Automation: Beyond the supply chain


In the beginning, if you ran out of food, you stepped outside and foraged for some tasty roots and berries. If you lost an arrow, you searched for a nice piece of chert and flaked a new projectile point for yourself.

As time went on, people began trading for supplies. The process started with the consumer recognizing a need, and initiating communications with the producer or intermediary who could fill the order. 

Fast forward to the mid-1800s, when a governor for speed control was first developed. Industrial controllers and other feedback systems followed in the twentieth century. And today, if you mention inventory automation in a manufacturing context, many people think not only of robotics, but also supply chain optimization.

However, the data collected by automation systems have uses that go past inventory control and re-ordering. For example, a “smart” home dialysis device could go beyond simply re-ordering consumables, and provide data back to the manufacturer and the provider. This data could be integrated with patient-specific data, such as vital signs and other real-time condition-specific metrics, and matched against the prescribed therapy plan, to determine when the patient is using the device correctly and when professional interventions are necessary. Analytics could be used to identify and address patterns of compliance and noncompliance across patient and clinical provider populations.

Technology is rapidly evolving, but in some ways we’re still in the early stages when it comes to using the tools of automation without also creating negative consequences. Witness October’s widespread internet outages triggered by an attack on Dyn, a widely used internet infrastructure provider. Hackers used a piece of malware that searched for internet-enabled DVRs and IP cameras that used components manufactured by a Chinese OEM supplier. These components used passwords that were hardcoded into the component firmware, meaning that the user could not change or disable them. The hackers then transformed this array of non-securable devices into a botnet that brought down a number of popular websites, such as Twitter and Amazon. 

It makes sense to address security and data-sharing issues early in the product development process (partial list):

  • HIPAA compliance, for the device, the connection, smartphone apps, internet sites, and third-party service providers.
  • Cybersecurity and prevention of identity theft, for the device, the patient’s or the facility’s own router/network, and third-party service providers.
  • Interoperability with existing and new internal and external systems.
  • Internet speed and bandwidth limitations, including the device and the user’s router and internet plan.
  • Data input for patients and locations without internet access.
  • Ease of use for patients and clinicians who are not technology savvy.
  • Device diagnostics and ease of repair.

In summary, technology is being used to make better smart devices, with exciting new applications. A proactive development pathway can reduce the risks of future adverse events.