Covid has thrown countless challenges to producers and everyone else in the supply chain for goods across the spectrum. Meat products became scarce when the pandemic raged through the packing plants’ shoulder-to-shoulder workers. Outdoor goods of all stripes flew off the shelves when people looked for new ways to get out of the house in the absence of school, work, and social events. And let’s not even talk about toilet paper.

Those are just a few examples of thousands. The whole business of making things and getting them to the people who need them has been uniquely challenged in 2020.

In general, technology has made the situation far more tolerable. It would have been impossible just a few short years ago to have so many people working from home effectively, for example. You may be tired of Zoom, but where would we have been without it, and the many other digital tools like it that made pandemic life so much more bearable?

Similarly, digital advances in manufacturing and supply chain technologies have enabled the many business adjustments and pivots that were required to keep things rolling this past year, with blessedly few serious supply shortages. As with Zoom, they weren’t inventions specific to the crisis, but technologies that have been developed over the past few years that really came into their own during the crisis.

Ecolab’s story fits that pattern. A water, hygiene, and infection prevention solutions and services giant that trades on the NYSE and is based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Ecolab had been building its digital technology advances for years. “The digital journey is one we’ve been on with our industrial partners for some time,” explained Chris Morgan, the company’s VP and General Manager, Digital Growth. “Covid shined a new light on the benefits of having these tools.”

Like Ecolab, most companies have been adding digital tools for ages. But there have been big recent advances in handling all the data. “If you think about the Internet of Things [IoT], we’ve had it in some form for over 30 years,” Morgan said. “The ability to have data feeds accessible from anywhere around the world is a big plus. And now we have data analytics that incorporate AI that are able to predict problems. What we have now is a mixed reality, where we’re bringing the real and digital worlds together. We’re seeing all kinds of benefits. That could be in training a new Ecolab associate and giving them a very hands-on learning experience without them having to be physically present. Or it can be our technical experts troubleshooting and servicing a piece of equipment halfway around the world. In fact, we just completed an installation with one of our power customers where we were able to walk through the installation and start up the new equipment virtually.”

Those kinds of leaps in the effective use of distributed systems are similar with ThinkIQ, which is on the opposite end of the business spectrum from Ecolab. Based in Aliso Viejo, California, ThinkIQ–which recently closed an $11.6 million Series A funding round–is a technology startup focused on cloud-based supply chain management software. “We use existing sensor data to track the movement of materials, very accurately and in real time, from farm to fork,” explained CEO Doug Lawson. “Along the way, we identify things that occur within the processes that are problems. From there we’re able to make profound changes to improve the processes, and save our customers tens of millions of dollars.”

The big advantage for those customers up front is that there are no new field devices required. “They all have sensors that were installed to control their processes, but which are bad at telling what’s happening,” Lawson said. “Our systems use those existing sensors to detect the movement of materials inside the process and inside the supply chain.”

With that advanced tracking in place, ThinkIQ customers were a step ahead when Covid hit. “All our customers are seeing the fragility of their supply chains,” added Lawson. “But now they can look at correlations they couldn’t see before–changes on farms, in their shipping methods, and so on–and they’re able to optimize.”

Recent technology advances have played a part for them too. “Look at Cloud computing,” offered Lawson. “Five years ago it would have been, ‘Hell, no!’ Now 18 of every 20 companies are doing it.”

Both Ecolab and ThinkIQ see further gains in the near future. “We’re just at the very beginning of our opportunities,” said Morgan. “We’ll be doing our first fully remote plant audits soon. And we’ve rolled out Ecolab 3D, our cloud-based digital platform for operations monitoring. With that, we collect and analyze operations data and provide information back on the dashboard about whether the system is within its correct parameters or not. We can immediately reach out and help resolve any problems, and we can ensure that all steps of critical operations like cleaning have taken place. We have a whole suite of customer-facing apps we’re developing.”

ThinkIQ is also focused on more thorough and modern technology deployment. “We start with the sensors our customers already have,” Lawson said. “But we strongly encourage them to install additional IoT sensors. The old way, you’d install a sensor, send the information through and input/output module, and process it through the PLC or DCS. Now we can send IoT data straight to ThinkIQ. We think we’re onto gold here. We’re seeing the same patterns playing out across industries – automotive, metals and mining, pharmaceutical, and so on. We can help make them all better.”

For both Morgan and Lawson, all that means we’ll be in much better shape when the next crisis hits. “I think the biggest thing is that leveraging these digital tools means we’re able to provide much better support for our customers,” said Morgan. “Without what we had in place before this year, we could have had a much different story. Now our biggest focus is on how we best help our customers be successful going forward.”

“The basic story is that if you have true granular visibility into how things flow through your supply chain, you’re much better able to optimize,” added Lawson. “Industry has been much too focused on reducing inventory and cutting labor costs, but that’s made us much less resilient. We’re identifying far better ways to optimize and run your supply chain.”