s New Technology Group, based in Orlando. The earliest roots of the project go back to 2007. Disney’s concept was simple: Find a way to combine contactless transactional technology with location-tracking technology in a single form factor that could be worn by a guest and conveniently enable a wide range of experiences such as opening the door to the resort room and providing quick access to the theme park and pre-booked events. It is the replacement to the old PhotoPass card. It was also intended to understand and influence guest behavior in the park. At the time, Disney knew that a guess had entered the park, and had bought something in it. Apart from that, the Orlando theme park was described as a 50 square mile black hole; what the guest was actually doing in the park was a mystery. The introduction of the MagicBand has not been without continuing controversy.

In 2009, the initial engineering specifications for the wristband were issued. At the time, NFC (Near Field Communication) contactless technology was being considered in conjunction with RFID tracking technology.

Here were the challenges Disney faced in 2009. First, there was no ecosystem in its parks – or anywhere for that matter – that would provide pervasive transactional and tracking coverage. POS (point-of-sale) devices did not have NFC capability. RFID access points were not cheap. NFC and RFID chips were also not cheap, and the final cost of the wristband had to make economic sense when considering the millions of units that would be produced and deployed for a lifespan of a few days of use at most.

Disney would have to build out the ecosystem in its theme parks.

The second challenge, specific to the wristband, was the engineering required to place chips and antennae with different frequencies into a space about 1-in. in diameter, not interfere with each other, and have both function effectively when placed against the human body, which creates a barrier that reduces signal strength. If the access point can’t read the signal from the wristband, a transaction or a location check will be missed. In 2009, this of collocation of differing frequencies in a small space was unproven for commercial use. It is interesting to note that one of the persons named in the patent was the CTO of a RFID design and engineering firm that Disney used to solve the problem. Three of the persons named in the patent are with NXP, an NFC chip producer.

As the project evolved, and as we see from the patent’s particulars, HF and UHF, have been successfully combined within the form. Peaceful frequency coexistence was attained, and the issue of positioning relative to interference from the human body mitigated.

You might be asking why it took so long for the MagicBand to be deployed, only coming into use in 2013. If we remember back to 2009, we were slipping into what has been called the Great Recession. The economic justification for deployment of the ecosystem and wristband depended upon a specific level of park attendance. In 2009, the economy was crashing and Disney experienced a significant falloff in attendance. Layoffs commenced, and a number of the senior executives that were champions of the project left the company.

What the MagicBand does today is for the Disney guest provides a baseline of services. It would not be surprising to see additional uses that affect the guest’s experience introduced in the future. Having heard some of the ideas being discussed in 2009, Disney is looking to fulfill its commitment to truly changing the guest experience, elevating it above anything a competitor can offer, while at the same time, optimizing park operating efficiencies and adding new revenue streams.

One has to admire Disney for its persistence through engineering and economic challenges to deliver significant technology-based, game-changing enhancements to customer engagement.

2014
02.12

Since we are holding the Connected World Conference within the Chicago Auto Show, it just makes sense that RacoWireless, www.racowireless.com, and Audi of America, www.audiusa.com, would make one of their biggest announcements of the year as it relates to the connected car at our event. And the two industry giants held true to form announcing that RacoWireless has been chosen to support Audi’s next generation connect program.

Not surprising, the news comes on the heels of Audi and AT&T stealing headlines at CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas by announcing a partnership to provide 4G LTE in Audi’s new line of A3 vehicles starting in 2015.

The promise of a fully connected car is very appealing to many motorists and automakers alike. By using 4G LTE many believe this proves that drivers will soon be able to experience a high-speed, low-latency suite of advanced services and features to enhance the mobile lifestyle. With 4G LTE, drivers can enjoy simultaneous voice navigation, Wi-Fi connectivity, and high-bandwidth data services.

RacoWireless will continue their strong relationship with Audi to provide complete connectivity management, including nonstop, round-the-clock, call-center support, and it will work with AT&T to deliver the most immersive in-car infotainment system available.

One could say that RacoWireless President John Horn is over the moon with the new relationship with AT&T, but it goes to show you that once competitors can quickly make strange bedfellows. For those of us who have been in this space for years, we are all chuckling just a bit to see Horn and Glenn Lurie, president of emerging devices, resale and partnerships, AT&T Mobility, two of the industry’s diehard combatants working together. Rather than focus all their energy on picking on each other during industry panels, they are now waging war on even larger competitors.

“The momentum that we have been able to build with RacoWireless as a partner has been tremendous,” says Anupam Malhotra, Audi’s senior director, Connected Vehicle. “Audi connect continues to lead the industry when it comes to innovation, technology, and overall experience – and we expect that to only continue.”

Horn told me he is thrilled to be working with AT&T. “I think AT&T is offering some good rate plans and they will make a good partner. We are enjoying working with both AT&T and T-Mobile. We have good partners and our customers are creating the best platform with the tools that are easiest to use,” explains Horn.

