Episode 43
September 18, 2017

Storytellers are the best Futurists

Amanda Manna, Head of Narrative @ Lowe's Innovation Labs, talks with Brian about the importance of story and narrative in technological innovation

<iframe height="52px" width="100%" frameborder="no" scrolling="no" seamless src="https://player.simplecast.com/0600ff1c-fecd-45de-9e75-d4e584bdc598?dark=false"></iframe>

Brian: [00:01:09] Welcome to Future Commerce, the podcast about cutting edge and next generation commerce. I'm Brian. And unfortunately, today I am without my co-host, Phillip, who is evacuating his hometown because of Hurricane Irma. So thoughts and prayers with Phillip today and everyone in Florida as they brace for the storm. But I do have a very exciting guest on the show today. We have Amanda Manna, who is the Head of Narrative and Partnerships from Lowe's of Innovation labs, aka LIL. Yeah. Amanda, great to have you on the show.

Amanda: [00:01:46] Yeah, I'm excited. Thanks for having me.

Brian: [00:01:48] Yeah, you bet. Yeah. And as always, we want you to give us feedback about today's show, so please leave us some feedback in the Disqus comment box on our site. You can also subscribe to listen to Future Commerce on iTunes and Google Play or listen right from your Amazon Echo on TuneIn radio with the phrase "Alexa Play Future Commerce podcast." So to kick things off, tell us about yourself. Who are you? How did you get involved in the Lowe's Innovation Lab? What's your story?

Amanda: [00:02:17] Well, I actually fell into innovation by way of story, so I'm certainly not a technologist to begin with. But my background has been really in communications and in public relations. Working on a lot of different kinds of things. So I was really interested in new ways of telling stories and how that could have a bigger impact and happened to meet. Kyle Nel working at Lowe's. At the time I was on the public relations team and Kyle was just getting the lab up and running, and we really hit it off working together on communications to support the lab and to launch that innovation story at Lowe's and really both saw this opportunity to take the narrative process that the labs has put into place and build that into a bigger thing. And so really, that's what I've been working on for about the past three years now.

Brian: [00:03:11] Oh, wow. Yeah, that's amazing. And we're going to have to dive into what that narrative process looks like because it's pretty unique, I think, for an innovation lab or for any company, really. So, yeah, maybe give an introduction to the lab. So what's the goal of the lab? Why did Lowe's create it? What made it worthwhile to invest in such a developed lab? What was sort of the end goal in mind?

Amanda: [00:03:42] Well, the goal was to build stuff that you wouldn't expect Lowe's to build and to work with people that you wouldn't expect Lowe's to work with. And really, the idea being that we should disrupt ourselves, or at least try to, before where somebody else came along and did that for us. And so really looking at what is on the leading edge of what's possible and how does that tie back to our customers, our employees and the real intractable problems that Lowe's has been dealing way throughout our entire history and trying to find new solutions for those problems.

Brian: [00:04:15] Yeah. I think that makes sense. If you go to your website, it feels like you're almost like a collection of startups, if you will, all sort of collaborating together. It's quite impressive the number of technologies that you're spanning to bring to the market. And it seems like you're taking a really unique perspective on how to get there. Like you mentioned the narrative, you're Head of Narrative and you have this idea called Narrative Driven Innovation. Tell me a little bit more about that. What is that concept, and how does it actually come out in practice as you guys go through your strategic initiatives?

Amanda: [00:05:04] Well, the thing that we are most interested in more than technology even is how do you change human behavior? And we really believe that story is this uniquely human way of receiving and understanding information. And when you're thinking about the future and what might happen, I mean, it's impossible to predict exactly what's going to happen. And really, as people, we're not even wired to think exponentially. You kind of think that what's gonna happen tomorrow is based on what happens today. And we see more and more that that's not really how change operates. And so we were really looking for another way to help people. It started really inside of our organization with how to help our executive team and our leaders think differently about what could be possible for Lowe's and even things that maybe, you know, at first blush, you might not think made a lot of sense for Lowe's, but once you put it in context of a story with real characters and conflict and narrative arc and resolution, all of a sudden you can really put yourself in the future in a very real and tangible way and understand yes, we think this is gonna happen, and we should work backwards to try to bring it to life.

Brian: [00:06:18] That's amazing. I love that you sort of built this for your internal team first. I think that's also kind of unique in that you've sort of stumbled upon this, maybe not stumbled upon, but devised this amazing way to do innovation because you needed to facilitate internal change. That's awesome.

