Tech companies: Stop wasting your talent and do this instead

While the digerati drool over toys and services for the rich, innovation in manufacturing is creating jobs and wealth for the companies that get it

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Credit: Mixabest via Wikimedia Commons

OK, Google -- Trimble will see you a driverless car and raise you a driverless tractor. Smart watches? How about a smart HVAC system that diagnoses itself and sends the data to the cloud?

At a time when Silicon Valley innovation seems likes it’s all about making life easier for overprivileged hipsters -- Alfred, I’m talking about you – tech companies are quietly developing lucrative, new lines of business focused on manufacturing.

Predictive analytics and data stores are being used by customers of Teradata to manage supply chains and enable just-in-time manufacturing of everything from golf clubs to automobiles. Meanwhile, Verizon attaches communications devices to sensors in the farmers’ fields that monitor temperature, moisture, and more and sends that data to the cloud.

There is, of course, a long history of technology penetrating factories and farms. That’s not news. What’s different now is the ability to use the cloud, advanced positioning systems, 4G LTE networks, big data applications, and even virtual reality to make manufacturing far more efficient.

I got a taste of that real-world innovation this week at an event hosted by Verizon and (believe it or not) the National Association of Manufacturers, dedicated to the proposition that technology can make American manufacturing more competitive, create real jobs and real goods, and make money for the companies that get there first.

The tractor of the future does more than drive itself

Trimble is a company you probably don't know. It started using positioning technology long before the first GPS satellites went into orbit. Now it’s a $2.2 billion business with customers in agriculture, heavy construction, and transportation.

Trimble’s positioning technology is so precise, it can direct a tractor to plant seeds within a few centimeters of where the farmer wants them, says Doug Brent, a vice president at the company. That self-driving tractor doesn’t cruise around with no one in the cab -- there’s always a worker on board. And you won't see it on a small, family farm.

Finding an optimal route through the huge fields favored by agribusiness saves time and fuel, while also minimizing the amount of soil compacted by the huge machines, Brent says.

Grading a road can be even more complex because it involves a third dimension. Trimble’s technology not only controls the path of the grader, it allows the machine to cut exactly as deeply as it needs to in the first part of the operation, then compress the paving material to precisely the right height.

The air conditioner that knows when it needs servicing

Selling manufactured goods is often a one-shot deal: Sell them and say good-bye. But Daikin, a company that makes huge heating and air conditioning units, has found a way to make its equipment more efficient and add an ongoing revenue stream. Sensors built into the systems monitor vibration, operating temperatures, and so on. They then send that data to the cloud, giving Daikin technicians a heads-up on when the units may need repair.

Armed with that information, Daikin techs schedule maintenance calls when needed -- and skip calls that are unnecessary. The result: more revenue for Daikin, along with greater energy efficiency and fewer headaches for clients.

Similar -- but much more sensitive -- monitoring equipment is being used in a pilot project by Intel, says Shahram Mehraban, who heads the chipmaker's energy and industrial verticals group. Monitors on ultra-expensive fabricating tools are used to head off problems that could affect yields in the company’s fabricating plants, a process known as predictive maintenance.

Big data and bespoke golf clubs

If you don’t play golf, you probably haven’t heard of Ping, a maker of high-end golf clubs. Its clubs are made to order, and the company promises delivery within two days. Keeping that promise requires a sophisticated supply chain. Point-of-sales devices collect information at pro shops and other retail spots, and that data is then stored in SQL databases sold by Teradata.

When combined with predictive analytics software from SAS Institute, Ping has a good idea of what types of clubs golfers are likely to order in the near future. Thus, it can keep the appropriate materials close at hand, says Andrew Coleman, a Teradata area director.

Chipmaker Freescale uses Teradata software and databases to track semiconductor manufacturing, so it can trace defects back to a particular machine and operator.

Manufacturing, says Coleman, now constitutes 15 to 20 percent of the company’s business -- more than double what it was five years ago.

Verizon, meanwhile, has a 200-member team solely dedicated to its manufacturing business. Customers typically use Verizon devices to collect data and send it to Verizon’s cloud, where it’s stored and analyzed. One example: a home health care device that collects patient data, then transmits information to doctors and insurers via a built-in radio.

Manufacturing is a multi-billion-dollar business and a key part of Verizon’s move away from its traditional reliance on landlines and other legacy businesses, says Scott Allen, a managing director in the company’s enterprise solutions group.

Hey, VCs: Focus on technology innovation that matters

Digital technology isn’t going to revitalize the Rust Belt and bring back millions of long-lost jobs overnight. But aided by Silicon Valley, the U.S. manufacturing sector is becoming more competitive: A 2013 survey of CEOs by consulting giant Deloitte showed that significant numbers plan to build their next factory in the United States, says Allen.

Alfred, by the way, was the first-place winner at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference. It’s a service designed to make it easier to hire minions who will take care of chores (say, laundry) you’re far too busy and important to handle yourself.

The judges included a bevy of Silicon Valley venture capitalists who get excited about silly stuff like that these days. Me, I get more excited about self-driving tractors.