From Mars to ERP: The 250 million mile subscription service

Disruptive technology is all very exciting. Every industry is looking at the technologies they can use to turn their business models into their advantage.

A taxi service is pretty much the same product regardless where you buy it, but I doubt half a million people would sign a petition to save their local taxi firm if its licence application was rejected. But that’s what happened when Uber’s was in London. Not because the journeys are better but because its business model is different its way of engaging with customers is focused on them.

Today being able to get a taxi from anywhere by tapping your phone, with all payments settled immediately seems pretty normal. Autonomous cars are already becoming inevitable in most peoples’ minds. It won’t be too long before you tap your mobile and your own car comes to pick you up, and that’s without a helpful relative, or anyone for that matter, behind the wheel.

So what’s next? A subscription to a data service 250 million miles away, which automates the ordering of new machinery, that’s what. Subscription billing software is not the most exciting subject to be writing about, but the colonisation of Mars no matter how subtle the link is.

That’s exactly what heavy machinery manufacturer Caterpillar is planning.

First a bit of background. I spoke to Tom Bucklar, director of IoT ad digital solutions at Caterpillar, at the recent London conference of subscription billing software maker Zuora about this.

NASA could eventually use a subscription based model with a manufacturer to monitor or replace the machines that will be used to prepare Mars for colonisation by humans, and the machines used to support the colonisers afterwards.

This not only has obvious benefits for NASA but also the machinery suppliers.

Caterpillar manufactures machinery such as trucks and earth moving equipment and it sells or rents these out in a traditional way through its dealers. But the company is now looking to sell services on top, known as Cat Connect services, which involves changing how it serves and charges customers.

“This is where we move into subscription services,” said Bucklar. “These machines are big capital assets and organisations want to manage then and better understand their utilisation.”

Through a subscription model Caterpillar can charge for the services without the painful journey from CRM to ERP or quote to pay as it is also known. You don’t want the signal from the machine 250 million miles away taking less time than the second part of its journey through Caterpillar’s and NASA’s back offices.

Providing an efficient back office is certainly not NASA’s core business so automating quote to pay for parts is something else it doesn’t need to spend time and money on.

Scientists likewise don’t want to be maintaining machinery and setting off a transaction for a new part when needed. So remote monitoring systems, connected to a service that automatically informs users of the status of machinery, and automatically orders and pays is attractive.

And machines on Mars might eventually be connected.

“We have worked with NASA over the years to look at what type of machinery they will need as they look at Mars exploration,” said Bucklar.

The companies work together on research and development to understand the machines that will be required in the Martian environment.

Caterpillar currently does this with customers. Some of them, like in the mining industry, are is some of the most remote places on earth. Bucklar said companies want to know exactly where machines are as well as information such as fuel consumption.

He gave an example of a service that customers can subscribe to. “For all these things you need a data service which provides this information to a single user interface for the end user customer.”

Caterpillar already has over half a million units of machinery connected to its services and this is growing, said Bucklar.

So with NASA as a customer it will be able to subscribe to a service like this to help in manage and get the best out of machines that will be between 33.9 million miles and 250 million miles away depending on the positions of the two planets in their orbit around the sun.

Bucklar said that although services through subscription models is an aim to help keep customers happy. With over half a million machines already connected managing subscriptions needed to be automated which is where the Zuora’s technology comes in.

It doesn’t just make life easier for the customer. “If you just look at the automation of the process between us and our dealers it has massively simplified that,” added Bucklar.