Interoperability: The Digital Mindset

Application programming interfaces and the API ecosystem explained.

What if you could reconfigure your business processes to be faster and less costly by easily offering new products and services from emerging providers … and offloading your non-core competencies to outside providers?

What if, in the competitive market you are in, you could bind your customer to your products and services by constantly evolving toward the user experience THEY want, and not the one YOU think they want?

This is how an application programming interface (API) works—the cornerstone of interoperability in the modern digital world. An application (the A) is any software with a distinct function. An interface (the I) is a contract of service between two applications. But how will APIs get your business to be more agile, less costly and tighter with the customers? 

Digital age dispatch systems should be able to connect to all your operational data and place it, literally, at the fingertips of each participant to control their world—be they customers, infrastructure owners, quality control, sales, dispatchers, operations or senior management. PHOTO: BCMI Corp.

In 2002, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos quietly forced all Amazon technical groups to expose their data with APIs. He further imposed that the groups were only allowed to communicate with each other by API. As a result, innovation at Amazon had exploded by 2004, creating the paradigm of online retail and mainstreaming the cloud (i.e., Amazon Web Services) and associated technologies. He ultimately created one of the most valuable companies on the planet.

Bezos changed everything. As we divide the historical world’s timeline into BC and AD, we can now divvy the business world into pre- and post-“digital age.” If you are like many, your company matured prior to the emergence of the web. Now, to stand a chance at bringing your business into the digital age, you must first change your mindset. It starts with APIs.

The first step is to invest in systems that can share operational data with each other. 

Business process is driven by, and all too often constrained by, software functionality. APIs allow us to unbundle software functionality into smaller building blocks. We can then re-bundle functionality with the best possible software to rebuild modern business processes—agile, cost-effective, easy to change—for each small block.

An ecosystem is an interconnected system. To thrive in the digital age, you need to shift your thinking to embrace the API ecosystem. A few examples will help.

Example 1. CiDRA Concrete Systems offers a game-changing technology: accurate entrained air measurement on the truck. CiDRA can operate stand-alone, which requires the inevitable duplication of hardware, or as a plug-in API to feed the data to other systems, namely dispatch and quality control. It’s a perfect candidate for the API ecosystem.

“When I think about interoperability, I think about the ‘freedom’ to communicate with multiple host systems in order to fully embrace as many of the platform technologies as are currently available to our mutual customers,” says Scott Anderson, president of CiDRA. “In other words, break down the barriers to engage these technologies together, so our customers can take advantage of the innovation created by all of them … to add value to the industry and allow everyone to benefit from them to the fullest potential.”

Example 2. Engineering, quality assurance and control have always been critical for our industry, yet they are often underfunded, resulting in limited new product offerings. Giatec Scientific has forged ahead and now offers artificial intelligence-based mix design and optimization. While still early days, it promises to be quite effective.

“Our industry is facing severe scrutiny for the contribution we have made to worldwide CO2 emissions … one of the largest contributors of unnecessary emissions is from overdesign of concrete,” says Giatec CEO Pouria Ghods, PhD. “With accurate concrete test data, we can be leaner and more cost-effective. However, this requires access to data living in silos across all concrete operations.”

The inability to easily share data across systems is an industrywide problem, he notes, adding, “Our industry is lagging while others have thrived by using cloud-based technology and open API systems that allow the seamless transfer of data across platforms. This is not a challenge that can be solved by one organization. It requires our industry to collaborate effectively.”

Example 3. Marcotte Systems offers a digital age batch controller commensurate for the API ecosystem. According to Alex Leblond, executive VP at Marcotte, “Real-time data sharing is crucial to optimizing efficiency and productivity. This can only be obtained through seamless integration and communication between your company’s core systems, devices and software. Interoperability should be considered in future technological strategies, as your data is the fuel to your competitive edge.”

Leblond also says “best-of-breed” information systems will promote innovative product and services development that is tailored to our industry.

Example 4. Dispatch is arguably the heart and lungs of our industry’s business process. As such, it needs to be an exemplary member of the API ecosystem. My own company was created to be just that. Digital age dispatch systems should be able to connect to all your operational data and place it, literally, at the fingertips of each participant to control their world—be they customers, infrastructure owners, quality control, sales, dispatchers, operations or senior management.

It’s on you to lay the foundation to harness agility, cost control and user intimacy in the digital age. This starts with an old-fashioned “rip” of pre-digital age systems and “replace” with members of the API ecosystem. While high-priced consultants from big-name companies promote expensive digital-transformation programs with uncertain outcomes, the real success begins when you start transitioning to a digital mindset. That means adopting systems that promise true interoperability.

Craig Yeack has held leadership positions with both construction materials producers and software providers. He is co-founder of BCMI Corp. (the Bulk Construction Materials Initiative), which is dedicated to reinventing the construction materials business with modern mobile and cloud-based tools. His Tech Talk column—named best column by the Construction Media Alliance in 2018—focuses on concise, actionable ideas to improve financial performance for ready-mix producers. He can be reached at [email protected].