Amanda: [00:06:39] Well I think "stumbled upon" is kind of a good way to think about it, because it really came out of a frustration of giving great presentations that everyone at the end says, "Great job," but then nothing would happen. And so it became this obstacle of like, OK, how do we get past that to actually get the organization to take action to do something about the future? And we felt like story was the right way to do it. And that's been working for us.

Brian: [00:07:07] That's amazing. The idea of story is really interesting, too. You said obviously nobody can predict the future, but sometimes it kind of feels like storytellers are the best at that. And you think of Neal Stephenson and even further back at some of the books like Fahrenheit 451 and others, that really do look ahead and predict things that are happening today, maybe not in the same context, but certainly the ideas are very prevalent. What do you look to for your inspiration when writing these stories? How do you go about building the stories and thinking through what kind of a story you're looking to tell? Or do you just kind of give people free reign to just do whatever they want?

Amanda: [00:07:56] Well, I think you're right that storytellers are uniquely suited to think about what happens when, in our case, what we're interested in, when technology and people trends intersect. And so that's really the main guideline that we're looking at is what happens at these interesting points where these things all start to come together, and we generally look at anywhere from five to six master themes of things that we see taking place in the marketplace. And from those themes, then we can start to pull out kind of the actual comic book style story that explains something that we're gonna work on. And those comic books actually become strategic roadmaps that we can work backwards to go step by step. What does it take for us to build and bring that story to life?

Brian: [00:08:50] My gosh, that's so cool. Can you give me a good example of this? Like a fairly concrete... I mean, obviously we don't have visuals here. But, you know, here's a comic book story that we turned into something real.

Amanda: [00:09:06] Yeah, absolutely. So an example of a theme that we're interested in is the idea of the world becoming shoppable, so to speak, and this intersection of physical and digital interfaces and how people want to interact in that kind of environment. And that actually, you know, was an inspiration behind our very first comic book, which is a story about a couple who is renovating a home. And it's this terrible, painful process. Everything is going wrong. And they can't get on the same page with each other, and they're able to go to Lowe's and use virtual reality to design and communicate together about their project. And then they're actually able to go home and put on what we would recognize today as an augmented reality headset, kind of like the HoloLens, and stand in their old kitchen and view the new one right there. And that is actually probably the most mature example, if you look at our portfolio of work, where we've really worked now over six or seven different projects with many different types of technologies to bring that story to life, where today that is actually what we're doing with the Tango platform and Lowe's vision. And we've really achieved that first story where you can now stand in your old kitchen and look at new things on top of what you've got.

Brian: [00:10:25] Yeah, that's unbelievable, and I know that Lowe's has been kind of a forerunner in this space, a front runner, and actually worked with Tango to do something that was probably one of the more unique implementations or at least one of the first implantations of using Tango. How was that experience? Were you involved in that experience at all?

Amanda: [00:10:52] Yeah. We've been working with the Tango team really since we first put our first iteration of what was then called the Holo Room in to market. And, you know, another part of the way we think about what we do is something we call the bat signal, which is really pretty straightforward, that we want to go out and talk really loudly about what we're doing, even when it's still pretty crude and small and not ready. But the intention being that other people will see that and want to partner with us and let us know what they're working on. And that's really how we got to know the Tango team. We had this Holo Room. It was in two stores in Canada. It was a slam based iPad augmented reality tool. And it was really barely working and really not that great. It put us out there so that partners like Google approached us and said, hey, we like what you're doing and we've got this in the works. And would you like to partner and see how we make it really applicable for people in a way that's not just a game or something like that?

Brian: [00:11:49] Yeah. That's amazing. I love that. I love that you basically broadcast it. This is actually a really good lesson for the merchants and tech partners that are listening to the podcast. Merchants, get out there and start trying stuff and maybe someone will come alongside you and help you develop it out. Make some noise. I think that's really good advice.

Amanda: [00:12:12] Yeah. Yeah.

Brian: [00:12:12] Great example. And then also, tech partners, look for merchants who are willing and ready to work with you on things like this. Look for that bat signal. I love that. Now, I think AR has a much more broad future ahead of it than it has right now. You mentioned you're working with the Fab... Or maybe you didn't mention this, but Tango works with the Fab Two, right? Lenovo Fab Two. Have you started experimenting at all or working with Apple or some of these other tech providers out there on a more wide release of what you're doing?

