At the ISTA Forum 2022, TransPack—insights surrounding the optimization of packaging for transport—and TempPack—the latest in technical topics related to global temperature controlled performance packaging—were held in San Diego in April. Matthew Wright, founder and CEO, Specright, a cloud-based platform designed to manage specification data across the supply chain, presented on the urgency of transitioning packaging to a digital platform using data.
The packaging space and its supply chain have become increasingly dynamic through the years, and are now plagued with inefficient data sharing systems and methods, such as email, which are unsustainable as future-proofed solutions. Wright mentioned a survey put together by his company that gleaned results explaining that it generally takes 600 emails or more to get a product to market. He also said that though Excel has been a saving grace in the world of business as far as digital spreadsheets go, it too is not a solution for the future.
“What we have to do is we have to think and embrace technology in a different way. We cannot digitize our data and then map it the same way we do today. There's no way with technology that you should have to do 120 steps to get product to the market safely and on time,” Wright said. “The answer is not email. And yet we find that the vast majority of data transfers for industrial products are still done on email. I don't want to see people create 600 emails to create data structures.”
The future lies in interweaving technology with each company’s data structure using a common language, or in other words, a common system, which would also simplify mergers and acquisitions. Apps, print technology, digital tools, and various software all need to connect and communicate.
As the world stands right now, even intracompany data uses different languages, which is in part to blame for those 120 steps beforementioned. Wright provides an analogy in which 10 of the smartest people in the world are placed in a room to solve a problem, but progress is hindered as they each speak a different language. The industry used to believe their data structures, or systems, were to be safeguarded secrets, but Wright calls out the issues surrounding this perspective, insisting we need to set a standard language and data structure that everyone follows and which can be easily shared. Proper safety would be put in place to keep everyone’s data secure. Wright refers to this and digitization as spec management.
He said, “I firmly believe in an open API world where everybody's sharing data and nobody's really worried about what system it's on and we provision to protect that data however you want to be protected. I firmly believe if everybody's data is on the same language, provisioned correctly, and shared appropriately in this room, we could do some amazing things quickly.”
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Don’t build tech in a silo
Companies struggle to communicate among different languages—for proper spec management, the industry must develop a data stream that computers and technology will understand. One reason systems have not worked in the past is because the individuals creating the data streams did not understand how things come to market, how computers interact, and/or the language of the future. It is essential to hire the world’s best technologists and industrialists to build industrial technology in the form of advisory boards.
The technology needs to be built to fit what technology looks for in the future and cannot be built in a silo. A company Wright talked with a few years back said they had put a lot of manpower, time, and energy into building a phenomenal system that worked really well for corrugated. But they didn’t see clamshells coming in the near future, which rendered their system useless.
“You have to break the data down to the raw level of product, the DNA level of product. And then you have to build that back up to create finished product. If you don't do that and you jump to the end, just try to manage the bomb, you are never going to get anywhere. It's just not going to help you with all the challenges we have today,” said Wright.
Referring to the pandemic, Wright suggested that a data structure that allows companies to quickly and easily see when problems in the world occur and what areas of the supply chain are affected through instant alerts would save companies not only the time it takes to chase down data but also reduce the kinds of monetary losses that ensued during 2020 and 2021. This kind of system could also provide the data structures needed to share with global partners and other pertinent parties.
Wright calls this process of progression the ‘upgrade cycle,’ which demands change when the previous way of working is no longer sustainable. Our current upgrade cycle is in industrial technology and the legacy systems that have been used to collect data—such as email, spreadsheets, PDFs, file cabinets, etc.—are not sustainable when talking about digitization. Yet all the millions of specs coming from this legacy system must be digitized so that they can be incorporated into that shareable, open API system. Companies can pick a system or partner to help with this digital transformation—only ensure the system is fluid and user-friendly. A good data structure, building data for the future, will enable 3D modeling, 3D digitization, and 3D PDF style specification.
Convincing those at the top
The concept of the upgrade cycle can help champions appeal to departments and partners, explaining the importance of taking this next step in data management. “You have to get everyone believing,” said Wright. The world can’t remain driving a horse and buggy, as Wright explained, but you have to convince the ones driving buggies that the automobile, though new and different, is the better way.
Wright reports that more and more departments are willing to help and jump on board, including the executive level managers (C-suite), and the likely inducer is the Covid-19 pandemic, when it caused failure upon failure within the supply chain. But with proper spec management, company’s outcomes can be changed. Specright specializes in helping companies with this shift for best results.
Methods to convince your company to invest in the upgrade cycle:
- In the midst of a massive failure event, a champion in the company takes initiative and promotes a method to the C-suite that will avoid such a failure in the future.
- The viral community effect, where companies jump on board as they see other companies take the leap.
- Companies choose to adopt the data structure they’re getting from their partners as they see its efficiency and worth.
“But I think you have to have a champion,” said Wright. “Every one of our hundreds of customers started with a champion that believed that they had to digitize and then picked one of those three routes to take it.” To become the change agent, or champion, in one’s company, Wright suggests first learning all they can about digitization and futureproof spec data management systems, then conversing with successful champions from other companies. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to starting the conversation within a company, but learning from successful stories will set a champion up for their own success.
Sustainability and SKU proliferation within spec management
Though sustainability may have taken a backseat during the pandemic, it is roaring back and with it will come an increase in regulations. Wright explained that companies cannot truly be sustainable unless they know what they have, which requires proper data management and this will further enable sustainability goals to be more easily achieved on time.
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Wright further emphasizes that sustainability is not an event, but a continuum. We cannot know how sustainability will be defined in coming years and the rules may change dramatically as methods to dispose of or recreate products shifts. The industry must have the data to keep up with the rapid changes that could and will come.
The same is applicable to the proliferation of SKUs, which should not be looked at as an event or a project. A near decade ago, Kellogg’s and other companies began addressing SKUzilla, the over-proliferation, trying to consolidate SKUs as they were negatively impacting the bottom line and supply chain partners. However, Wright reports that there are more SKUs today than there were back when SKUzilla was first addressed. When seen as less of a project and more of a continuum, companies can begin to think of how the issue of SKU increase can be managed automatically.
“The reduction of SKUs and data is critical and you can do it,” said Wright.
The amount of duplicate data slows the speed to market. Wright reports that companies coming to Specright with 50,000 specs, in reality have ten useful specs. A current customer with 600,000 will probably have a hundred.
“Ultimately going forward, the two worlds of product and package have to be connected and they have to be connected through data and you have to be connected with your partners, that data stream. I don't think we can stop and hide from this anymore. I think we have to go through the difficulty of digitization, get to the other side and do amazing things,” said Wright.
Specright offers a number of resources for the future of supply chain and other pertinent topics, including a book and audiobook.