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Durban tech gets sunlight

When you think of Durban, you think of sandy beaches, surfers and good curry. But there is much more as LIRON SEGEV finds out when chatting to ADAM SHAPIRO, CEO of Autopilot Workflow Solution.

Adam Shapiro CEO of Autopilot Workflow solutions, a Durban based tech company says that “It’s actually a lot more active – and relevant – than some people think. Consultants are generally surprised when they come to Durban and see the level of tech that is produced in Durban.”

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Recognising that Small and Medium businesses are the future of the SA economy, Adam and his business partner Hannes Bantjes founded Autopilot Workflow Solutions  to help business owners manage staff and their time  “running a small business is a tough gig, business’s need to “do what they do” but also handle the admin of running their business. As business owners we know that time is such a precious commodity for entrepreneurs, that’s when things fall through the cracks”.

So what is the Durban tech scene like and what problems does Autopilot solve? Adam shares his views in CliffCentral.com:

What are the challenges in the Durban market?

  • Budget: When I say budget I refer to budget for companies to purchase software products and services, but there is also a serious lack of venture capital companies or Angel Funders.
  • Staff: There is a critical shortage of GOOD software developers in SA and even more so in Durban. Finding great staff is hard and the competition to keep them is fierce. We can’t always compete on price, but we sure can compete on lifestyle, Durban must have one of the most incredible climates in the world, that along with the lack of traffic and the Indian Ocean makes up for a lot of its shortcomings.
  • Trends: Keeping up with the trends. Tech is always changing and we need to be ahead of the game all the time.

Can you give a few examples of Durban based companies?

For a start there are plenty of significant HQs in Durban Mr Price, Toyota, Unilever, Derivco (with globally used tech), SA Home Loans, and Tongaat Hulett.

But to me its super exciting to see the number of hubs, co-work locations and industry talks being adopted here. This is drawing the tech community together, and spawning a number of Durban based tech companies.

Some examples of great tech companies are:

  • UX Foundry Is another company with a similar history to Autopilot. They started their lives as a user experience consultancy that also built custom solutions for clients. They soon realised that the real opportunity is in owned platforms and products and saw instant messaging for business as a big opportunity. The developed X&Go which has has become a platform for creating custom instant messaging apps for businesses.
  • Sage Alchemex Alchemex started in a garage in Durban in 2001 with 3 employees/founders. Alchemex provides affordable, innovative and powerful business reporting software. In 2011 Alchemex was acquired by the Sage Group. They now have over 60 employees and delivering reporting solutions globally.
  • No logo Studios That product is called MyBonsela , Influencing the path-to-purchase from the manufacturer to incentivise sales people with direct, cash based rewards for sales and other soft rewards, like follow ups, presentation, professionalism.
  • ShipScene is a real-time vessel tracking system with 9 UHF receivers along the coast of South African and up to Ghana, with agreements with other providers to swap data internationally. The system processes about 23 million records a day and is built 100% from the ground up by Durban tech companies over the last few years and is hosted within the city of Durban. It’s mostly used by Lawyers (for ships who owe money internationally) and logistics / chandelling companies who use it to be alerted when a vessel has arrived in a harbour or zone or even a custom GPS point. The system sends out daily reports to hundreds of users with a detailed breakdown of every vessel movement in every port in our country in the last 24 hours.

Does the Durban dev community get together and share ideas etc?

Yes, there are are many initiatives happening in Durban to share and collaborate such as:

  • Code Retreat – Code retreat is a day-long, intensive practice event, focusing on the fundamentals of software development and design.  Instruct is a series of lectures and presentations hosted by Chris Tite an entrepreneur and software architect from Kalidecode.
  • Lean Coffee – Durban software developers love to attend events but are hesitant to present or contribute at these events. This means you end up having a few people driving the events and the rest of the community casually tagging along. We’ve started to introduce new event formats, such as Lean Coffee, that are more informal and involve group discussions rather than one person giving a presentation.
  • Dev2  Developer evenings are held every quarter, they have 4 presenters who cover technically interesting topics. There is generally a good turnout of about 100-150 developers . Participants range from entrepreneurs to hard core geeks.
  • DUT Symposium on Web, Mobile & Software Development Technologies September 2015

You provide workflow and automation how did you come up with that?

Back in 2001, just off the back of the .com bubble (and bust), myself and my Autopilot co-founder Hannes Bantjes started our first venture, pilotfish. Back then we were a small software development company that found ourselves building more and more bespoke / custom workflow solutions to solve business automation needs.