Amanda: [00:12:55] Well, I can't share all the specifics of what we're working on next, but we're certainly interested in all of these platforms. And, you know, a big part of the reasoning for the labs to exist is that we've now been working on these problems in this technology for several years with the express intention of getting to this point where with AR Core and AR Kit, you're not going to have millions of people who have this technology in their hands. And we have the advantage now of about three or four years worth of real world experience and how to bring that to consumers in the right way. So we're definitely really excited to be at this tipping point where we hope a lot of people start to think of AR as a tool that they use everyday.

Brian: [00:13:36] That's so cool. I could imagine, like even landscaping and all kinds of other projects that this will be applied to in the future.

Amanda: [00:13:45] Oh absolutely.

Brian: [00:13:46] Yeah. Cool. Well AR and VR are one example, but I think you're involved in a lot of other stuff. One of the things that jumped out to me, and it's on your home page. So that may be why. But when I got into it, I was just blown away, is robotics. This is another, like, groundbreaking technology you're investing in and the exoskeleton that I saw was like... Is that something that's actively being used in Lowe's right now? I don't think I've seen one. But are Lowe's workers using exoskeletons to increase their job performance and help them accomplish things they wouldn't be able to accomplish otherwise?

Amanda: [00:14:28] Yeah, you're exactly right. You know, going back to the narrative restarted, this really came out of a story around how could we use technology to enable people with superpowers? And you look at things like Iron Man, of course, and you think, well, how do we make that possible? And so with the exosuit, it's a softer robotic suit, which I think, you know, not a lot of people would look at that and immediately think robot, but it's helping our stock loader employees in the stores. We're doing this right now at one store that's near Virginia Tech, who is our development partner on the project. And these are employees who are doing things like lifting five gallon buckets of paint or heavy bags of cement. And for hours on end in every shift, they're moving stuff around the store, and it's really hard on your body. And so with the exosuit, you know, acts similar to a bow and arrow to absorb your energy. And so that essentially it feels like when you're lifting something, it's weightless and so far, the employees have really been excited about it. I mean, you can put it on and try it and you will immediately notice how helpful it is. And so we're definitely excited to look at where we can take that next.

Brian: [00:15:38] Wow, that's amazing. It just goes back to your original goal, which is the concept of story to accomplish this. Superheroes turned into something very simple. I'm thinking about the retailers that listen to our show. And maybe it's interesting, like they can dream big and then find ways to accomplish it. A simple problem from those big dreams. I think that's a really good way to put it. And I think it's a good lesson for our listeners. The exosuits... Are those, sorry I might have missed this... Are those widely used already throughout Lowe's stores or is it still sort of part of the lab?

Amanda: [00:16:28] It's still definitely part of the lab. And so typically, the way that we work is to start pretty small. Like, for example, the exosuit is in one store in Christianburg, Virginia. And the intention being that that allows us to keep moving quickly and really be iterative and always learning and improving to get to that point where we feel like, OK. Now this is ready to scale. But, you know, with so many things, especially in a retail environment, if you launch it with an immediate pressure on scale, it doesn't really give you the flexibility to figure out what works and what doesn't. So our preference is typically to start pretty small while we're still on that figure it out stage.

Brian: [00:17:04] That's good. Yeah. What are the kinds of signals you see that would show you that it's ready to scale?

Amanda: [00:17:11] Well, a big way that we evaluate our projects is through applied neuroscience testing. And that means that we're actually having customers, or employees, or whoever the intended end user is go through an experience while wearing an EEG headset, an eye tracking goggles. And what we're really looking for there are their unstated reactions to the technology. Because you can't really expect people to be able to articulate how they feel about something that's so different from anything they've experienced before. And so that's a big part of what we're looking for is where do we get to this sweet spot in terms of, you know, how stressful it is, how motivated they are to use it, or are they excited, like all of these kinds of things, which are sometimes very different from what they actually tell us. But the basic ways that we look at success is can we make it work? And do people like it? And then we can figure out how does it fit into the bigger strategy.

Brian: [00:18:07] That's good. So even before you feel like there's necessarily a dollars and cents argument, you're really looking for how people respond to it based off of your studies. So even if a retailer or technology company out there doesn't have maybe some of the same tools that you have to assess that, they could use the tools at their disposal to be able to assess how how their customers or employees are responding to a given technology and actually use that and kind of gauge that before maybe even considering that specific ROI.

