For many years the recycling and environmental sectors have lagged behind many other industries in their application of technology. Having now worked in IT for a quarter of a century I thought it was time to reflect on what the real benefits of technology are, and then predict how different technologies may be adopted in this sector over the coming year. To put it in simple terms, technology (when implemented correctly) brings one of two benefits; it either improves efficiency or it provides reliable and appropriate information upon which better decisions can be made. I have chosen five technologies that fall into one or both of these categories, and I would predict that at least four of them will be a hit during 2014. What do you think, hit or miss?
Just like the air that we breathe, big data is everywhere but we rarely see it. It is used by major retailers such as Tesco and Amazon to predict and influence buying habits. It became a much publicised term in 2013 when Edward Snowden exposed the CIA’s PRISM surveillance systems. But more commonly, we use it daily in technologies such as GPS navigation. For the recycling sector, big data can be used to create and support huge investment decisions. The recycling sector is data intense, but little value is gained from that data. Imagine the scenario, you have eight depots around the UK, some are running at full capacity, others not. You have a fleet of vehicles, some maxed out, and others running inefficient routes. Then you win a major national account that could potentially be a game-changer. What do you do? You have data from different sources, sometimes very structured, and some in a semi-structured form. This data includes existing trends in material flows, transport data, financial data and both current and predicted customer service levels. Big data tools allow you to consolidate this data and compare scenarios; what if we expand a region? What if we close a depot? What if we run different vehicles or operate different shift patterns? Big Data can even include traffic flow data, which can be incredibly complex, but also have a major impact on performance. We can use Big Data tools to see the bottom line impact, or the customer service impact, of all these potential changes. You don’t see the leaders of Amazon or Tesco making these decisions on gut-feel, so why should you? If you plan to make strategic decisions in 2014 then Big Data should be a tool to consider.
A new report commissioned by the Department of Business, Innovations and Skills looks at smart cities and how intelligent technology could enhance our quality of life in urban environments. It considers five key areas, including waste and energy. It suggests how more open access to data can provide greater environmental and economic benefits to society. The evolution of the Smart City concepts are in their infancy, but I have little doubt that we will have a far greater appreciation of them by the end of 2014, and that the commercial, environmental and social impact will be significant.
Are we to see the end of the traditional Waste Transfer Note? This initiative by the Environment Agency, supported by EC funding, could see the traditional paper ticket disappear. The EA with its partners have been busy developing an electronic duty of care (EDOC) system that will allow producers, carriers and processors to move material without a paper ticket. From January 2014 you will be able to create the records in the EA database via an internet browser, a mobile device or build it seamlessly into your existing systems using an API (Application Programming Interface). We have tested this system, and it is looking good. However, whilst it remains non-compulsory it is difficult to predict the uptake, especially as real benefit only comes when all parties (producer, carrier, and processor) are connected. It’s a bit like the 1980’s when we could see the argument for the facsimile machine but didn’t know anyone else who had one; it needs some good publicity from the EA to create more awareness and then a good dose of critical mass. See www.edoconline.co.uk.
We’ve seen the start of the mobile revolution, “everything everywhere”. The ability to run Apps on mobile devices has resulted in significant commercial and even more significant social change. To date, the most sophisticated Apps have been aimed at the mass market, as they have been time consuming and expensive to develop. There is also an expectation that they are be free or inexpensive. Through 2014 we will see a greater ability to develop very sophisticated Apps at a lower cost and therefore to serve a much more targeted audience. In a data-heavy industry that, by its very nature, is mobile, we expect the emergence of specific Apps that provide real value in transport, trading, customer service and sales/purchasing. I predict significant development and growth in Mobile technologies for some time to come.
I have worked with many organisations in the UK recycling sector, some large and some small. They have invested in business software that joins up all the business functions, including sales, finance, transport, weighbridge, operations and trading. Having a single system where data is entered once creates great efficiencies and improved reporting. However, the very nature of this industry dictates that multiple parties can often be involved in one business transaction. For example, we collect material from a producer on behalf of a broker. Or, we use a third party carrier to make collections of certain waste streams from our customers and deliver to another party’s transfer station.
The thing is, as soon as we start operating with other parties, we go back to relying on manual effort to administer a single transaction; we receive a telephone call from the customer to say the compacter is full, so we telephone the transport company to arrange an exchange, but they require an email confirmation with a purchase order number. Sometime later we might be informed that the job is complete, but we have to call them again to get the weights. From this we raise paper invoices to post to our customer, and we receive invoices from the transport company, in the post. You start to realise that some of the benefits of the fully integrated IT systems you invested in are lost. A large proportion of transactions in the UK waste and recycling sector involve more than two parties.
By integrating your system with that of customers/producers, brokers and service providers you can create a significant efficiency gain for them and you by reducing the time and effort to liaise, instruct and chase. If you look at other sectors, for example motor manufacturing, you find that time is spent agreeing contracts and business rules, but then transactions flow electronically between different parties with no human intervention, unless an exception is recognised. The recycling and commodity sector is ripe for this kind of technology, and it is available now.
Whilst some of the technologies above will be a hit, and some may be a miss, this industry is very data-intensive and we can be certain that technology will be seen more and more as a way to add value to your business, and indeed provide rewards to society in general.