As more and more businesses took their admin and production related tasks online, they started having to deal with a greater amount of digital systems, which all need to ‘talk’ to each other and traffic information between the programs and the people involved. This become our niche for the decade up to 2013. With our specialist experience in the workflow solutions market we began to identify a need for a leaner, self-setup product that was accessible to more types of businesses.

We searched high and low for workflow products that catered for small businesses, but could not find anything amazing. The products in the market were either too basic, and that ranged from email, Excel and pieces of paper to the complex (i.e expensive system that takes technical and analysis consultants ages to implement and costs a fortune).

In 2013 we took the leap to make that a reality, and started formulating both Autopilot the business and Autopilot the product to bring the big value of process automation to more types and sizes of businesses. It’s particularly appropriate in SA’s initiative to grow the economy via SME successes. Workflow automation can fundamentally help businesses operate more effectively which gives them a greater chance of growing and succeeding.

What problem does Autopilot solve?

  • HIGH-LEVEL – helping SME’s to succeed (tackling an aspect in that goal)
  • We realise that it’s tough to start up a business finance, market, sales
  • But we can’t help once they have started we can help, Scheduling, debtors, birds eye view

We have seen so many small business owners chasing down indecipherable email trails to get to the root of problems or sorting through piles of paper or different computer files and folders to track down invoices, orders or delivery notes. If business practices are erratic and inefficient, you spend too much time, which is money, fighting the chaos in front of your nose instead of spending the time looking at strategic things – planning ahead and improving the way you operate. Important issues can fall through the through the cracks, this can be overcome with the use of a good system.

We provide a number of common templates that can be customised for your particular business. The solution has complex intelligence under the hood, but is user friendly for the small business owner who might not be a computer whizz.

Being cloud based means no more expensive on-site software, custom hardware requirements or costly user licenses, no hassling with software maintenance and upgrades and no need to be on the office network to access business data. Autopilot works across internet-connected devices, so you can analyse and act on your business activities wherever you are. Rapidly review what’s happening and what needs attention, and have peace of mind that things are going according to plan without hand-holding and nothing is slipping through the cracks.It’s not just about task management as you will find with many other online tools.

· Effective collaboration around business data, regardless of location

· Reducing typical workforce and task management problems, which affords less hand-holding, micro-managing, and the need to be in-office ‘checking and chasing’.

· Reducing wasted time and effort in business functions, so that owners and managers can get back time to focus on strategic matters, so, if they need to go up to Jhb (or anywhere) for face to face business meetings, they actually have the time to do that.

What technology have you used to build Autopilot?

We built Autopilot on the Microsoft stack, HTML5, SQL database and hosed on the Azure platform. We are on the Microsoft Bizspark program which has been an incredible opportunity for us. Microsoft are really making a huge difference to start-ups like Autopilot not only for a software point of view, but also for mentoring and the provision of business skills.

How much does Autopilot cost?

We have taken the fact that SMME’ can’t afford the sophisticated and expensive high-end solutions that many larger companies use to streamline the flow of data through the business, and have charged accordingly, our pricing model is either R180 per user per month for unlimited workflows or R90 per user per month and R2 per workflow. There are no set up costs if you use our existing templates. There are also no long term contract, so if you are not happy with our product, you are free to leave at the end of the month, fortunately that has never happened.

What is your ideal customer?

Our ideal customer is a business with between 10 and 50 employees which is often a challenge because many small businesses think workflows – and workflow solutions – are only appropriate for larger companies and enterprises. Changing this perception is core to our mission.

We are talking to business owners and managers about solving their headaches. We are giving managers and business owners a bird’s eye view of what’s going on – a dashboard and operational overview rather than having to go from desk to desk.”

Any other target markets?

Yes, we also have a “Corporate Supplier pack” allows corporates to buy Autopilot licences for their suppliers or other SMME’s that they are mentoring or developing.

We see this as a big part of our business growth as it allows Corporates to obtain valuable Enterprise Development and Supplier points that count towards their BEE scorecard.

But also make a real measurable difference to emerging businesses in South Africa. The third “bonus” would be that interaction between the supplier and Corporate would improve, this would hopefully improve interaction between the corporate and the supplier.

How do you market your product?

So far, Autopilot has been marketed online via blogs and search engine optimisation. Word-of-mouth has also helped as has working closely with existing clients.