Amanda: [00:18:46] Yeah, I definitely think that's important. These are really little, tiny, nascent ideas that we're trying to nurture. And we don't always know exactly where they're going to go. But, you know, we need the time and the space to figure that out. I think everything we've done with AR and VR really speaks to that. If anyone puts on a VR headset, I'm sure you've seen this, too. They take it off and they immediately say, "Wow, that's cool." And they say that every time, no matter what. But then when you look at the neuro data, we would see that like, oh, VR can still be kind of overwhelming in some situations. And really, that's where we made the decision to go all in with Tango and Lowe's vision as a global launch, as we saw that people were really more comfortable with that smartphone factor right now. At the same time, what we learned is that the immersiveness of VR does have a role to play in different kinds of experiences. And so we've got another project called Holo Room How To where you can come in and put on an HTC Vive headset and use the controllers and go through a DIY skills clinic in VR that teaches you how to tile a shower. So it's kind of like digging into what people are really feeling and thinking that allows us to identify these things, whereas if we just listen to what they said, we would have heard, "Wow, that's cool," with the first thing we tried, and put it in eighteen hundred stores and then wondered why it wasn't working.

Brian: [00:20:13] My gosh, it's so cool. I could even see applying the Holo Room How To to training employees. Have you started kind of exploring that idea as well?

Amanda: [00:20:27] It's absolutely something we're interested in and looking at the right way to do that for sure.

Brian: [00:20:32] So cool. Nice. So I kind of want to get some more of your examples here. But one of the questions that I have, back to the idea of when something should be scaled and rolled out. A lot of retailers today, I mean, we're in sort of an interesting environment right now where there's a lot of pressure on retail and on manufacturers and the time to test something, the amount of time and resources they have to go after it are perhaps a little bit less. Maybe they don't have quite as many resources as say a Lowe's has to do this. And so my question would be if you're talking to retailers or to other technology companies that aren't at the level of scale that you're at, are there some ways that you would recommend high people filter which types of technologies or opportunities that they should go after as they're looking at what to do next?

Amanda: [00:21:45] Well, I think, you know, we really try to lead by example in this respect, so for us the things that we look at first are what are some of these common cold problems? You know, people say, oh, like we can put a man on the moon, but we can't cure the cold. What's up with that? So looking at some of these things. So, for example, with using AR and VR for design visualization, that came out of an insight that we have calculated there's about 70 billion dollars in lost opportunity for people who never even start a home improvement project in the first place because they're afraid of how it's going to turn out, or they can't convince whoever they're working on the project with that the vision that they have is going to look good in the end. And so this like apathy or fear is in itself a 70 billion dollar cost to the business. And so we started thinking, well, how do we use technology to solve that problem in a different way? So I think, you know, for any business, it's kind of looking at what are the problems I'm trying to solve and who are the real people that are engaging in my business? And from there, you can look at what technology might help solve that and how would we approach that? I think there's a lot of different ways you can get at it without having to make a humongous investment of time or resources.

Brian: [00:23:10] I love that. That's such good advice. Essentially, don't just go do technology for the sake of technology. Find a problem, and then maybe see if you can find a technology that will help address it.

Amanda: [00:23:24] Yeah, absolutely. Same thing with robotics, I mean, like LoweBot project, which is an autonomous retail service robot. Really, we started with the idea of how do we make it easier to navigate our stores? And our professional customers come in the store all the time. But a lot of DIY customers might only come in once or twice a year. So it can be kind of overwhelming to figure out where you're trying to go and even more so if you don't have English as a first language. And so with a robot, you can make it really easy and intuitive for people just to ask it what they're looking for. And it will show them where it is, and they can ask it in any language. Right now we have Spanish and Japanese in addition to English, but it's really pretty easy to add other languages to the database. So but once again, it all started with that core problem.

Brian: [00:25:52] Right. You're solving a problem with a bot. That's an unbelievable. What another cool example. This is, I think, a perfect example of how retailers should address problems like this or merchants should address problems like this. Even if you don't have the same scale as Lowe's you can find tools to address problems in store. So maybe you can't build a robot, but there might be something else that's simpler and smaller that you can keep an eye on that will help solve a similar problem. And so I think another question I have, and I love these examples you're bringing up, it's really, really fun to hear what's happening. But what about the maturity of some of these technologies? So obviously, some of these technologies are very ahead of their time, probably won't see filtered down to maybe the SMB or even midmarket for a while. Which of these technologies, which you say is closer to being able to be leveraged by a broader market?

