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Nitin Manoharan, PMI: How blockchain, AI and IoT can converge to transform FMCG

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For Nitin Manoharan (left), IT director at Philip Morris International (PMI), there is a simple epithet for dealing with emerging technologies. “The trend is your friend at the end,” he explains. “You need to make sure that you are riding the trend and not going against it.”

Of course, it is not quite as simple as that. Manoharan’s role at PMI is, as he puts it, two-fold; help introduce technology-led innovation within the company – essentially part of a futurist role, looking at emerging tech trends such as blockchain, AI, IoT and big data – and then explore how the IT group can leverage it to transform PMI’s existing business capabilities such as supply chain or customer engagement through the evolution of its enterprise platform ecosystems.

From a wider perspective, PMI’s mission statement is simple. Like other responsible members of its industry, the future is a smoke-free one. “We will be far more than a leading cigarette company,” the company writes. “We’re building PMI’s future on smoke-free products that are a much better choice than cigarette smoking for adult smokers who do not choose to quit smoking. Society expects us to act responsibly. And we are doing just that by designing a smoke-free future.”

Technological innovation is evidently going to form a significant part of this future state. Take an initiative announced in December between PMI and E2pen, a cloud software provider, aimed at streamlining the supply chain for smoke-free products.

In all, Manoharan’s team monitors somewhere in the region of 24 emerging technologies and assesses both their technical potential and business impact. Blockchain has been on the company’s radar for more than two years. “First of all [we] look at it on a theoretical level to see which other potential use cases we can generate using blockchain or a combination of blockchain and other emerging technologies,” he says. “And then [if] we see that there is some value then we go into the next phase, which is ‘let’s try and pilot using blockchain and some of the other technologies.’

“At the end of the experimentation process, if we and some of our business stakeholders believe that there is an opportunity to really create value or capture value, then we try and scale it out or we industrialise it,” adds Manoharan.

The aspect of blockchain in combination with the likes of the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence is a vital one. “Most of these emerging technologies, in isolation, have limited value,” admits Manoharan.

“A simple example over here is we would like to know on real-time where our trucks are. “Here the combination of emerging technologies come into play,” he adds. “You need to have sensors and actuators on your trucks, driven through an IoT platform, and then you need to capture the data and potentially handle the data on a blockchain, and then you analyse the data on a big data platform, finally presenting the data in a very intuitive way to the end user.

“There are multiple trends and dimensions. You need a strategy that leverages all these trends which will give companies a differentiating and sustaining competitive advantage”

“Of course, you can build layers of intelligence within the data itself so you can come up with the ML-based predictive models to either warn the end user that the truck is going to be delayed, a potential theft [may] be in progress, and so on.”

Blockchain transforming the supply chain remains one of the strongest examples of how technology will influence the industry. For FMCG, of which PMI is, of course, is a part, there is a mix – the ‘C’ in FMCG – of both business and consumer. Almost every technology gains traction through initial consumer interest before the enterprise catches up. Is it the same with blockchain?

An excellent way to look at it is as a “confluence of trends,” Manoharan argues. “Some of the trends [are] on the consumer side – basically people getting more and more used to social media, and being guided by what social influencers are saying, and getting used to very tailored services, much more consumer-centric than it used to be. For that, industries and companies need to know a lot more about their customers. FMCG industries need to design the products [and] design the experience around these changing consumer behaviours.

“Then you connect it what is happening within the trends in the industry value chain, for example – is the value chain getting more fragmented, less fragmented? How does the introduction of automation impact the economics – cost, suppliers – of the industry value chain? For instance are we able to produce more customised products in smaller batches at an attractive cost point?” adds Manoharan. “Finally, link it to the key enabling emerging technology trends and evaluate how these can be key enablers.

“There are multiple trends and multiple dimensions, and you need to come up with a strategy that leverages all these trends that will give companies a differentiating and sustaining competitive advantage.”

Manoharan is speaking at Blockchain Expo Global, on April 25-26, on this very confluence. His session, titled ‘How Blockchain Could Create Enterprise Value In The Manufacturing And Fast Consumer Goods Sectors’, will focus on a deep dive on specific use cases within the industry that are a good fit for blockchain. The advice for those looking to get the most out of any thought leadership is simple: do plenty of research.

“There’s always new buzzwords,” he says. “As the industry evolves, technology strategists’ function is to be able to observe and carefully identify the true proposition of [the] technology. It should be carefully assessed, [but] at the same time we shouldn’t be so risk-averse that we are paralysed with analysis.

“This is why it’s important to identify use cases which will help with the thinking,” adds Manoharan. “Only by genuinely testing [the technology], probing it and experimenting it will you be able to truly understand whether the technology has got value creation potential or not.

“By following such a rigorous approach, we have unlocked hundreds of millions of dollars in value!”

Interested in hearing more in person? Find out more at the Blockchain Expo World Series, Global, Europe and North America.

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