How AI, IoT and 5G are accelerating digital transformation

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The age of digital transformations, better known as Industry 4.0, was already underway before AI, 5G and the IoT became household buzzwords. But now that they're here, they're accelerating the rate of transformation like never before.

Simply put, digital transformation is the application of technologies in every part of your business to improve the way you deliver value to your customers and generate profit. AI, IoT, and 5G are at the heart of this concept, so let's take a closer look at each one and how they're helping companies of all sizes make the leap into the digital age.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence will soon live at the heart of most of our business technologies. Here's a crash course on some of the first practical AI solutions to hit the market, and the role they can play in the digital transformation of a company:

  • Chatbots are an increasingly vital part of making the customer experience bulletproof. The AI powering chatbots doesn't take breaks or require sleep, and it can answer FAQs and routine requests, as well as help existing customers place orders or make changes to their account. AI in this part of the customer service experience does double duty: customer retention as well as converting prospects who are still in the sales funnel.
  • Artificial intelligence can be a part of a company's cybersecurity defense, too. AI can monitor company networks for suspicious users, devices, and traffic, and take precautionary measures automatically, including alerting company authorities and quarantining the intruder away from sensitive digital systems, if they aren't already. The theft of IP is a bigger worry than ever given our level of digital interconnectedness, but AI can be an ally.
  • Demand forecasting has always been a key struggle in running a lean business, managing inventory and purchasing as strategically as possible. But thanks to enterprise resource planning built with machine learning, companies can make more accurate predictions than ever and plan business activities around insights gathered by analyzing markets, raw material inventories, competitor and vendor activities, staff availability, and even weather and climate.
  • Although automation often conjures images of assembly lines and robots, AI is bringing just as powerful a form of automation to the back office. Thanks to AI, customers don't have to wait hours or days for an answer to their quote request. Companies can deliver accurate quotes automatically, generated by using algorithms to check current prices against supply, demand, rivals in the area, and many other data points. It means capturing the business you might've lost on those occasions when you couldn't deliver a quote in time manually or didn't have all of the relevant information close at hand.

There are many other business use cases for artificial intelligence, and already an impressive number of tech companies with enterprise-level products promising useful automation tools or revealing analytical insights using big data.

The Internet of Things

The IoT is your company's web of smartphones, tablets, wearables, security cameras, material handling equipment, climate control apparatus, vehicle guidance systems and smart warehouse assets. These devices are under almost constant development now, and continually gaining new ways to exploit connectivity with each other and with larger industrial control systems and enterprise planning systems.

Here's just a quick look at how the IoT facilitates digital transformation in modern businesses:

  • Smart climate control turns heating, cooling and lights down or off when they're not needed, ensuring reasonable utility budgets are more reasonable stewardship of resources.
  • Facility management and agricultural and groundskeeping staff can apply labor and resources only where and when they're needed, based on environmental and facility data such as temperature, humidity, air quality and even the water content and composition of soil.
  • Manufacturing and assembly equipment equipped with various sensors and internet connectivity can deliver data passively on overall machine health and even the condition of individual parts. This ensures uninterrupted production, as maintenance personnel can plan service around the needs of the factory and replace parts proactively when signs point to an imminent breakdown.
  • The handling of inventory poses lots of problems that the IoT can help solve. These include RFID scanners automatically entering incoming freight into inventory, connected scales flagging fragile or team-lift merchandise on its own, and allowing remote access control and logging for physical security purposes.

There are tons of other opportunities, available today, for even small and mid-sized businesses to begin taking advantage of the IoT. By some estimates, the year 2021 will see a total of 36 billion IoT devices in operation, meaning lots of vendors clamoring for the B2B dollars.

Companies should prioritize their technology spending by remembering that there are three interrelated but straightforward goals where the IoT is concerned: to do more with fewer resources, save money, and work more efficiently.

5G Connectivity

In many ways, 5G will be the crowning achievement of Industry 4.0. With speeds of at least 100 Mbps and latency under 100 milliseconds, 5G is dramatically faster and more useful than its predecessor. And we can expect it to be the backbone of a lot of industrial IoT rollouts in the coming future.

The chief benefit of 5G is that it delivers Wi-Fi-like speeds with the convenience of cellular connectivity. It means 5G is likely going to become the wireless protocol of choice, instead of Wi-Fi, for smart homes and smart factories. Assuming the security of the device was a priority during development (that's another can of worms), IoT system architects will be able to connect factory assets and company systems directly to the internet using 5G, with no intermediate Wi-Fi network, no coaxial cables and no fiber optic networks required.

Therefore, once national 5G infrastructure begins to take shape on a larger scale, versus a city or two at a time, we can expect this type of connectivity to bring down operations costs for factories, thanks to significantly streamlined IT architecture.

Of course, 5G infrastructure is anything but simple, which is one of the reasons why developed countries aren't going full-bore on breaking ground for 5G towers just yet. The data transfer and processing capabilities, plus low latency, that 5G unlocks requires many more data centers than we have now. Some proposals envision "micro data centers" at the base of cell towers as part of a national blueprint for 5G availability.

With these edge computing nodes standing ready to process low-level data processing requests, the stage will be set for the many thousands of commercial-level IoT deployments, smart equipment, asset tracking systems, predictive maintenance platforms, and automatic inventory tagging tools to come online.

Technology Powers Digital Transformation

Despite the known benefits of this level of connectivity and data-awareness, there are some potential risks involved.

All told, there are over two billion compromised user records floating around on the Deep Web. And we know thanks to recent headlines that IoT devices with shoddy security, or else haphazard deployment of otherwise secure devices, are to blame.

It's true that the Internet of Things can increase a company's threat surface, but it's also true that a decent IT department can take some of the most important measures themselves, such as using VLANs to isolate IoT-connected equipment without trapping its data in a silo.

The future has arrived, and the stage and the stakes are set for the fourth industrial revolution. You can call it Industry 4.0 or digital transformation, and now you have an idea of how it's changing the game.

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