Amanda: [00:27:09] That's a good question. You know, I think what's been amazing to me since I started working in this world is how quickly things that seemed very far future are feeling closer and closer in. And I think it's sometimes the technology we interact with everyday. I think of artificial intelligence or machine learning as a great example of this, where you hear a conversation around all of the ways that AI can go wrong. And there's kind of this scary narrative around AI. But what people don't realize is that that's actually something that we interact with in a lot of ways every day. And it's just kind of happening behind the scenes to make things easier or help us find information that's useful and relevant.

Brian: [00:27:53] Right.

Amanda: [00:27:53] And so that certainly is something I think we'll see continue more and more of. We talked about AR Core and AR Kit. I think that that technology will hopefully be in many of our hands very soon. And, you know, even things like robotics are really growing a lot. So it feels like a lot of these what we think of is exponential technologies are really taking off in part of our lives more and more every day.

Brian: [00:28:22] Yeah, I tend to agree with you. I think that, and I kind of wish my co-host, Phillip, was here to balance me out on this, but I feel like we're coming up on another wave of technology similar to what we saw with the iPhone, with augmented reality specifically. I feel like it's a very natural step, and it's very achievable as well. If you've ever had a chance, I mean, obviously you've had a chance. But if any of our listeners have ever had a chance to use AR, they'll see that, you know, it's actually starting to look pretty good, as you've mentioned. Like people, when they walk away from augmented reality, it's natural to them. And so we had Robert Scoble on a few episodes ago, and he argued that within five years we'll all be walking around with augmented reality glasses on. I think that might be a little bit ambitious. But if you look at companies like Magic Leap... Have you had a chance to work with Magic Leap at all?

Amanda: [00:29:29] Not yet. No. But we're definitely excited about what they're doing, too. So keeping an eye on all of these options.

Brian: [00:29:35] Absolutely. But there are several other companies besides them where augmented reality could become a regular part of our lives that we use to make purchasing decisions not far from now. So we talked about mature technologies. Let's talk a little bit about the actual sort of dollars and cents of some of these technologies now. At what point in the timeline do you hope to see a return on any one of these technologies? Do you expect to see a return on them all? What's the sort of maturity arc... I'm sorry, not the maturity arc, but really the return on investment arc that you're hoping to see. Is that five years from start to scale? When do you feel like a product or a concept that you've come to market with is a success?

Amanda: [00:30:42] You know, I don't know that we think about it in that linear of a fashion, because I think part of what we're trying to do is explore what's possible for tomorrow. And the value that we get out of that may not always directly tie back to dollars and cents. So something like a Lowe's vision application when you can measure a space in your home and then it will then narrow down our product catalog to show you only products that would fit... For example, you want to search for a refrigerator, you can then measure the space in your kitchen that you have to place that refrigerator, and then we'll only show you things that fit there. You know, obviously that has more direct tie back to shopping. But even with that, you know, we know the audience that has access to that right now is still very small. But there's other things, even, for example, the learning that VR would be a great tool for training. And you mentioned training employees. But for customers and employees, we see that not as many people have DIY skills as they did in the past. And this might be a great way to help them learn. And so it's hard to put a quality to that kind of insight that allows us to better train our employees and make it a better place to work. So sometimes there's other learnings that come out of what we're doing. All the time there are. They don't necessarily tie back exactly to, you know, a bottom line, but might help improve safety or employee satisfaction and all of these other factors that go into what makes something a success.

Brian: [00:32:11] Right. Totally. That makes sense. Yeah. So obviously, dollars and cents aren't the only measure of success. I think I probably should've put it as... When do you hope to consider one of these a success? But I think you kind of answered that in saying that it isn't necessarily about even seeing something be a success or not a success. It's about exploring what's possible and what's next. And I think by doing so, you're going to have some wins, and some of it's just going to say, okay, well, maybe that's part of the future down the road. I think that's good. I think that's a good lesson for our listeners as well. Not everything that you try is going to be successful, and you shouldn't necessarily take that as a problem. It's part of exploring how to grow your business and really be the person that gets out in front of something. So another part of the lab is is also, I've noticed, making the world a better place. You're focused on reusing and cleaner products and finding ways to improve the world. I think that's actually really helpful for innovation, because usually when we try to do things like that, we're actually moving the entire world forward when we do that. And so I love that you guys are focused on that. Can you give me some examples of those projects you're working on?

