Plant & Equipment

Tomorrow’s world: What does the future hold?

Chris Riddell has always been interested in how humans are changing and adapting to high speed change. He has worked for some of the largest and most defining businesses and brands in the private sector, delivering insights about the highly disruptive digital world.

He was the first ever chief digital officer for Mars Incorporated, developing the corporate digital strategy for food brands such as Snickers, Maltesers, Starburst, Wrigley, Masterfoods, Whiskas and Pedigree.

Riddell is frequently called upon as a futurist, speaker and expert commentator to provide insight into consumer technology trends within traditional media. He is a regular on Channel 7’s The Morning Show, Channel 10’s The Project, The Daily Edition prime time shows, Sky News Business and ABC 774 Radio.

What is the key message you are hoping to impart to the audience at CMIC 18?

There are two key messages. The first is that the world is moving faster than it’s ever done before and that’s now a new normal for us. We are not going to go back to how it was; we are not going to slow down. I’ll be talking about this new era of uncertainty, of volatility and how you lead your business through that.

The second message is that we are all technology companies now. Whatever you do within the construction industry, you have to behave like a tech company and you have to challenge the roles that you have within your organisation. The roles and responsibilities that people had 20 years ago aren’t relevant in the world we’re in today. Whether you have people in finance or construction or in an operational back office, technology plays a huge part now in everything we do. So we have to think and do things differently, behave like a start-up or a technology company.

What are some of the disruptive technologies and innovations that you believe will become essential parts of industry in the coming years?

I’ll be talking about autonomous technology blended with artificial intelligence (AI). Those two are going to be key in the construction industry, in helping to do things faster.

In your view, which industries are the slowest to respond to technological change? Is the construction materials industry one of them?

We all think that every other industry is doing better. There’s very few that think that they have it right. Therefore, the message here is that we have to challenge ourselves. Your competition now is working harder than ever to be future ready and future proof and you have to do the same. You have to find a way to help technology make your business faster, better and more efficient and give better experiences to your customers. That now is more critical than it’s ever been.

Why should the construction materials industry be taking notice of these disruptors now?

We all need to take notice of technology because if we don’t somebody else will pull the carpet from underneath our feet. That’s not any different to what we’ve ever had before in history. We’ve all had competition. The truth is now our competition is more global and can come from many more directions.

How can these disruptors assist aggregate and construction materials producers to improve their business and production processes?

At the end of the day, you have to focus on how humanity is changing and what our expectations are as people. We expect different ways of living; we expect different ways of transport, in getting from A to B. The lives we have now are quite different from a work and play perspective, so the types of buildings that we live in are changing vastly. The way that we travel is changing faster than ever.

I think because of all of this change, our expectation of things being built and infrastructure being put in is faster than ever. So something that used to take a year to do, for example a building project, we now expect that to be done a lot, lot quicker and we expect to be able to use technology to buy those efficiencies, to make it better. That’s the fundamental pressure point for us.

How would these disruptors improve environmental and health and safety processes?

{{quote-A:R-W:300-Q:"Innovation isn’t just about technology, it’s about challenging the roles in your organisation."}}The truth is now we don’t have to rely as much as we used to on human input. Technology is able to make decisions for us; it’s able to predict things that are going to happen, based on patterns. We are not just relying on a human to see something or use the perception of what might happen based on experience. Technology now will recognise inputs, it will recognise data and it will then be able to give us a notification of particular health and safety issues that could be a problem. From a predictive basis, that’s going to be very, very important to the industry.

From an environmental perspective, technology allows us to be more efficient with the products and materials that we are using. It allows us to either reuse materials more frequently or it allows us to use less of them. It also allows us to drive transparency around how we use materials a lot more. So instead of us just saying to customers that we are efficient, technology enables us to truly be honest and transparent about how we are using products and materials.

What are the pros and cons of robotics, automation and intelligent software in a construction materials setting?

There’s been a lot of fear about robotics, AI and automation. Robots didn’t just come up last year, we’ve had automation in confectionery factories, for example, for the past 15 years. These businesses still employ a lot of people; they are bigger than ever, it’s just the jobs change. Where we used to have 10 people doing one job, we can clearly drive efficiencies, but then we’re able to create new jobs because of the technology that we have. So you have the equipment operators, the people who service the equipment, and you have people that install and set it up. These jobs didn’t exist before we brought that technology in.

So it’s not linear in the sense that if we bring in technology, then we are going to reduce the number of jobs. It’s not that simple at all. Patterns in history give us a very good insight into where technology is going. The truth is though we have to be competitive, it’s not good enough anymore just to say that we are going to have manufacturing in Australia, or we are going to have construction in Australia. We have to be competitive on the global stage and we have to find out ways to do it better. Being competitive isn’t always about price, it’s about quality. But if we have to be competitive, technology is a fundamental enabler to help us be competitive in that space. AI will help us be faster and more competitive.

