Transforming the automotive supply chain for the 21st century
For the JIT model to work, the quality and supply of raw materials, the production of goods, and the customer demand for them must remain in alignment. If any one of the links in the chain breaks, stalls, or falls out of sync, the impact on the supply chains that crisscross the world can be felt immediately. For companies, unable to deliver on orders in a timely fashion, they risk losing not only efficiency gains but also brand credibility, market share, and revenue.
Now, companies are seeking new ways of managing their supply chains that offer greater flexibility and transparency. In the automotive sector, some companies including Nissan and JIT pioneer Toyota are increasing chip inventory levels, while others including Volkswagen and Tesla are trying to secure their own supplies of rare metals. But technologies, including Internet of Things (IoT), 5G, and business applications are also offering companies new ways to avoid disruption and respond to unforeseen circumstances.
Disruption and transformation
The transformation of the automotive supply chain is taking place in an increasingly-digitized world, beset with environmental concerns. As climate change concerns intensify, and governments across the world compel industries to switch to more environmentally-friendly practices, the automotive industry and its supply chain networks are undergoing a profound shift. Automotive manufacturers are moving away from internal combustion engines and large-scale manufacturing to zero-emission, carbon-neutral electric or autonomous vehicles with a focus on electric or hydrogen as energy sources. Autonomous vehicles, for example, are seen as “servers on wheels” that rely on batteries, wiring, laser technology, and programming rather than combustion engines. Tech giants such as Japan’s Sony and China’s Baidu have also announced plans for their own electric vehicles (EV), fueling an already heated race in the EV market.
According to the International Energy Agency, global sales of electric cars hit 6.6 million in 2021, making up 8.6% of all new car sales: more than double the market share from 2020, and up from a mere 0.01% in 2010. Business insights provider IHS Markit estimates the number of EV models in the US will increase 10 times over, from 26 in 2021 to 276 in 2030. At the same time, charging stations alone will need to increase from 850,000 in 2021 to nearly 12 million in 2030. To meet the increasing need for battery-powered vehicles, manufacturers must establish a new ecosystem of partners that supplies the parts and accessories required for the successful manufacturing and operating of these alternative vehicles. According to research from Transport Intelligence, “the supply chain for the entire powertrain will be transformed and the types of components, the logistics processes employed to move them, the markets of origin and destination as well as the tiered character of automotive supply chains will change.” This has enormous implications for how the automotive supply chain is ordered.
Meanwhile, everything in the automotive sector, from the automobiles themselves to entire factories, is becoming more connected, with the support of technologies such AI, IoT, 5G, and robotics. In recent months, Nissan has unveiled its “Intelligent Factory” initiative in its Tochigi plant in the north of Tokyo, which employs AI, IoT, and robotics to manufacture next-generation vehicles in a zero-emission environment. And Volkswagen has deployed a private 5G wireless network at its headquarter plant in Wolfsburg, Germany, to trial new smart factory use cases.
As manufacturing becomes more digitized, so too does consumer behavior. Automotive brands are rolling out direct-to-consumer sales models, enabling customers to complete more and more of the sales process through digital channels. While new players are taking an online-only approach to the sales model, incumbents are embracing digital initiatives in partnership with dealers where fulfillment, after sales, and services are still provided through a dealer. In 2020, 69% of dealers in the US added at least one digital step to their sales process. And 75% of dealers agreed that they would not be able to survive long term without moving more of the sales process online. Both models require greater visibility into the supply chain to ensure inventory and availability are accurate.
How manufacturers are responding
Ever more connected consumers, factories, automobiles, and supply chains generate a wealth of data. Gathering and analyzing this data can help enable manufacturers to reduce business risk and become more agile by identifying potential supply issues, increasing efficiencies, and giving customers more accurate timelines. Predictive analytics, for example, can help manufacturers answer the “What if?” questions and proactively reduce the impact of potential supply chain disruptions. Digital traceability enables companies to follow products and goods as they move along the value chain, providing them with exact information on the provenance of inputs, supplier sourcing practices, and conversion processes. “On the demand side, customers expect real-time visibility of when an automobile will be delivered to them, and the status of service, spare parts, and accessories,” says Mohammed Rafee Tarafdar, SVP and CTO, Infosys.