Amanda: [00:33:54] Yeah. And for a little context of how that fits in strategically, Lowe's is a purpose driven company, and the purpose is to help people love where they live. And so that gives us a lot of latitude to think about what's possible and how innovation can help improve that future. So, for example, one of our partners is Singularity University, which is an amazing organization in Mountain View, California, and we partner with them to create a challenge called the Clean Water Challenge and it challenged citizen scientists to create a device that would pasteurize water using solar energy. But the catch was you had to buy all of your materials at Lowe's. And so it was a fun way to kind of constrain innovators to come up with a device that we ended up having one winner in, like a sub 50 dollar category and then one above. But something that would be very affordable and could be deployed in parts of the world where having access to clean water is a real concern. Another project that we've worked on that we really loved was partnering with XPRIZE to scope out what a potential XPRIZE could be around the future of housing. And so last year, we were part of their annual vision competition, which is where teams come together to compete to potentially become the next XPRIZE. And our team was totally focused on safe and healthy housing. And so there we were really looking at, you know, potentially new materials, even the idea of could we grow our homes one day and things that are even further future than a lot of what the labs is working on. But, you know, once again, it all goes back to that core purpose of helping people love where they live. And we view our role in that is really to seed the future ways in which Lowe's will continue to fulfill that purpose.

Brian: [00:35:47] That's amazing. One of the things that really caught my idea was the plastic recycler.

Amanda: [00:35:52] Oh, yeah.

Brian: [00:35:53] So cool.

Amanda: [00:35:55] Yeah. And so that one came out of our partnership with a company called Made in Space, and they actually built the first 3D printer that can operate in zero gravity. And we partnered with them to send that printer to the International Space Station. So the first commercial tool printed in space was a Lowe's Kobalt Wrench. And that's actually being used today by astronauts to create tools that they use. And really, the idea of our partnership with them was to take lessons from space and bring them back to Earth, which we've seen throughout history. There's been a number of great innovations that came out of space originally. And so one of the other things that we've worked on with them is a recycling technology that can take plastic and turn it into filament for 3D printers. And then you could create new things out of it. So this idea of a circular economy and turning waste into value is also something that we're really excited about.

Brian: [00:36:51] Yeah, it's absolutely amazing. I love the idea of that closed loop. And I think that obviously there's a lot of questions around that, like how much energy does it take to do that?

Amanda: [00:37:08] Yeah.

Brian: [00:37:09] But the more we focus on, the better we get at it, the more viable it's going to become. You mentioned 3D printing, which leads me to another thing that you're focused on, which is on demand manufacturing and the 3D printing world. I think that there's a lot ahead here. You mentioned like even printing a wrench, or I think you could probably print a lot of parts. I think this could just completely disrupt the aftermarket parts industry and other industries, maybe. Could you give me some good examples of what's going on here?

Amanda: [00:37:45] Yes. So here, the problem that we started with was how do you get people exactly what they want, exactly when they need it? And so we introduced 3D printing and 3D scanning services in our stores to help meet that need for customers. And so on the 3D printing side, we had some home items, office items, things like that, that you could customize and print in almost any material, and they could either be produced in the store or it could be shipped to your home. And we also have trained 3D technicians in the store who could help scan your items, the things that were out of production or even broken. And then we could manipulate that file and print you a new one. And one of my favorite customer stories coming out of that service was we had someone come in and this person had an antique French bicycle from World War Two. And the clip on the bike had broken. And so he brought that in. And, you know, there's no other way to get that now. And we were able to scan that broken clip, digitally repair the file and print him a new one in medal, and have that sent to his house. So really like finding these ways to make impossible things possible was what was really exciting coming out of that service.

Brian: [00:39:02] Yeah, that's so cool. I mean, I think of things like infinite support. Like you have something and you have endless support because it can always be repaired in some way. I'm also, I think, less waste because you're gonna be able to maintain things for longer periods of time that you might not have been able to do in the past. But that's just a couple of things that come to mind. But so many advances ahead and also obviously a lot of more fuel saved, less shipping and just so many benefits out of on-demand manufacturing. On the show we've talked a lot about like how on-demand manufacturing could disrupt fashion, but it really has the ability to disrupt just about any industry. And so it's really cool that you could see you guys getting out ahead of it. What would you say? How far down the road are you to this sort of on demand and also custom focus? Are there any ways that the general public can interact with this service right now?

