Technology is rapidly transforming the way business is conducted, and technological change seems to be picking up speed. Consider how everyday life in the office has been altered just in the last five years: E-mail is rapidly making the fax machine as obsolete as the manual typewriter; beepers have been replaced by cell phones, which are in turn morphing into multifunctional “personal data assistants;” phone calls and voicemail have migrated to the Web; and spell-check has taken the place of the dictionary. As the business world adapts to these changes, Nevada Business Journal looked at four brick-and-mortar industries to see how technology has affected them.
Although bankers have a reputation of being conservative, they have had to adapt quickly to satisfy customers demanding more online services and more high-tech functionality. Bill Uffelman, president and CEO of the Nevada Bankers Association, said three principal technology trends are changing the way financial institutions conduct business.
First, online banking has meant financial institutions must now spend a great deal of time and money combating high-tech fraud. They must try to outsmart criminals intent on using computer technology to steal customers’ identities, create counterfeit transactions, and cheat banks through a seemingly endless variety of schemes. “We’re spending more each year beefing up our IT departments, but it seems like we’re always one step behind the career criminals,” Uffelman noted.
Advances in imaging technology have made it easier for criminals to create nearly perfect counterfeits of checks, so Nevada State Bank (NSB) is now offering a product designed to protect its business customers against losses due to check fraud. Using the banks’ Positive Pay Service, a client company electronically sends the bank a list of the checks and clearing-house transactions it has issued, and the bank’s computer then compares items presented for payment with the list it has on file.
Another high-tech trend affecting banks is offering more services on cell phones or other mobile devices. According to Javelin Strategy & Research, which serves the financial services industry, only 36 million U.S. adults had access to mobile banking services in 2007, but by 2012, that number will reach 186 million people as middle-market and smaller institutions realize its potential for attracting and retaining customers.
Check imaging, which allows digital images of checks to be used in place of paper checks, is another high-tech trend changing banking. In 2005, NSB was the first Nevada bank to use this technology in a product called Remote Deposits. Business customers use a desktop device to scan checks and turn them into images that are transmitted to a central processing center, eliminating the need to bring paper checks to the bank. Hanan Sabri-Scott, senior vice president at NSB, noted that deposits can be made outside traditional hours and checks clear more quickly. Although NSB is still one of the leaders in this type of business service, other banks have had to offer similar products in order to compete. As Uffelman noted, “If your bank isn’t offering a product like Remote Deposits to your business customer, he won’t be your customer very long.”
Web-based lockbox services have also proven popular with business customers, according to Sabri-Scott. These services allow a company to have all checks from its customers sent to a lockbox, where bank employees open the mail, scan all checks and accompanying documents, credit the company’s bank account, and create customized reports. The company can view all transactions online at a secure site. “This creates efficiencies in several ways,” explained Sabri-Scott. “You can access the information 24 hours a day, it cuts down on the time employees have to spend dealing with these transactions, and it reduces opportunities for employee fraud. You can basically bank from your office, without ever going into a branch.”
NSB recently rolled out a product that takes the lockbox solution one step further. In addition to basic lockbox functions, Provider Pay lets medical offices track insurance claims, reconcile payments made for each patient and archive data.
Commercial Real Estate
Before the advent of MapQuest and GPS units, a detailed city map book was part of a real estate broker’s stock in trade. Now, one commercial real estate company has taken digital mapping to a whole new level.
Commerce CRG, an independently owned and operated member of the Cushman & Wakefield Alliance, has developed a proprietary system called AREA, Automated Real Estate Aerials. Mike Hillis, managing partner and principal broker for the Las Vegas office, explained that the software program combines map-based components like Google Earth and aerial photography with database components, resulting in a multi-layered image containing details customized to a client’s specifications.
“We can give a client a market tour on the big screen in our conference room, as opposed to getting in the car and driving around town for three days,” said Hillis. “If a client is looking for 20,000 square feet of industrial space, we can pull up all the properties that fit that description, show on our aerial map where each location is in relation to the freeway system and rail lines, demographics, traffic counts, planned roadways – the bottom line is, anything contained in a data file can be put on our maps. By mousing over a symbol on the map, you can pull up information about parcel size, permits and zoning, lease rates, average household income, or whatever you want.”
Ken Marrama, the company’s director of research and marketing, noted, “Any real estate agent can go to these various public sources and end up with a big pile of disorganized information, but what we’ve done is integrate everything and have it available almost immediately. We can print out a map in 10 minutes and ship it out overnight to an out-of-town client. Meanwhile, people doing it the old-fashioned way are in the back room putting stickers on a map they’ve downloaded somewhere off the Internet.”
Hillis said representatives of a real estate investment trust recently visited his office, looking for sites for medical office buildings in Southern Nevada. “We quickly put together a map showing the locations of all the local hospitals, who owned the land around those hospitals, how many households were close to each site they were considering, and where growth was heading so they could build in the path of progress. They said they’d been in markets all over the US and had never seen this level of sophistication anywhere else.”