Want to tweet about this blog? Use hashtags #M2M #connectedcar #AudiUSA #RacoWireless #LTE #4G

2014
02.07

In today’s report, we cover: Accenture’s aggressive patent play, and why this is important to the management consulting business model – and its clients; Google can help you find your missing luggage; and improving the lives of dialysis patients.

Real world “data points” that, when aggregated, can tease out clear trends from the apparent chaos of technology development. Patent applications and awards are data points that tell us how a company is thinking about a marketplace, industry or people’s behavior in general. If enough companies are thinking and acting in a common way, then there’s good evidence that the technologies they are patenting will shape the direction of markets, industries and how people will interact with each other.

Management consulting companies position themselves as thought leaders, agents of change, and implementers of technologies that support the changes they advocate. Finding the real-world data points that tell us what they are looking at “over the horizon” helps us to understand the direction that we can expect them to tell clients to take.

Traditionally, consultancies selected and applied the technologies developed by other companies rather than develop their own. If they patented anything, it was their own methodologies for analyzing data and packaging results. They could argue that they were not tied to any one solution, and could bring the best combination of solutions to resolve the client issue that they identified.

One could interpret Accenture Global Services’ aggressive patenting strategy as a means of taking direct control of the processes that can be applied to a range of markets and industries to block competitive threats, license the processes to others as a revenue stream, and “capture” a client with propriety technology solutions that ensures a migration path for future Accenture-controlled technologies. Accenture is disrupting the traditional business model of the consultancies.

In January’s posts, we took a look at the management consulting companies and their patent award statistics. We saw then that Accenture Global Services was the clear leader in patent awards, and as we enter February, it continues to be aggressively seeking patent coverage. There is a window to the company’s positioning as a technology thought leader that ties back to the patenting activity: Accenture Technology Labs.

Updating this week’s scorecard for the consultancies, Accenture: 10, its competitors: 0

We also saw that in 2013, Accenture was light years ahead of any other consultancy in seeking patents to cover processes that would broadly apply to the range of industries to which they consulted.

Among the 10 awards this week, two had interesting implications for retailers, one for the airlines, (Patent 8,645,177 “Single Step Flight Schedule Optimization”), and one for software and services companies switching to the SaaS (software-as-a-service) delivery model (Patent 8,645,365 “System for Managing Electronic Assets of a Software Service Delivery Organization”).

Related to retail, Patent 8,645,200 (System for Individualized Customer Interaction), is fascinating. Applying behavioral analytics to the mass of data collected from Grocery Retail loyalty programs, the methods covered by the patent develop a means to develop “predictive” shopping lists for future promotions, including the ability to assess whether a customer “hoarded” a product in a past promotion. Behavioral analytics applied to big data is alive and well.

Accenture’s other retail-related award, Patent 8,645,274 (Point of Sale Payment Method), actually anticipates a problem at Point of Sale from “chip and PIN” smartcards, and offers an alternative method of transactional approval. The U.S., as is the case with the adoption of most payment technologies such as NFC, is late to the game issuing “smartcards” that require PIN authentication for each transaction. Deployed in Europe and other developed countries, “chip and PIN” adds a level of security to credit card transactions that could have limited the effects of the Target hack.

Accenture has anticipated a problem that the U.S. military encountered about eight years ago when considering using a modified smartcard as a dog tag (the long standing method of identifying casualties of war on the battlefield). Because the card reader has to make contact with the chip in the card, mechanical issues can develop to prevent the card to reader contact from happening. For the military, it was Iraqi sand blown into the readers by the fierce desert storms. For retail POS readers, it could be jammed cards, bubble gum and a host of other issues. By the way, this is a problem that NFC (near-field communication) contactless technology neatly sidesteps.

Accenture’s patent offers the alternative of using the customer’s camera-enable mobile phone to initiate a secure video call with the retailer’s server, view the smartcard’s face, and allow the server to validate the card and process the transaction. Very clever thinking is evident here.

Google was “hot” this week, receiving 49 awards, many concerning enhancements that apply behavioral intelligence to online activities. One, however, stood out because it was an interesting combination of wireless sensors and GPS applied to a very frustrating experience that I have had, and you may have also. Patent 8,644,794 “Luggage Locator,” addresses the issues associated with finding where you luggage is without relying on the airline to tell you. Power consumption and “turn on” control, and local signal comparison to the one in which the luggage is intended to be, are aspects that this patent addresses. Of course the question is: Why is Google doing this?

With all of the advances in home healthcare, including sensors and systems to allow more sophisticated treatment protocols to move from the hospital to the home, one award has the potential to improve the lives of dialysis patients. Patent 8,641,615 (“Method and Apparatus for Machine Error Detection by Combining Multiple Sensor Inputs”) was awarded to NXStage Medical, Inc.  Using sensors to monitor potential leakage points in the dialysis apparatus, actual leaks can be reported as they occur. The intention is to create an ultra-safe condition that will allow for the transfer of the procedure from a clinical (hospital) to non-clinical (home) setting.