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Tech can’t prevent the next ‘bomb cyclone,’ but it can help businesses survive it

Innovations like “digital twins,” predictive analytics and blockchain can help companies prepare for and react to severe weather events.

A mail delivery person pulls a cart through the snow
A giant winter “bomb cyclone” walloped the U.S. East Coast on Thursday with freezing cold and heavy snow, forcing thousands of flight cancellations and widespread school closures — and even prompting the U.S. Senate to cancel votes for the rest of the week
Angela Weiss / AFP / Getty Images

This is a contributed article by Tanja Rueckert, president of the Business Unit IoT and Digital Supply Chain at SAP. All opinions expressed are her own.

Bad weather events like the September hurricanes in the Atlantic, August thunderstorms that flooded Germany, Spain and Poland, and today’s historic “cyclone bomb” hitting the East Coast of the U.S. aren’t preventable. They never will be. But the business impact of future storms may be more manageable based on innovations in digital technologies ranging from IoT to digital twins to predictive analytics and blockchain.

Here’s one all-too-common scenario: A storm is bearing down on a production facility in the tropics. Winds are howling, trees are falling and you’re thousands of kilometers away wondering if your employees are safe and hoping your company’s building will hold up. The storm is too fierce to send workers out to check the structural integrity or repair minor damage that could amount to major consequences. Up until recently, the best you could do is cross your fingers and hope for the best.

The same scenario in the future could look very different. Connected sensors placed in key spots can track weather conditions and measure structural and performance stresses. Engineers in safer locations monitor a separate set of digital sensors that are performing mathematical calculations on a “digital twin” of your assets created in the cloud. If you sense potential warning signs on the digital twin, you can re-route trucks to another center in the region that’s not getting hit as hard by the weather.

As digital replicas of physical assets that integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning with data, digital twins create living digital simulation models that update and change as their physical counterparts change. A digital twin continuously learns and updates itself from multiple sources to represent its near-real-time status, and can predict and prevent downtimes.

This may sound futuristic, but scenarios like this are starting to play out. Companies are using digital twins to monitor conditions surrounding the operation of things like wind turbines, offshore vessels and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

In one case, the operators of a remote wind farm in Havoysund, Norway, use real-time data from sensors that continuously reflect and represent the physical reality, replacing the need for physical inspections with digital inspections of the turbines. That helps because, as you can imagine, inspecting 400-foot-high turbines can be a challenge in a sub-zero climate with 100 mph winds and long pitch-dark nights many months of the year.

In the future, it’s easy to imagine a world where advanced technologies play key roles in making companies’ supply chains more nimble. Digital twins, powered by virtual sensors, can help retailers and distributors the same way they can help turbine operators: Giving them enough extended forecasts and visibility, to change plans to react to severe weather. But it doesn’t stop there.

Retailers and distributors are already doing some of this. They plan for regional climate fluctuations — timing their deliveries of snow shovels in the north and on the East Coast before the winter storms hit, or shipments of sunscreen before temperatures rise in the summer. Their models are largely based on trailing data and historical sales by geography.

But the future involves combining trailing weather data and IoT sensor readings into predictive models to know precisely when to change tactics. In this model, for example, distributors of drinking water can get more accurate readings on when and where to increase shipments to ensure that a region is covered in the event of a flood. Home improvement stores can stock more supplies when storm severity levels rise.

Blockchain can also play a role in mitigating bad-weather disasters. The technology is quickly becoming a more viable option for streamlining and validating transactions. In extreme weather conditions, blockchain provides a fail-safe service, creating a permanent record of transactions that are secure and transparent to participants on the chain. Stakeholders would be able to access information on payments, deliveries and financial markets regardless of location and physical damage of legacy systems.

And when the storm is over, blockchain can create more secure and efficient transactions to re-route and manage global shipments or streamline complex logistical processes. Removing these complexities provides a greater likelihood that goods and services are sent faster to people in need.

Bad weather is inevitable and, sadly, it will cause damage; history tells us that, year after year. Technology can’t erase weather-related threats. But used creatively, adding more data to better predictive techniques, it can help companies prepare and react to what Mother Nature sends our way.

Tanja Rueckert is president of the Business Unit IoT and Digital Supply Chain at SAP. She manages a global team with main hubs in the U.S., China, India and Germany, and has end-to-end responsibility for all SAP solutions and go-to-market in the areas of manufacturing, supply-chain management, connected logistics, asset management and the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0. Rueckert joined SAP in 1997 and has worked on many strategic customer projects, held leadership roles in management and was the COO of HR and Products & Innovation board areas. She is also vice chair at the Industrial Internet Consortium, a board member at Muenchner Kreis and a council member at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Reach her @RueckertTanja.

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