The Wall Street Journal recently announced the list of winners for its 2012 Technology Innovation Awards. Scott D. Anthony, managing director at Innosight Ventures and one of the judges for the awards, told the Journal's John M. Leger, "It is heartening to see that innovators around the world are doing more than coming up with mindless games and other ways for people to provide second-by-second updates of all the wonderful things they are doing in their lives." ["Technology Innovation Awards," 16 October 2012] Leger reports that among the innovations recognized this year were: "Treatment for tuberculosis in India. A thermostat that programs itself. A lifting device that could help cut workplace injuries. [And] a tsunami barrier that automatically deploys when destructive waves approach." Although Anthony's comments would lead one to believe that the big prizes were going to be awarded to innovations outside the IT sector, the fact is the Gold and Silver awards went to IT innovations. "Printechnologics of Germany won the Gold for a technology that creates printed codes that transport users to online information, deals or services instantly" and "creating a data-storage system that uses flash memory instead of disk drives to hold information in corporate data centers gave Pure Storage the Silver."
Using mobile devices to connect to the Internet is nothing new. Stephan Dörner notes that one such technology is "QR codes, those bar codes that have become common in advertising, marketing and retailing. With a click of your smartphone camera, they link you to online information, deals or services related to the product or promotion they appear on." ["A Simpler Way to Connect the Physical With the Virtual," Wall Street Journal, 16 October 2012] So, you might be asking yourself, why would another technology that links the real world to the virtual world win the gold prize? Dörner explains:
"Printechnologics GmbH of Chemnitz, Germany, ... makes that kind of connection even simpler. The technology, called Touchcode, enables publishers, consumer-product companies, event promoters and others to include invisible codes on printed items that can be read instantly on any device with a touch screen. The codes can link to videos, games, recipes or just about any other online feature; a concert ticket printed with Touchcode could take you to a clip of the performer singing, for instance. The technology has a couple of advantages over QR codes, chiefly its simplicity. A user only needs to place the printed item on the screen of a tablet or smartphone—or place the screen on the item—and the invisible code immediately connects to the online content. No need to summon your device's camera and snap a shot of a bar code."
The only obvious challenge associated with an "invisible" code is that you have to know it's there. Ease of use, however, is not the primary reason that the technology won the gold prize. Security is an even bigger benefit. Dörner explains:
"Touchcode ... has another edge over QR codes: security. For one thing, the black-and-white patterns of a QR code are easy to reproduce by photocopying, which can be a problem for codes that are used to make payments—for instance, a technology similar to QR codes is used on train tickets in Germany, so ID is required to prevent fraud. Since Touchcodes are invisible, that's not an issue for them. Also, QR codes can be used by scammers to direct you to websites that will plant malicious software on your mobile device—what seems to be a discount voucher from a well-known brand, for instance, can lead the user into trouble. Touchcode foils that kind of attack because all the content that it links users to sits on Printechnologics servers, so users can't be misdirected on the Web. Touchcode also is cheaper than radio frequency identification, or RFID, codes, which are used for some of the same purposes as QR codes."
This last characteristic should get the attention of supply chain professionals. One of the historical challenges associated with RFID tags has been cost. Even though costs have been coming down, RFID tags are still relatively expensive. Sascha Voigt, Printechnologics' founder and chief executive, told Dörner, "We are positioning ourselves between pricey RFID chips and QR codes." Printechnologics' breakthrough was devising "a way to print codes using a material that can be recognized by multitouch screens much in the same way that the screens can be triggered by human fingers." If it pans out, the technology could have a real impact on supply chain operations and inventory control.
The technology that won the Silver Award could also have an impact on the supply chain since it involves the storage of data. Michael Totty reports, "Pure Storage Inc. won the Silver award for a data-storage system that uses flash memory instead of disk drives to hold information in corporate data centers." ["Alternative to Disk Storage," Wall Street Journal, 16 October 2012] Totty reports that the reason that Pure Storage was recognized is because it "solved the biggest obstacle to greater adoption by companies of so-called solid-state storage, which stores data electronically instead of on disks: its high cost." Pure storage was able to accomplish this feat "by using lower-cost flash memory chips, combined with its own software that both improves the performance of the chips and squeezes in more data." Totty continues:
"As a result, Pure says, its FlashArray storage systems cost roughly the same as comparable disk storage, while delivering flash's greater speed and efficiency. 'It could be a game changer in enterprise storage,' says Meera Sampath, an Innovation Awards judge and director of Xerox Research Centre India. ... Most enterprises, however, still rely on mechanical disk drives to store information in their data centers. But improvements in disk-based storage haven't kept up with the dramatic increases in processor and network speeds and other advances in the data center, creating a bottleneck for data-intensive applications."
If, as most analysts assert, we are entering the era of big data, then follows that improvements in storage and retrieval are essential for faster access which, in turn, allows for better use of that data. Totty concludes:
"Pure says its FlashArray storage systems can sell for roughly the same as comparable disk storage, while delivering 10 times faster speeds, taking up one-tenth the space and using one-tenth the energy. That means companies can run complicated data-analytics programs more quickly and on larger databases than is possible with disk or hybrid storage systems. It can also help companies handle the complexities of 'bring your own devices' policies, which rely on so-called virtual-desktop systems that put severe stress on disk-based storage."
The touted energy savings alone would make Pure Storage's system a game changer for many companies. Other technology innovations that could have an impact on supply chains that were recognized by the Journal include:
- "A simple origami-like apparatus that fits to the back of most tractor-trailers, reducing drag and improving fuel efficiency by 6%." The apparatus was developed by ATDynamics, Inc.
- "A lifting device that is small and light enough to be stowed in the back of a delivery truck, but is able to raise up to 500 pounds from the floor to the height of a counter." The Lift'n Buddy was developed by Ergologistics, LLC.
- A "Lightfinder technology, which makes it possible for digital cameras to capture detailed images at night -- in color -- without additional lighting." This technology, developed by Axis Communications, could be a real boost to physical security.
At a time when it seems that the only news is bad news, it's good to read about innovations that hold the promise of improving lives, saving energy, and making business processes more efficient. Read the entire list of recognized innovations and it will restore a bit of optimism in your life.