By Roy Strasburger
We keep hearing about how artificial intelligence (“A.I.”) is going to shape our future. We are told that A.I. will enhance the development of autonomous vehicles, make responsive databases such as Siri and Alexa more life-like, and be able to diagnose whatever medical ailment that you have and provide a remedy. The robots, or rather the computers, will help to eliminate all of the guesswork and the drudgery currently associated with crunching a large amount of data and analyzing the results.
The future will be glorious!
However, in many regards the future is already here. A.I. is being used to provide effective ways to reduce repetitive work and provide efficiencies. The future is now.
In April I had the pleasure to moderate a panel at the 2019 Sigma Spring conference in Orlando. It was a fascinating discussion and if you were not there you missed some great insights. I had the honor to share the stage with John Nesbitt of Dover Fueling Solutions, Daphne de Poot from ORTEC, and J.J. Worthing from PROS. All three of these individuals are very knowledgeable in the field of A.I. and their respective companies have A.I. that can be applied to various parts of the fuel industry.
The first thing that we did was to establish a definition for artificial intelligence: “A.I. refers to the ability of a computer to learn by recognizing patterns in information that is presented to it. Once the A.I. identifies the patterns it can then make decisions based upon that data and it continues to learn by reviewing the results from the decisions made.” This allowed us to have a starting point for our discussions and to ensure that we were all on the same page.
One of the programs that Dover Fueling Solutions provides is a system that monitors fueling equipment at a retail site. The software program watches the performance of the equipment and can pinpoint when a piece of equipment is operating below standards – such as a pump that needs recalibration. It can also provide you with an early warning that the equipment will fail soon – such as when a nozzle is starting to run slow. The A.I. monitors thousands of data points and analyzes the trends to see whether or not equipment is performing at its optimal level.
A program from ORTEC allows a jobber to optimize fuel delivery routes. The software analyzes the delivery locations, the truck routes, and the load sizes to make sure that the jobber is maximizing her use of trucks and that the driver is following the most time, and cost, efficient routes available. By taking advantage of the software analysis, the jobber may be able to make more deliveries with less wear and tear on her truck. More importantly the less time it takes to make a delivery means that the costs associated with that delivery is reduced – which is the ultimate goal.
The folks at PROS use artificial intelligence to monitor retail fuel prices to help wholesalers and retailers maximize their fuel margins. The software analyzes costs, retail pricing, and volumes to ascertain the best retail price for any given location. It obviously it takes a lot of the guesswork out of the pricing and provides more consistent product pricing for the customer.
I need to be clear that I am neither an expert in regard to these products nor do I work for any of these companies. If I have made any misrepresentations I apologize to the panelists. Please feel free to contact them directly if you have any questions about their programs.
There were two main questions that came up during our session which always seem to surface during a conversation about software or having a computer take over part of the business process. The first question was whether A.I. is going to replace people. We will still need people to operate the business. Using A.I. can release someone from having to do the day-to-day repetitive work so that they can focus their time and energy on more productive tasks. In this situation, the robot does not replace the human but allows the human to be more efficient and effective.
The second question wonders how a company implements such a program and avoids disrupting the entire organization and business model? All of our panelists recommended that their programs be implemented on an incremental basis. The culture and organizational shock would be too great for any company to try to do a complete overhaul at one time. The better solution is to introduce the new software in bite-size chunks, make sure that it is operating properly and that everyone understands what they are supposed to be doing, and then move on to installing it in another section of the business. It is foreseeable that a full implementation may take several months or more than a year to fully roll out. I think it completely depends upon a company’s appetite for change and its flexibility in handling new challenges.
Although these products are very cool, the important thing is that they are available today and that they are using a A.I. to drive them. If you are a wholesaler or a retailer, you already have all of the data you need to use these programs. What would take an average human weeks, if not months, to figure out, these software programs can do in minutes. Right now, A.I. can provide you with a competitive advantage. However, in the next five to ten years, you are going to have to have A.I. just to be in business. As we said at the conference: you need to get A.I. before it gets you.
Roy Strasburger is the President of StrasGlobal. For 35 years StrasGlobal has been the choice of global oil brands, distressed assets managers, real estate lenders and private investors seeking a complete, turn-key retail management solution from the most experienced team in the industry.