Amanda: [00:40:15] Right now, we don't currently have that one in market anywhere. We are continuing to do a ton on the 3D scanning and content creation side, which I'd be happy to speak more about. But on the 3D printing side, I think that there's still a little bit ways to go for the technology. Speaking about, you know, what's closest to the consumer, I think with 3D printing to match the expectation of a product there's still some work to be done on the material side and other things like that. And so but even that, you know, we've learned a lot about what other partners we might need to work with to make that possible. And so we also have a partnership with Desktop Metal, which is doing some really exciting things with metal 3D printing, which are making that more affordable and accessible than it ever has been before. So kind of talking to you about what's successful or not. You know, we made the decision not to continue with the line of 3D printable items at this point and to really continue on the 3D scanning side where we saw a lot of promise. But we'll be ready to pick back up on the 3D printing as we continue to think about new use cases, new materials, and new ways to bring that back to the customer.

Brian: [00:41:32] Interesting. That's really cool to hear that you've kind of made a strategic decision to sort of pause until that technology advances. I think that's another good lesson to learn from what you guys are doing, which is sometimes you have to put things on ice for a little while and that's ok.

Amanda: [00:41:49] Yeah, we don't look that as a failure by any means, because we've learned a lot and made some decisions on how to move forward with other pieces of it. For example, maybe looking at other manufacturing techniques that are still additive manufacturing, but maybe not 3D printing. And so there's a lot of other things we're exploring based on what we learned with those first early pilots.

Brian: [00:42:12] That's awesome. Another thing that I think is really cool about what you're doing is I think this isn't just a US based approach. You're working across the world. And one of the things that you're really focused on is something you call Collider. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Amanda: [00:42:30] We have a Collider program that's based in Bangalore, India. And so we have a team there, a Lowe's Innovation Labs team based in India. And really, they're tasked with engaging with the startup ecosystem there and finding new partners for us. And this was kind of a surprise to me when I first learned it. But maybe your listeners are very aware. But Bangalore is one of the hottest startup cities in the world, and there's a ton of growth and innovation there. And the maturity of these companies is really coming along. And so we've had partners there in the AR/VR space and other companies that we're working with. So that team is specifically focused on running this Collider, which is very incubator like, but really intended to be pretty flexible and allow us to work with companies together and collaborate on finding opportunities to bring to life for Lowe's.

Brian: [00:43:21] That's cool. Do you typically... So you said you're more flexible than an incubator. Sometimes incubators can have periods where things end. Do run these longer? What's your period of trial?

Amanda: [00:43:34] You're exactly right. I mean, it's kind of a rolling basis. I would say, you know, loosely speaking, every quarter, we're kind of bringing in new companies, but really working to the end state is not some like a demo day and then we go on our way, but it's really hopefully coming to a project that we can work on together and bring to life. And for the startups, it's the chance to get their technology in front of U.S. customers and really reach a whole new market.

Brian: [00:44:04] That's so cool. I think innovation is... We get so caught up in what we're doing here in the U.S. far too often. And so I think this is a great example of ways to drive innovation throughout the world and really think about your company beyond just sort of the U.S. market. Do you have some good examples of projects that have come out of Collider?

Amanda: [00:44:37] Nothing that I can speak to yet. But we definitely have some exciting things in the works.

Brian: [00:44:42] Very cool. Very cool. So a lot of the projects we've talked about are mostly listed on your web site. And if our listeners want to learn more about them, they can go read up on them there. Is there anything that you have that's not listed there that's coming out that you can start to give us some hints about?

Amanda: [00:45:06] Well, we have a project coming up soon that will be another method of manufacturing. I'll leave it at that. But we're continuing our partnership with Made in Space to look at new ways at building seemingly impossible things. So we're pretty excited about that. We have an event happening next week on September 13th in D.C. called Pitch & Flow. And we're pretty excited about this, too. It's actually a partnership with the U.S. State Department and a group called Unreasonable to pair up and coming entrepreneurs who are working on problems that are aligned with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and up and coming emcees or hip hop artists. And we're actually going to have Pitch & Flow as this rap battle for good? It's kind of a new spin on narrative. We're gonna be neuroscience testing with people in the audience to learn about their reaction to the different stories that are being told. And it's really all around helping entrepreneurs tell a better narrative and really get people engaged in a mass audience with these massive challenges and how technology might help solve them.