In a bid to harness data and develop greater visibility across the business, manufacturers are employing a variety of technology solutions including business applications—suites of software designed to support business functions. Paired with cloud services, the right business applications can give organizations greater access to cutting-edge technologies, which can then be managed at scale and address the need for visibility, analytics, and cybersecurity. As everything becomes more connected and more autonomous, “there is a need to have technology that can scale with demand. This is where cloud and business applications have very important roles to play,” says Tarafdar, who adds that manufacturers are embracing both private and public cloud to create hybrid clouds, with the support of private 5G networks.
Chinese creators use Midjourney’s AI to generate retro urban “photography”
If you saw these images pop up on your timeline, would you be able to tell if they were real photographs of the southwestern city of Chongqing in the 1990s?
In fact, none of them are real. Zhang Haijun, a street photographer in Chongqing, generated these images with Midjourney, an image-making artificial-intelligence program.
A number of artists and creators are generating nostalgic photographs of China with the help of AI. Even though these images still get some details wrong, like the number of fingers that humans have or what Chinese characters look like, they are realistic enough to trick and impress many social media followers, including me.
Retro AI artwork like Zhang’s has also caught the attention of Tong Bingxue, a collector of Chinese historical photographs. He reposted some of them to his popular Twitter account China in Pictures last week.
These generated photos are indeed aesthetically pleasing, Tong says. They look sophisticated in terms of standard photography metrics, like definition, sharpness, saturation, and color tone. “When people look at things on social media, these [attributes] are the first things that catch the eye. The authenticity of the photo comes second,” he says. Real historical photos, on the other hand, sometimes look amateur or come with material imperfections.
Zhang, the creator of the AI images above, was born in Chongqing in 1992. He grew up near the Chongqing Iron and Steel Company, one of the oldest and largest steel factories in China, and remembers watching the workers when he was about seven years old. “When I was little, I would often watch them come out of the factory during their break, sit on the ground, smoke a cigarette, and look into the distance. There were stories in their eyes,” he says.
When he turned that experience into an image-generating prompt for Midjourney, he was amazed by the results. “What the AI generated—the look of resilience in their eyes and the way they are dressed—it looks exactly the same as what I described to it,” he says.
Now, Zhang pays more than $200 a year for Midjourney, and uses it to generate new retro photographs with different themes: rural weddings in the ’90s, physical laborers for hire waiting in the market, and Chongqing street fashion. Each time, he writes the prompts in Chinese, uses machine translation tools to convert them to English, feeds them into Midjourney, and spends about 20 minutes tweaking them to get the ideal result.
Technology and industry convergence: A historic opportunity
And it’s that combination of technology and human ingenuity, as we say, and as Danielle just alluded to in her medical example on cancer treatment, that is really where the greatest value and the greatest impact is going to come. We believe the companies which are going to be leaders in the next decade are going to need to harness five forces, and all of these forces are going to require technology and ingenuity to come together. They’re going to require organizations to work across all elements of their organization, to work with new partners, to expand into new areas and ecosystems, to learn and collaborate with innovators across industry, as well as across industry and academia and beyond to really push the boundaries of science and impact.
The five forces that we see right now, the trends that we’re seeing that are impacting our clients the most really start with what we believe underpins everything right now, and that is something we’re calling total enterprise reinvention. And we really started to see this come to the fore as we moved through covid. And what we’re seeing now is that as companies are looking to enter these new waves of change and opportunity, that they’re needing to execute strategies to change and transform all parts of their business through technology, data, and AI, as Daniela just talked about, to enable new ways of growth, new ways of engaging customers, new business models, new opportunities, but they’re doing it in a very different way. They’re doing it in a way where they’re looking at every part of their organization and the technology and digital core that underpins it at the same time, so we believe we’re in the early stages of this profound change, but we believe it’s going to be the biggest change since the industrial revolution.