Our plan is to solidify things in Durban and then move out nationally before taking Autopilot overseas. Our vision is that, by the end of the year, we will have reached markets in the rest of Africa and begun to sell in the United States

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Now IBM’s Watson joins IoT revolution in agriculture

Global expansion of the Watson Decision Platform taps into AI, weather and IoT data to boost production

IBM has announced the global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture, with AI technology tailored for new crops and specific regions to help feed a growing population. For the first time, IBM is providing a global agriculture solution that combines predictive technology with data from The Weather Company, an IBM Business, and IoT data to help give farmers around the world greater insights about planning, ploughing, planting, spraying and harvesting.

By 2050, the world will need to feed two billion more people without an increase in arable land [1]. IBM is combining power weather data – including historical, current and forecast data and weather prediction models from The Weather Company – with crop models to help improve yield forecast accuracy, generate value, and increase both farm production and profitability.

Roric Paulman, owner/operator of Paulman Farms in Southwest Nebraska, said: “As a farmer, the wild card is always weather. IBM overlays weather details with my own data and historical information to help me apply, verify, and make decisions. For example, our farm is in a highly restricted water basin, so the ability to better anticipate rain not only saves me money but also helps me save precious natural resources.”

New crop models include corn, wheat, soy, cotton, sorghum, barley, sugar cane and potato, with more coming soon. These models will now be available in the Africa, U.S. Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, as well as new markets across Europe and Australia.

Kristen Lauria, general manager of Watson Media and Weather Solutions at IBM, said: “These days farmers don’t just farm food, they also cultivate data – from drones flying over fields to smart irrigation systems, and IoT sensors affixed to combines, seeders, sprayers and other equipment. Most of the time, this data is left on the vine — never analysed or used to derive insights. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture aims to change that by offering tools and solutions to help growers make more informed decisions about their crops.” 

The average farm generates an estimated 500,000 data points per day, which will grow to 4 million data points by 2036 [2]. Applying AI and analysis to aggregated field, machine and environmental data can help improve shared insights between growers and enterprises across the agriculture ecosystem. With a better view of the fields, growers can see what’s working on certain farms and share best practices with other farmers. The platform assesses data in an electronic field record to identify and communicate crop management patterns and insights. Enterprise businesses such as food companies, grain processors, or produce distributors can then work with farmers to leverage those insights. It helps track crop yield as well as the environmental, weather and plant biologic conditions that go into a good or bad yield, such as irrigation management, pest and disease risk analysis and cohort analysis for comparing similar subsets of fields.

The result isn’t just more productive farmers. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture could help a livestock company eliminate a certain mold or fungus from feed supply grains or help identify the best crop irrigation practices for farmers to use in drought-stricken areas like California. It could help deliver the perfect French fry for a fast food chain that needs longer – not fatter – potatoes from its network of growers. Or it could help a beer distributor produce a more affordable premium beer by growing higher quality barley that meets the standard required to become malting barley.

Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is built on IBM PAIRS Geoscope from IBM Research, which quickly processes massive, complex geospatial and time-based datasets collected by satellites, drones, aerial flights, millions of IoT sensors and weather models. It crunches large, complex data and creates insights quickly and easily so farmers and food companies can focus on growing crops for global communities.

IBM and The Weather Company help the agriculture industry find value in weather insights. IBM Research collaborates with start up Hello Tractor to integrate The Weather Company data, remote sensing data (e.g., satellite), and IoT data from tractors. IBM also works with crop nutrition leader Yara to include hyperlocal weather forecasts in its digital platform for real-time recommendations, tailored to specific fields or crops. IBM acquired The Weather Company in 2016 and has since been helping clients better understand and mitigate the cost of weather on their businesses. The global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is the latest innovation in IBM’s efforts to make weather a more predictable business consideration. Also just announced, Weather Signals is a new AI-based tool that merges The Weather Company data with a company’s own operations data to reveal how minor fluctuations in weather affects business.

The combination of rich weather forecast data from The Weather Company and IBM’s AI and Cloud technologies is designed to provide a unique capability, which is being leveraged by agriculture, energy and utility companies, airlines, retailers and many others to make informed business decisions.

[1] The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision”

[2] Business Insider Intelligence, 2016 report: https://www.businessinsider.com/internet-of-things-smart-agriculture-2016-10


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What if Amazon used AI to take on factories?

