As part of our series exploring the so-called “fourth industrial revolution,” we spoke with Collin Moore, Director of Open Innovation Studio and Strategic Innovation at Avery Dennison, the global label, adhesive, printing, and RFID technology company, to discuss his perspectives on 4IR technologies.
Moore covered how his team scouts for relevant technologies; explained what Avery Dennison has implemented; and offered advice for companies looking to use technology to enhance their business models and offerings.
Q: Tell me about your role, and what you oversee at Avery Dennison.
A: I am the Director of the Open Innovation Studio and Strategic Innovation at Avery Dennison. So what does all that mean? What it means is, we help provide a discovery engine and an outside lens for our organization, both to find solutions for needs that we have looking outward, but also to keep line-of-sight to potential disruptions to our business as it stands, as well as opportunities out there based on particular megatrends we see.
Q: The term ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ is very new. When you hear that term, what would you say that means, and what does that encompass?
A: I have to admit, I don’t get terribly hung up on the details as to how we define things. … Many of the things that I’ve heard in that space speak to one major push, and that’s eliminating a lot of these repetitive tasks that don’t necessarily benefit from a human being doing them.
Things like generative design, artificial intelligence, [and] machine learning could be wonderful tools — when coupled with things like robotics and 3d printing — for prototyping. [That could] really advance fields where, before, we were restricted by the number of batches you can run…or how long it takes you to build a prototype.
This technology is advancing things like materials science, design, [and] healthcare at a speed that we’ve just never seen before, and that’s what excites me about it. Also, it frees people up to do a lot more creative work.
We help provide a discovery engine and an outside lens for our organization, both to find solutions for needs that we have looking outward, but also to keep line-of-sight to potential disruptions to our business as it stands…
Q: Are there any examples of some of this fourth industrial revolution technology that you’ve seen starting to have an impact at Avery Dennison?
A: We’re a company that is largely a manufacturing and materials company, so it’s very difficult to get the business to think a little bit outside of that. But in addition to our labels space, we have a business called the retail branding and information solutions group (RBIS). That team is pretty much the world’s largest provider of digital identity, whether that be something like a QR code, or RFID and NFC tags — these are those radio frequency tools that, for example, when you tap your phone on something, it reads it.
One of our executives once said, “Look, we’re the world’s largest label provider. We literally touch almost everything you touch. If we were to give each of those objects a digital identity, what might the world look like?” And so we spent a lot of time trying to imagine and visualize that world.
We came to the conclusion that this could be a really big business opportunity for us. And by way of executing on it, we created a business called atma.io. … What it does is [tries] to encompass the essence of an object by tying that object to the ether. That might be a blockchain; it could be a database; it could be anything. [We spent time thinking about] exploiting that connection of every object to the internet, and then figuring out how that could add either a new consumer experience, or provide very valuable information.
That’s one example of how we’ve taken something that starts with a physical object and then takes us into this very new digital transformation space.
Q: What is your technology scouting process? And how do you experiment and forge a new path forward in that 4IR space?
A: I think it’s important that technology scouting not just be a list of stuff. I’ve found outside vendors and individuals who, you ask them to do some technology scouting, you get a list of stuff. While that’s interesting, that really needs to be distilled down from information to some real understanding. We actually have an official role of technology scouting. What I’m really looking for is for all that information to be distilled down into some key categories, and features and benefits of those categories when we explore a space.
I’ve found outside vendors and individuals who, you ask them to do some technology scouting, you get a list of stuff.
What we would start doing is finding a space of interest, and thoroughly scouting that … “Here are the technologies in the space, and this is what they mean to the business.”From that, we go through the process of forming some basic hypotheses. These could be technical hypotheses [or business hypotheses] — it’s really a very experimental approach. … From that, we try to formulate some experiments to test out both business hypotheses and also the technical hypotheses.
It’s an iterative process, where we discover and then go through a cyclical de-risking process, where at the end of each cycle, we decide, “Okay, we have enough to say launch this technology.” Maybe we form a startup; maybe we form a joint venture; maybe we launch it within a regional business unit; maybe we decide to shelve it.
In order to do that, we have three main roles in my group. One is the tech scout proper, who spends their time really diving into this space and delivering these insights. One is a prototyping role, where the individual will help us to generate these quick prototypes that we can go out and test. And then one is more of a business development role for innovation, where they have to be able to translate all these new opportunities into things that really resonate with our business leaders, so we can get their buy-in and form a reasonable business model that we can convince ourselves is worthwhile.
Every time somebody in the organization sees an article about this, that, or the other thing, your inbox is flooded with it, because you’re the innovation person…
Q: What helps you filter out hype and noise when you’re scouting for relevant technologies?
A: It is incredibly difficult. Every time somebody in the organization sees an article about this, that, or the other thing, your inbox is flooded with it, because you’re the innovation person and, “Wow, you’ve got to check this out. You’ve got to check that out.” It can be pretty distracting.
The first bit of advice I would give is, don’t be distracted by the bauble. Don’t give into the hype right off. The second bit, I would say, is to be scientifically curious. Even if you’re a business person… be curious and don’t be lazy — really dive into the technology and figure out what it’s really good for, what it’s really not good for.
I tend to have a high snark quotient. I tend to get pretty snarky when people come in [saying], “Oh, this is a super cool thing,” and so just because of that, I dive right into it. I think blockchain is probably a good example. Blockchain has been around for a very, very long time and just recently has exploded. I think people jumped on that wagon — if you put blockchain in your startup description somewhere, you’d watch the value of it rise. And I don’t think that’s valuable for anybody. Blockchain is a very good technology, if you understand what it’s good for. You may be better off with a different technology — like just a database — depending on what your needs are as an organization.