Seventh annual NWA Tech Summit begins; Walmart exec receives innovator award

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,392 views 

The virtual Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit began Monday (Oct. 19). Graham Cobb, CEO of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, said this year’s event features around 100 speakers focused on how technology will shape the future.

It’s the seventh year for the event and an estimated 1,500 participants registered for the three-plus days of speakers and activities with live musical performances by local musicians taking place during the breaks.

Kevin Hart, chief product and technology officer at Cox Communications, opened the event sharing how the telecommunications company has invested long-term for the journey from 1 gig bandwidth to 10 gig bandwidth which will be needed as more people work from home and the world becomes more connected.

“In 2020, we look somewhat like the Jetson’s prophetic life as we do have robots, use voice commands to order things we need or get directions to a restaurant, smart lighting, smart televisions and refrigerators and in the near term smart transportation,” said Ryan Manchee, vice president of media at Centro.

Manchee spoke on the connected home which has grown exponentially amid the COVID-19 pandemic He said as consumers spend more time at home, being connected became more important. He said consumers are using smart speakers more often and that learned behavior is likely to persist after the pandemic has passed.

He is most excited about the opportunity for connected cars and fully autonomous vehicles saying the average workers spend 26 minutes on their one-way commute to their workplace. He said while many are working remotely, consumers spend a lot of time behind the wheels of the vehicles. He said it’s about 9 days per year that consumers could get back if they were not driving.

“Fully autonomous vehicles at scale are still likely 5 to 10 years away, but I love the Mercedes Concept Car that looks like a living room with complete hands-off the wheel experience,” Manchee said.

He said companies like Dominoes Pizza are already doing a good job with mobile app technology that smart cars can link to. He said the app uses the consumer’s GPS location to determine the fastest route for pick up and tracking for delivery. Manchee said when consumers can put the phones down and see the info they need on the smart screen in their vehicle, that is a better user experience.

Meng Chee, chief product officer at Walmart, said the retail giant was able to respond to changing customer needs when the pandemic hit because of work that began two years ago with the hiring of Janey Whiteside as the company’s first chief customer officer. Chee reports to Whiteside.

“Our mission has been to never lose sight of the customer. If we had not listened to our customers during this crisis, they would have likely gone elsewhere. Keeping the customer needs top of mind in Principle No. 1,” he said.

Chee said the launch of Walmart+ came as customers wanted more contactless options for shopping. The subscription service which is $98 per year gives members Scan & Go capabilities, unlimited delivery benefits for those who don’t want to visit stores, and savings on fuel through Walmart Pay. Chee said there will be other perks coming in the future for members.

Chee also spoke on the promise drone technology offers Walmart given it has 4,700 stores within 10 minutes of 90% of the U.S. population. He said Walmart opted to partner with three drone partners to test three different use cases.

Tom Ward, senior vice president of customer product, online grocery and final-mile delivery at Walmart, was honored as Innovator of the Year during the summit. He spoke about how Walmart tackled challenges by “falling in love with our customer’s problems such as limited pickup capacity slots or their need for contactless shopping.” Ward said when Walmart solves for real customer problems their shopping experience is better. And by falling in love with their problem there is more openness to all the possible solutions. He accepted the award but said it belongs to his entire team whose focus is to never fail the customer.

“Who would have guessed in an instant all the work we have done over the past four years rolling out online grocery pick-up and delivery would be needed and more. We have helped our customers connect and their expectations of convenience have also gone up,” Ward said.

Other Arkansas companies were spotlighted at Monday’s event. Tyson Foods spoke about its translation from analog and manual journals at the farm level to being automated and delivered via tablet to better record accurate feed inventory and bird counts. The company is also using advanced robotics, visional imagining and thermal scanning technology in its processing plants. Tyson CEO Dean Banks is speaking on Tuesday.

J.B Hunt Transport Services exec Shelley Simpson conducted a panel discussion with three other female execs at the trucking and logistics giant. The group spoke about Hunt’s technology transformation across the business that includes moving all data from mainframes into the cloud. The company is using tech to optimize driver times and to better serve its growing brokerage division. Simpson said technology and analytics have been part of a five-year, $50 billion technology investment by Hunt.