By ANTONY BOURNE, IFS Global Industry Director for Manufacturing

Amazon recently announced record profits of $3.03bn, breaking its own record for the third consecutive time. However, Amazon appears to be at a crossroads as to where it heads next. Beyond pouring additional energy into Amazon Prime, many have wondered whether the company may decide to enter an entirely new sector such as manufacturing to drive future growth, after all, it seems a logical step for the company with its finger in so many pies.

At this point, it is unclear whether Amazon would truly ‘get its hands dirty’ by manufacturing its own products on a grand scale. But what if it did? It’s worth exploring this reality. What if Amazon did decide to move into manufacturing, a sector dominated by traditional firms and one that is yet to see an explosive tech rival enter? After all, many similarly positioned tech giants have stuck to providing data analytics services or consulting to these firms rather than genuinely engaging with and analysing manufacturing techniques directly.

If Amazon did factories

If Amazon decided to take a step into manufacturing, it is likely that they could use the Echo range as a template of what AI can achieve. In recent years,Amazon gained expertise on the way to designing its Echo home speaker range that features Alexa, an artificial intelligence and IoT-based digital assistant.Amazon could replicate a similar form with the deployment of AI and Industrial IoT (IIoT) to create an autonomously-run smart manufacturing plant. Such a plant could feature IIoT sensors to enable the machinery to be run remotely and self-aware; managing external inputs and outputs such as supply deliveries and the shipping of finished goods. Just-in-time logistics would remove the need for warehousing while other machines could be placed in charge of maintenance using AI and remote access. Through this, Amazon could radically reduce the need for human labour and interaction in manufacturing as the use of AI, IIoT and data analytics will leave only the human role for monitoring and strategic evaluation. Amazon has been using autonomous robots in their logistics and distribution centres since 2017. As demonstrated with the Echo range, this technology is available now, with the full capabilities of Blockchain and 5G soon to be realised and allowing an exponentially-increased amount of data to be received, processed and communicated.

Manufacturing with knowledge

Theorising what Amazon’s manufacturing debut would look like provides a stark learning opportunity for traditional manufacturers. After all, wheneverAmazon has entered the fray in other traditional industries such as retail and logistics, the sector has never remained the same again. The key takeaway for manufacturers is that now is the time to start leveraging the sort of technologies and approaches to data management that Amazon is already doing in its current operations. When thinking about how to implement AI and new technologies in existing environments, specific end-business goals and targets must be considered, or else the end result will fail to live up to the most optimistic of expectations. As with any target and goal, the more targeted your objectives, the more competitive and transformative your results. Once specific targets and deliverables have been considered, the resources and methods of implementation must also be considered. As Amazon did with early automation of their distribution and logistics centres, manufacturers need to implement change gradually and be focused on achieving small and incremental results that will generate wider momentum and the appetite to lead more expansive changes.

In implementing newer technologies, manufacturers need to bear in mind two fundamental aspects of implementation: software and hardware solutions. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, which is increasingly bolstered by AI, will enable manufacturers to leverage the data from connected IoT devices, sensors, and automated systems from the factory floor and the wider business. ERP software will be the key to making strategic decisions and executing routine operational tasks more efficiently. This will allow manufacturers to keep on top of trends and deliver real-time forecasting and spot any potential problems before they impact the wider business.

As for the hardware, stock management drones and sensor-embedded hardware will be the eyes through which manufacturers view the impact emerging technologies bring to their operations. Unlike manual stock audits and counting, drones with AI capabilities can monitor stock intelligently around production so that operations are not disrupted or halted. Manufacturers will be able to see what is working, what is going wrong, and where there is potential for further improvement and change.

Knowledge for manufacturing

For many traditional manufacturers, they may see Amazon as a looming threat, and smart-factory technologies such as AI and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as a far off utopia. However, 2019 presents a perfect opportunity for manufacturers themselves to really determine how the tech giants and emerging technologies will affect the industry. Technologies such as AI and IoT are available today; and the full benefits of these technologies will only deepen as they are implemented alongside the maturing of other emerging technologies such as 5G and Blockchain in the next 3-5 years. Manufacturers need to analyse the needs which these technologies can address and produce a proper plan on how to gradually implement these technologies to address specific targets and deliverables. AI-based software and hardware solutions will fundamentally revolutionise manufacturing, yet for 2019, manufacturers just have to be willing to make the first steps in modernisation.

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