I want this article to be anything but routine. You’ll sigh, you’ll switch off and I’ll miss my chance to make an impression. None of us are keen on routine. The big weekend shop? A dispiriting chore. Cutting the lawn? Spare me. Database management? Yawnsville for the majority. We all crave buzz over boredom, which is why autonomous operations have been devised for all of the above. 

Delivering digital breakthroughs that transform markets

Amazon Go Grocery promises that you never need wait in line at the checkout again, while Tesco has snapped up the ‘grab and go’ checkout-free concept of Tel Aviv start-up Trigo Vision. Husqvarna’s robotic autonomous lawnmower will do the hard work so you don’t have to, and Oracle’s self-repairing, self-securing and self-patching enterprise scale Autonomous Database will happily do the heavy lifting.

These activities have become autonomous because they had already become routine. They are important tasks, yes, but joyfully they don’t really need the focused attention of a complex human brain to make them happen. And guess what, removing routine is a boon to end user convenience. Better still, because they are highly autonomous, they can be readily made available as digital services – really valuable services in fact, that deliver both physical and digital interactions.

And this is where it gets really interesting and anything but routine. The physical/digital space – now becoming known as phygital – represents the commercial sweet spot that will help ambitious companies deliver transformative customer convenience. At Cambridge Consultants, we believe it is set for massive expansion. 

Acute need for consumer convenience 

One of the top goals for any business is to deliver end user convenience. We see this acutely in retail where 97% of consumers say they have backed out of a purchase because it wasn’t convenient. We are increasingly a society that values its time and effort. It follows that companies that make their products and services the easiest to use will become those selected.

An autonomous user experience improves the top line of a business. It makes its offering more competitive because it is more convenient. And if a business’s operations are more autonomous, they are likely to remove arduous processes, thus making operations faster and more accurate. This dramatically improves efficiency and bottom line. A win-win. 

Controlled by digital logic 

To be truly autonomous, rather than simply automatic, we need a system to sense its environment – and to act upon it in pursuit of its own agenda. By being autonomous, it can provide the basis of a digital service, a subject I unpacked in a my article earlier this year. The core of such systems is a physical entity – a mower, an agricultural machine, a data storage device, a camera. We then augment this with digital logic to allow the system to control its agenda. This is sensing, robotics and ultimately the software control to provide the degree of autonomy from human intervention.

By isolating the system’s operation from manual intervention, we can redefine how we satisfy the user’s end goal and more completely provide it as a service. Take the humble garden lawn. It’s not the end goal for humans to want to own a mower or walk endlessly back and forth around the garden – the goal is to a have a beautiful, healthy lawn. There is an opportunity for a supplier of physical products to instead move to providing a service, with a different subscription and outcome-based revenue model. There are many companies that are looking for this type of digital transformation.

While you may not be convinced with the lawn-as-a-service concept, what if the system is a complex manufacturing plant – where the capital cost to own it would be prohibitive? Making the plant autonomous and then offering it is a service means that a customer can have shared access to the utility and then only pay per use.

This is of course the basis of cloud computing – why own a data centre when it’s not core to your primary business? Instead you can have the utility without the ownership. The model we see prevalent in Internet Technology (IT) is now becoming relevant to Operations Technology (OT). The thing that binds them is Autonomous Operations (AO). 

Many more things will be autonomous 

So, where next for autonomy? We need to look for the human routine and an opportunity to introduce greater convenience. Routine in domestic activities, in industry and in IT. In the domestic arena, there are countless activities that an autonomous machine could carry out. Replenishment shopping for example.

A sensor could listen to the sounds of the kitchen, so that consumption of staples like bread, tea and milk could be detected and the shopping list updated.

Putting the rubbish out for collection could certainly become autonomous. In the UK, most households have wheelie bins for different types of rubbish and recycling. Perhaps soon the correct bin will be scheduled with the local authority collections and the bins will autonomously make their way from the house to the side of road and back again once emptied. 

In the office, many IT tasks are now ripe for autonomous operation. Customer call centres can be a maddening and laborious place for humans. Constantly having to deal with the recurring problems like ‘I have forgotten my password’ or ‘where is my parcel?’ has sparked the rise of intelligent digital assistants and Personal Voice Assistants (PVAs). They use Natural Language Processing (NLP) to deal with such requests. In other parts of IT, the processing of complex transactions and orders can be handled by technologies such Robotic Process Automation (RPA). We just need to make sure these technologies are used well and are truly ‘intelligent’. 

Within the wider context of Industry 4.0, we can see AO being an important element. Again, the focus will be on displacing the human routine. Essential maintenance of equipment, delivery of goods and cleaning hazardous environments are all opportunities for autonomous systems. 

Driving innovation with AO technologies 

Making something autonomous takes a range of technologies. This very much suits the broad array of technology innovation we have here at Cambridge Consultants. The ability to sense the environment includes the use of AI and, in particular, computer vision. We are using Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) in our recently announced Enfusenet system for use in Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. (ADAs). It’s another mile on the road to powering autonomous driving. 

In addition to using computer vision, there is a range of sensing technologies for mobile things such as GPS, LiDAR, millimetre-wave radar and Ultra Wideband, which is available in the iPhone 11. These technologies help with defining context and allowing the system to establish its position in the environment. We then need the service wrap to make the core AO technology accessible as a service with (probably) cloud-based provisioning, billing and service management. 

To sum up then, it’s clear that delivering greater user convenience is a top priority in the pursuit of competitive advantage. We can help your business develop autonomous operations that will duly deliver it. If you have an idea for making your physical product autonomous, if you want to get phygital, do please get in touch to discuss. It won’t be a routine call, I promise. 

Martin Cookson
Martin Cookson
Director of Digital Service Innovation

Martin works with clients to help realise their ambition in developing digital services encompassing AI, UX, web 3, cloud computing and network native. He has 30+ years’ experience working in innovation with international clients and applying new technologies to bring new services live. Martin holds an MSc in Software Engineering.

Connect with Martin