Google, Skybox, and Your Suppliers

Kudos to The Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims, who did a fantastic job putting into perspective how Google’s acquisition of satellite imaging company Skybox could truly change everything in regards to how we monitor competitors, suppliers, and just about any specific location under the sun (provided it’s not a classified site).

The article frames the acquisition by noting that “by 2016 or so, Skybox will be able to take full images of the earth twice a day, at a resolution that until last week was illegal to sell commercially – all with just half a dozen satellites.” Further, by 2018, once Skybox’s planned 24 satellites are in orbit, Google will “be imaging the entire Earth at a resolution sufficient to capture, for example, real-time video of cars driving down the highway.”

It’s an amazing future. And one that is much closer than we think. But what are the implications for monitoring suppliers and even our competitors’ supply chains? In the article, Mims points out the case of forecasting sales data at Wal-Mart based on parking lot volume – and forecasting new Apple product launches based on the relative volume of trucks leaving Foxconn factories in China. But this is just the start.

Imagine the following scenarios:

  • Forecasting quality and on-time performance through the active monitoring of just-in-time programs at supplier facilities (and predictively knowing when an order is at risk based on a late shipment from a supplier’s supplier at a facility).
  • Understanding relative available capacity at supplier facilities (based on parking lot volume, frequency of deliveries, pick-ups, etc.) to help with negotiations, supply risk forecasting, and capacity planning efforts.
  • Monitoring for labor violations based on shift duration of arriving and departing factory workers.
  • Tracing outbound freight from suppliers to competitors’ facilities/plants throughout both ocean and intermodal, land-based supply chains (if containers remain visible to satellites throughout the transportation supply chain).
  • Monitoring inbound containers and raw material shipments to suppliers in order to proactively identify the use of counterfeit or other substances/goods from unauthorized suppliers.

The ability to capture highly detailed and frequent satellite imagery alone solves only a piece of the challenge in these scenarios. In addition, we must consider the need to put together pieces of a puzzle in which an organization might not even know which pieces to look for when the assembly begins (e.g., tracing “back” a container that arrives to a supplier). Predictive analytics and the ability to find the proverbial needle in the haystack of images based on predictive modeling and the ability to crunch through massive data sets will also be invaluable.

If any organization is up to the challenge of putting all the pieces together beyond just razor sharp satellite imaging, it’s Google. But without question, the ethics policies of both competitive intelligence and supplier management, monitoring and oversight will have to adapt to changing expectations about what sources of information are fair game and which might constitute overstepping the bounds of what is right – and what perhaps what is legal.

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