The extractive industry has traditionally been reliant on labour and manual processing tasks. Is there a risk that disruptors such as IoT and robotics could create an over-reliance on remote devices and automation at the expense of human intuition?

Technology is a lot better in making decisions when it comes to pattern recognition. The more data and information we give to technology, the better the decision-making is. Technology doesn’t suffer from being tired, it doesn’t suffer from being sick, it doesn’t suffer from all the nuances that we have when it comes to critical decision-making, particularly in health and safety.

The bottom line is we will always have the ability to override technology; the technology is not going to take over. An autopilot on a plane can make decisions quicker, better and faster than we do but the human pilot can still take over and we’ll have that same scenario.

You’ve predicted that jobs with “emotional intelligence” and personality are more likely to survive replacement by robots than jobs with a “repetitive function”. What sorts of jobs require “emotional intelligence”?

Emotional intelligence – or EI – is that unique thing we have as humans, the way that we interact with each other, those very fine details around how we are able to recognise how somebody else feels, what their sense of the environment is, and when I am sat in front of you and talking to you, I can even largely subconsciously pick up on a lot of the characteristics that make up a human interaction and a conversation.

Technology doesn’t do that; we’re many decades off tech being able to do that. So, for us, the most important thing is developing our EI and if you are in a role in which you face other human beings – customers or sales or project management and leadership – you are going to have a high EI or you are going to have to develop your EI because those skills are going to be really high in demand.

Obviously some jobs in the extractive industry could be described as having a “repetitive function”. Do you foresee these roles being supplanted by robotics and automation in the coming decades? What kind of roles could these workers transition to?

Any repetitive function in any industry has always been at threat. Using the confectionery example again, packing chocolate bars into boxes was replaced by robots. You don’t need a human to do that. It’s not a valuable use of a human’s capability. There is no doubt that repetitive functions are the highest on the list when it comes to being under threat. The question is when. That’s an individual organisation’s decision.

What are these workers transitioning to? That is a real personal preference. We see so many people now upskilling on technology functions and roles, so people that used to just stand in the factory and pack boxes now are machine operators, they are doing seven different roles compared to what they used to at the same time. So it’s about upskilling, it’s about seeing that technology is a fundamental part of everything we do.

A lot of people in repetitive roles now are likely to see these jobs through to their retirement. You would not be suggesting that an 18-year-old kid goes into a repetitive function in the construction industry. That’s probably the most important point.

You’ve talked about augmented and virtual reality, and the extractive industry is itself turning more towards web and simulated training. Is there a possibility that VR/AR technology may not equip workers adequately to operate machinery in the field, making it patently unsafe?

No, I think VR and AR technology takes us to the next level. It allows us to truly be able to experience technology in a training and simulation environment that we’ve never had. That’s a good thing, a great thing.

The only reason you wouldn’t use a simulation was if it hadn’t been developed correctly. If you buy a $10 simulation software package that you downloaded at a trial from a two-bit company in a far-flung country and you expect that to do a real life assignment, it’s never going to work. It’s like any other process that you’ve ever had in the world – you put shit in, you get shit out.

If you have a well developed and crafted VR and AR training platform that’s designed with the expertise around your industry, it will perform as well – if not better – than a real life environment. The reason is you can create a simulation that will do any number of possibilities, beyond even the most extreme real life possibilities.

Fundamentally, that’s why airline pilots spend so much training time in flight training simulators because the environments and situations they are put in are way beyond the truth and reality of what can happen in real life. In fact, they are so well developed that they are more real than the actual reality of our world.

VR and AR software now has got to the point where you are frequently unable to distinguish between what is real and what is not from a visual component. If you put the right information into those systems, you can get it to do whatever you want. If you don’t put in any information, and if you don’t scenario all that, it will never give you an outcome that is anywhere near the truth.

You have to not see this as a threat. There is a behavioural component here. If you don’t want that system to do a good job, it won’t do a good job. You put the right data in, it will do a better job than you could possibly even dream of.

What is your advice for a small, family-run quarry operation that wants to embrace new technologies? Does it require the ‘start-up’ philosophy?

Innovation isn’t just about technology, it’s about challenging the roles in your organisation. Are you spending money with the right people in the right roles? I’m not saying you should get rid of anyone, I’m saying you should challenge what they are doing because that is frequently the area where businesses trip over themselves, it’s by having people doing the same things that they did 20 years ago. It’s not all about technology, it’s about what people are doing.

Technology now is cheaper than it’s ever been, it’s easier than it’s ever been. Frequently the stumbling point is the people and what we are asking them to do.

Chris Riddell will deliver his presentation at CMIC 18 at the International Convention Centre, Sydney on 20 September, 2018.

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