December 15th, 2015

How Stanley Black & Decker avoided 'pilot purgatory' in launching new tech projects that have saved it millions, and why it's making a broad call for partners with big new ideas (SWK)

2018 JacksonPlant ScreenShot_017_DM1Stanley Black & Decker

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Despite the massive investments across corporate American into deploying artificial intelligence, a recent study from MIT and Boston Consulting Group found that just 10% of companies say they have seen a significant financial benefit from embracing the technology. 

One of the main reasons for that is the difficulty in expanding efforts from pilot projects that are segmented to one team or sector, to enterprise-wide initiatives that are able to produce the major cost savings that companies are seeking.

It's a problem that Stanley Black & Decker's Mark Maybury and others refer to as "pilot purgatory" — and one he says he's being careful to avoid as the $28 billion tool and equipment manufacturer's first chief technology officer. 

"Our approach is always: what value does it create?," he said on Thursday at Business Insider's Global Trends Festival. "As a global manufacturer, we need the ability both in our distribution centers, as well as our factories, to ensure that we can scale rapidly up and rapidly down to changing consumer needs."

The company is in search of big, new ideas, too: This week, Stanley Black & Decker launched a new portal where inventors or developers can pitch their ideas and get feedback into whether it's something the firm is interested in or how the concept can be approved, Maybury revealed at the event.

"You can find a set of specific topics areas that each of our businesses...are looking to commercialize at scale," he said. "It can be patented or not patented, we can quickly give an assessment if it's something that's relevant."  

Stanley Black & Decker is looking for new tech with a measurable return on the investment

Mark MayburyStanley Black & DeckerMaybury says that he's looking to make sure that its technological investments will have some sort of positive, measurable return, which is an admittedly difficult task given the potential pitfalls and risks that come with the territory. But Stanley Black & Decker seems to have bucked the trend.

It saved tens of millions of dollars, for example, by deploying robotic process automation and tapping new predictive analytics tools, per Maybury. And in a stark example of the potential cost-cutting opportunities ahead of it, the company invested $200,000 to build a simulator of a revamped plant in Texas that would manufacture products from the newly-acquired Craftsman brand — a production line that Stanley Black & Decker brought back to America from China

Spending that cash up front ended up saving the company $2 million before the plant even opened because it was able to use the simulator to spot potential bottlenecks and come up with better, more efficient processes. 

"We want to be able to have something that is actually quickly going to be able to get to not just a solution, but a scalable solution," said Maybury. 

That's why the company is so eager to partner with any outside companies or firms who can come up with similarly innovative solutions that help achieve its goals.

"We have a very strong ecosystem," Maybury said, adding that Stanley Black & Decker works with dozens of  startups specializing in robotics, AI, RPA, and other emerging technology.

Reskilling workers to use new digital tools

Stanley Black & Decker has also invested heavily in reskilling its employees on new digital tools, part of an effort by Maybury to make sure that all the tech the company is using, like factory robots, can be operated by employees of all educational and operational backgrounds can use them.

"You want to be able to open up that potential tool to a whole broad set of employees," he said. 

On top of more common steps like enabling workers to tap online programs like Coursera, the company helped launch DeepHow — an educational platform that captures video of experts doing their jobs then uses AI to analyze the feed and segment it into tutorials for other employees. It has been so successful that other companies can now purchase DeepHow to use within their own organizations, per Maybury. 

"It's a great example of how you can use the best of AI technology to empower human beings," he added. 

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SEE ALSO: How billionaire Romesh Wadhwani is using his own fortune to build SymphonyAI to take on IBM, Microsoft, and Google by creating an enterprise AI giant

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