And embracing total enterprise reinvention often requires something that we call compressed transformation, which are bold transformational programs that, as I said, span the entire organization with different groups working together in ways that they never did before in parallel, but in very accelerated timeframes. And underpinning all this is leading edge technology, data, and AI. At the same time, the second trend we’re seeing with our clients, and we certainly are all reading about it and of hearing about it for the past few years, is the power of talent and the importance of the human side of this equation. And we think that one of the forces that’s going to shape the next decade with talent at front and center is not just the ability to access talent, but really for organizations to learn to be creators of talent, not just consumers. To unlock the potential of the humans in their workforce. And that’s going to require technology to unlock that potential. And again, as Daniela just gave in some of her examples, to compliment the talent that they have in the organization.
The third is sustainability. That trend is … I would say personally, I’m very pleased to see this trend underpinning everything that we’re doing and everything that our clients are thinking about right now. We believe that every business needs to be a sustainable business. And every industry is looking at this in a way that is unique to their industries. But whether it’s consumers, employees, business partners, regulators, or investors, we know that we’re moving in a direction where companies are being required to act. To make a change, not just around climate and energy, but areas like food insecurity and equality. All of those issues are coming to the fore, and underpinning this, again, is the ability to leverage new bleeding technologies to accelerate the pace of change and find solutions to the issues that we’re facing as a planet and across society.
The fourth force that we’re seeing is the metaverse. Now, there’s been a lot of confusion, and a lot of talk about the metaverse, but our view is that the metaverse is a continuum, and we’re seeing this come to the fore in the marketplace right now. As we look at the metaverse and how that’s going to impact, just if you think all the way back to when the internet was in its early stages, we believe that the impact is going to be that great. And while it’s early stages and not everybody can see exactly how the impact is going to be there, we believe that this is going to impact not just consumers, and of course interesting areas like virtual reality and using AI to bring new experiences to life, but also to look at extended reality, to look at digital twins, smart objects. So how do cars and factories run? What’s happening with edge computing? Looking at blockchain and new ways of payment. All of those things are going to change the way businesses operate and really the way society operates, and we believe that this is going to underpin change as we move forward over the next five to 10 years.
And then lastly, the fifth force is what we’re calling ongoing tech revolution. And the ongoing tech revolution is a pretty broad expansive category, often pushed by our friends in the academia world around science, but we believe in the coming decade, the pace of technological innovation is not just going to continue but accelerate, which we believe is going to create positive change. New technology, whether it’s in quantum computing or it’s in areas, as I said, like blockchain or material science or biology, or even space, we believe this is going to open brand new areas of opportunity. And all of these things are allowing companies, our clients to find new ways to not just serve their customers, but to monetize their investments, to impact society, to impact their employees, and to drive positive change for their business as well as for the world around them.
Laurel: Yeah. Kathleen, I feel like some of that acceleration happened in these last few pandemic years so that businesses and consumers are operating differently from remote healthcare solutions to digital payments, greater expectations of those immersive virtual experiences. But how can organizations and technologists alike then continue to innovate to anticipate the future, or as Accenture likes to say, learn from the future? You have some good examples there, but the five different areas all kind of also lead to this acceptance of change.
Kathleen: Yeah, they do. And they also lead to embedding data in everything, in new ways into every change that organizations are putting forward. When we think of learning through the future, we think about organizations and leaders who are constantly seeking new data and insights, not just from inside their organization, but from outside their organizations’ four walls. So we like to use the phrase intentional futurists. These are people and leaders and organizations who use AI-based analysis to find patterns, anticipate trends, detect new sources of growth opportunities, understand their consumers, their customers, other enterprises, the markets and their employees better.
Delivering insights at scale by modernizing data
This data is often siloed in enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. However, with ERP data modernization, businesses can integrate data from multiple sources, which will ensure data accessibility and create the framework for digital transformation. Migrating legacy databases to the cloud also gives companies access to AI and ML capabilities that can reinvent their organization. According to Anil Nagaraj, principal in Analytic Insights, Cloud & Digital at PwC, companies that modernize their ERP data see increased efficiencies, costs savings, and greater customer engagement, especially when it’s built on a cloud platform like Microsoft Azure.
Cloud transformation—along with ERP data modernization—democratizes data, empowering employees to make decisions that directly impact their segment of business. And in an increasingly competitive marketplace, becoming data-driven means organizations can make faster, timelier, and smarter decisions.
This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.