The World of Business in 2020 Talking inventory. Constant customer feedback. An airborne ambassador to keep your business partners happy. Welcome to another workday in the somewhat-distant future.
By Bob Parks

(Business 2.0) – Predicting the future of business is never easy, but it doesn't have to be a blind gamble. Savvy managers constantly engage in clear-eyed futurism to anticipate changes that may lurk over the horizon. The process starts by examining known trends, testing scenarios, and constructing a narrative about where business is headed.

Consider what's happening with smart tags, such as radio frequency identification (RFID). These wireless microchips are already used by large companies to track products in real time. Wal-Mart is requiring its top 100 vendors to employ the technology by next January. Target is using RFID today to track containers moving from port to port. Microchip tags will give companies the ability to monitor the location and condition of individual products anytime, anywhere in the world.

Specialization and outsourcing are also here to stay. Nimble, highly focused companies are taking advantage of short production cycles and global markets to create new products and new business models. Dell is the best-known example: Its dynamic connection to roughly 60 core suppliers allows the PC maker to cycle inventory through assembly facilities in just six hours.

Project these realities a few decades into the future--say, to the year 2020. RFID chips will become ubiquitous, providing unprecedented information about manufacturing processes and consumer behavior. Meanwhile, as specialization becomes the order of the day, vertically integrated companies may be supplanted by networked constellations of business partners. What does the world of business look like then?

OFFICE

1 A Eureka Moment An executive from RoboVac's product surveillance department notices a trend: Some of the company's older robotic vacuum-dusters are ending up on university campuses as hand-me-downs. Suddenly, inspiration strikes: "Why not create a new model specifically for college students? And why not add a second robotic arm that can grab cold beer out of the fridge?"

2 Caffeine & Creativity At RoboVac's Buck's Lounge cafe, it's decided: The University Edition RoboVac will feature a beer-toting robotic arm-the BeerClaw. To fuel creativity, this Starbucks-owned corporate coffee shop offers conference tables and virtual whiteboards. There are 7,000 such Buck's Lounge facilities embedded in corporate campuses worldwide.

3 Outsourcing Everything RoboVac's staff oversees product management and marketing--and nothing more. Design and manufacturing are farmed out to a constellation of specialized partner firms. To create the University Edition RoboVac, an electric solenoid designer specs out mechanicals for the BeerClaw, while a software firm develops fetch-and-grab routines.

4 Coffee, Tea, or Conference Call? Personal relationships are the bedrock of global partnerships, and some of RoboVac's executives spend 200 days a year in the air. When they fly boardroom-class, however, corporate envoys make flying time productive by negotiating deals inside a private conference room installed in the lower deck of an Airbus A380.

Inside the cabin, jet lag is reduced through the use of individually tailored lighting systems that work in conjunction with diurnal illumination algorithms.

Biomass energy plants gasify farm waste to power fuel cells installed at each building.

Smart cards automatically adjust furniture to match each employee's height and preferences. Organic-polymer displays project favorite images on cubicle walls.

MANUFACTURING

1 Smart Factory As plans for a BeerClaw-equipped RoboVac are shipped off to vendors, contract manufacturers around the world are already building other vacuum-duster models. Web-based CAD drawings, adaptive injection-molding tools, and self-reconfiguring assembly machines allow factories to profitably produce small component runs for niche markets.

2 Talking Inventory Tiny RFID tags attached to parts and components ensure that suppliers have just enough inventory to fulfill the RoboVac contract. Each tag emits a faint radio signal that provides the network with real-time information about inventory status and location. Manufacturers monitor this data to coordinate with vendors and suppliers.

3 An Industrial Army Adaptive manufacturing robots scan component RFIDs to figure out which RoboVac model to assemble. Coordinated by intelligent production-control software, the robots develop assembly routines autonomously. Built-in vibration alerts and diagnostic infrared sensors allow technicians to anticipate assembly line failures before they actually occur.

4 Ready to Ship Flexible nanowire processor arrays line the RoboVac's robotic arm, building intelligence right into the structure. Nanotubules are used to create a strong but lightweight composite chassis that can easily hoist 20-ounce tall boys. Each RoboVac still looks generic, however. Before reaching the retailer, a contract differentiator will add custom paint and final styling.

Manufacturers lease capital equipment, resulting in lower maintenance costs and less downtime.

Financial incentives encourage suppliers to open their intranets to real-time scrutiny by customers.

LOGISTICS

1 What's in the Box? Each completed RoboVac gets a smart tag and is packed inside a shipping container. The big metal boxes monitor every item stuffed inside at all times, transmitting data via satellite links to provide buyers with detailed information about the location of the containers and the condition of each product inside.

2 Unloading Zone Containers are taken off ships by robotic gantry cranes. Gamma-ray machines scan for nuclear material or bioterror agents while RFID receivers autonomously route goods to waiting trucks. There are no longshoremen--without the heating and lighting needs of humans, the port saves millions, increases security, and cuts unloading time to just three days.

3 The Lonely Road Long-haul trucks travel in pods, with a single human driver commanding a column of autonomous drone trucks linked by wireless remote control. Using flexible subcontracting arrangements and precision route management software, trucks are full nearly 100 percent of the time. Local deliveries are made by fuel-cell-powered parcel vans.

4 Have It Your Way Each robotic vacuum-duster is tailored to local tastes, with final paint, styling, and design touches added at local distribution centers. In the case of the University Edition RoboVac, customization machines are programmed to add splashy school colors, college crests, and team mascot silk screens to the exterior of each unit.

Huge Malaccamax cargo ships--so named because their hulls are just shy of the bottom of Asia's Malacca Straits--carry 18,000 containers each. Exterior diesel engines provide drive power, while electricity is generated by energy recovered from exhaust gases.

Driver navigation systems use real-time traffic-density data to determine the quickest routes around town.

Security at robotic ports is maintained with strictly enforced no-entry zones.

Warehouses become smaller as inventory needs are met in real time. Companies always know where goods are, and shipments can be rerouted at will.

RETAIL

1 Main Street Is Chain Street University Hill Hardware is a cozy-looking shop with hand-lettered signs. In fact, however, it's one of Home Depot's "regional experience" stores, designed to attract shoppers who are nostalgic for mom-and-pop retailing. RFID tags and inventory management algorithms help smaller stores adapt quickly to changing customer demand.

2 Personalized Recommendations Shopping carts detect RFID tags to identify products placed within. Subtotals are shown on an LCD screen as a recommendation engine suggests additional items based on current selections and past buying habits. Onscreen ads tout a new vacuum-duster, "The Party Monster That Likes to Clean Up."

3 Sign Here, Please Impressed by a BeerClaw-equipped RoboVac decorated with the logo of his favorite band, a student brings his new vacuum to a self-service check-out. The shopping cart beams the merchandise total to a transaction station, and the student signs the screen to pay. Identity is verified by tracking the pressure, vector, and velocity of the signature script.

4 "RoboDude, I'll Have Another" Back at the frat house, the new RoboVac is a hit. Using a wireless network connection, it locates beer by scanning for the product-specific RFID tag attached to each can or bottle in the fridge. The new RoboVac is the life of the party as it serves beer to guests, performs cute tricks, and sweeps up the mess afterward.

Customers carry their purchases home in fully biodegradable cornstarch bags.

In exchange for free software upgrades and e-coupons, consumers permit home networks to collect anonymous marketing data about household consumption patterns.