Brian: [00:46:18] Is as a little LoweBot involved in the rap battle at all?

Amanda: [00:46:28] Not LoweBot, but we'll be announcing a new project there and so we'll actually be one of the entrepreneurs that's paired up with a startup artist there.

Brian: [00:46:37] Very cool. I love it. That's really fun. So I think I already mentioned this, but a lot of crazy stuff's been happening in retail this year, just countless store closings. It's basically a historic year. Do you see what you're doing is sort of the savior of retail, if you will? Do you think that retail is dying, changing, or really it's just being disrupted and has a future in sort of the types of things that the lab is working on?

Amanda: [00:47:17] Well, I mean, I think retail is definitely changing, but I think that, you know, every day there's some kind of doom and gloom headline, and it's really easy to get caught up in that. But really helping people get what they need and providing services and building these relationships with them is something that I don't think is ever going to go away. But I think the way that we think about that is, you know, what do you do in the face of all this change? And I think a lot of times companies just start throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. And it gets this idea of technology just for technology sake. And for us, that's where it really comes back to human behavior and tools like narrative or neuroscience to really understand how to make technology adapt to people who rather than the other way around. So I think that there's a lot of opportunity even in the face of big threats, but it requires us to be creative and think about the business differently than maybe we have in the past.

Brian: [00:48:14] One of the things that I love about this is your purchase so accessible. I mean, anyone can can build a story about their customer based off datapoints that they have. And I think that it's just the type of approach that, you know, even if you're not applying it all the time, it's something that you should do as an exercise. I think every merchant should do as an exercise just to get an idea of what types of stories they think their customers have and get feedback on those and find those challenges. I think building up those stories is a great exercise no matter who you are. Even if you're not looking to run some sort of epic innovation like the Lowe's Innovation Labs do, I think there's a lot to be said for that regardless. So we're kind of wrapping up here, but I'd love to hear... We ask two questions, kind of at the end. And you kind of already tipped your hand here. But what are some technologies or tips that you have for retailers for the here and now, you know, maybe for the next upcoming eight months? And what should they avoid? And then give our listeners some advice for the next five years. What should they really be looking out ahead and start to prepare for?

Amanda: [00:49:33] Well, I think I mentioned this before, but I really think we really try to lead by example in terms of, you know, what we see as core challenges and how different technologies might help solve those things. And I think that a lot of times we get the question of where do you start? And for me, I think that the most important thing is that you find a way to start taking action. I think it's really easy to get lost in kind of innovation theory or, you know, brainstorming and trying to get the idea perfect. I think it's more important to get something out in the world and start to learn what people really think about it, because as long as it's in your lab, you're never going to really know. And so I think for the next five years, my advice would be to get out there and start doing these things and really participate on this curve of exponential change and try to help shape the future by the actions that you take in the present.

Brian: [00:50:30] I love that advice. Get out there and start trying stuff. Based off of narrative. Find the stories. I love it.

Amanda: [00:50:38] Yeah.

Brian: [00:50:38] I think you're totally right. I think that a lot of people get either lost in in brainstorming and don't take action or get too caught up in trying to make something perfect. And getting out there and giving things to try and getting feedback on them, that's the market we live in. And the thing is, some of these things, they look overwhelming. But the technology is starting to mature. And you might find that it's easier to accomplish your vision than you even thought that it was. And so you'll never know that until you give it a shot. So great advice here at the end. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Amanda. I really enjoyed talking with you, and it's really exciting to hear what Lowe's is up to. I really appreciate it.

Amanda: [00:51:20] Oh, and thank you so much. It was a lot of fun. And I'm glad you're interested, and we're excited about it. So it's great to hear other people are, too.

Brian: [00:51:27] Absolutely. And thanks for listening. Future Commerce. As always, we want you to give us feedback about today's show, so please leave us some feedback in the Disqus comment box below or anywhere else you can find us, Twitter or LinkedIn or wherever. If you're subscribed on iTunes, as was always we'd love to have a five star review. You could also subscribe to listen to Future Commerce on iTunes and Google Play or listen right from your Amazon Echo with the phrase, "Alexa play Future Commerce podcast." And with that, keep looking towards the future.

Recent episodes

By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.