I am writing from the MHI Annual Conference in Rancho Bernardo, California. This morning I attended a talk by Jim Rice from MIT on supply chain innovation. It was a thought provoking seminar that proposed a distinction between invention and innovation. He offered a definition of innovation that went something like, “combining existing technologies, processes, and information in new ways to deliver good and desirable outcomes.” The key—and I suppose slightly controversial—point is that innovation is a combination of existing things, rather than the creation of something new. He argues, for example, that the Kiva system is innovation rather than invention because the system is comprised of more or less already known technologies and processes.

Another point in his talk, following Christensen’s model of innovation, was to distinguish between sustaining and disruptive innovations. An easy illustration is the iPhone, which itself was a disruptive innovation; the fingerprint reading capability in the 5s was a sustaining innovation. One changes the game; the other continues the game.

Conceptual drawing of a Physical Internet hub
Conceptual drawing of a Physical Internet hub.

It occurred to me during the talk that another, higher class of innovation might be defined—call it platform innovation. Some innovations are more than disruptive—they serve as platforms for other disruptions in perhaps completely new areas. For example, the internet was a platform innovation in that it served as a platform for thousands of other disruptive innovations. The automobile could also be considered a platform innovation because it gave birth to the taxi industry, the racing industry, and even the logistics industry.

I contend that the Physical Internet (PI) would also be a platform innovation, should it come to pass, in that it provides a backbone of logistics services, processes, and information upon which one could easily imagine many new innovations arising. One of the slides in Ben Montreuil’s stump speech on the PI asks, what are the PI equivalents of Google, Yahoo, and Amazon?—all of which owe their existence to the platform innovation of the digital internet. In a PI world, it is easy to imagine that hundreds of new companies would spring up offering previously unimagined products and services, which is one reason the Physical Internet is so exciting to think about.

The flexconveyor module
The Flexconveyor by Gebhardt.

If the reader will indulge me, I believe the concept of plug and work material handling could also become a platform innovation someday.  The Flexconveyor and GridStore systems are just two manifestations of the simple idea that one ought to be able to plug material handling devices together in different configurations to perform different functions. I have long thought that new business models might spring up based on this kind of flexibility. For example, imagine a material handling rental company that delivers conveyor modules to customers just as they need them and then moves them elsewhere when the need expires (think seasonal distribution). Or how about trucks with self-organizing loads based on the GridStore architecture?

These developments will take time, of course. In the meantime there is much to do, both on the Physical Internet and on plug and work material handling.

One thought on “The Physical Internet as Platform Innovation

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