He continued, “It’s part of [Commerce CRG’s] strategic positioning to invest heavily in technology. Our mapping department, headquartered in Salt Lake City, is where our servers are located. You couldn’t afford to put this kind of technology in multiple locations. We have a team of people in Salt Lake City who have put all this technology together, and we have invested more than seven figures in the computer server system to perform all these functions.”
Healthcare companies have frequently been early adopters of technology, especially in the field of medical imaging. In Las Vegas, the members of the Sunrise Hospital system have been using a system called PACS (Picture Archiving Communications System) for the last four years.
Vicki Gooss, director of imaging and cardiovascular services for Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center and Sunrise Children’s Hospital, explained that PACS allows hospitals to digitize and share medical images, which can be processed in a fraction of the time it takes to develop film. The digital PACS file contains not only the image, but also data about the patient, and even physicians’ notes. This increases accuracy, said Gooss, and eliminates the chance of films getting lost.
“It’s a much more efficient way for physicians to manage their patients,” noted Gooss. “Before PACS, doctors had to go to the radiology department at the hospital to view images. Now they can access files from a workstation on the hospital floor, from another hospital across town, or from their office. Images can be accessed from outside the hospital via a password-protected Internet site, and they can quickly be sent anywhere in the world for review by specialists.”
Doug Long, vice president of professional services at Sunrise, said, “Technology is no good unless it increases the quality of patient care, and PACS does this by cutting down the time between testing and treatment. If a young patient at MountainView Hospital has a CAT scan, the attending doctor can consult with the pediatric radiologist on staff at Sunrise Children’s Hospital instead of waiting for the radiologist to travel across town. The child gets the advantage of a specialist’s advice, and can quickly receive the proper treatment.”
Another high-tech innovation in use at Sunrise is the da Vinci surgical system, whose four robotic arms hold a set of miniaturized instruments and three high-resolution endoscopic cameras. When a surgeon’s hands move at the console, the system translates the full-sized movements into micro-actions by the tiny instruments. Waldo Feng MD, PhD is a pediatric surgeon at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center and Sunrise Children’s Hospital.
Feng, who specializes in surgery of the urinary tract, uses the da Vinci system to treat children who are born with birth defects affecting the ureter, the small tube that leads from the kidney to the bladder. Traditional surgery for this life-threatening condition required an incision from 4 to 6 inches long. “This was necessary to enable the surgeon to get all the instruments and retractors inside the body and have room for his hands to move around,” explained Feng. “The da Vinci robot allows me to use the tiny instruments to replicate my hands inside the body. I make three dime-sized incisions, one hidden inside the belly button. There’s less blood loss, much less post-operative pain, and the hospital stay is reduced from three days to one.”
Feng called the new robotic system another stage in the progression of surgical procedures. “First there was open surgery, then laparoscopic surgery, which doesn’t allow for complex movements and only shows a two-dimensional image. Then there’s robotic technology,” he explained. “By having three cameras instead of two, you get a true 3D image, and the jointed instruments give you a full range of motion. This isn’t a gimmick. It’s the wave of the future.”
One Nevada manufacturer embracing super-small technology in a big way is Altair Nanotechnologies, based in Reno. The company has devised a process that extracts titanium from a mineral called ilmenite, using it to manufacture materials with particle sizes measuring around 1 billionth of a meter, the size of just a few atoms. These manufactured “nano” materials are used in batteries, paints, coatings and medicines. Altair Nano’s products are shipped to end users across the U.S., in Europe and Asia.
Its flagship product is a battery that replaces the graphite in traditional lithium ion batteries with a titanium nano-compound. Altair’s 35 kilowatt-hour batteries are now being used to power all-electric vehicles. Alan Gotcher, PhD., the company’s president and CEO, said the new battery offers several advantages over the power cells now used in electric cars. Lithium ion batteries last only three years, but the new product has an estimated life of 15 years, and can operate in temperatures from 40 degrees below zero to 160 degrees above zero.
Lithium titanate batteries can be recharged in about 10 minutes at a high-voltage charging station, or between two and four hours if plugged into a 240-volt line at a home or business. Gotcher predicted that as electric cars grow in popularity, “filling stations” for recharging cars will become more available.
“My idea of an electric vehicle used to be a golf cart – slow and clumsy, with limited range,” remarked Gotcher. “But the vehicles we’re producing with Phoenix Motorcars [based in Southern California] have a top speed exceeding 100 mph, a range of 130 miles, and battery life of more than 250,000 miles.” Phoenix Motorcars’ full-sized, four-passenger, electric pickup trucks are set to hit the consumer market in 2009. Altair is also working with Britain-based Lightning Car Company to product a sports car with a range of more than 250 miles. Gotcher said concerns about the effects of auto emissions on the environment have increased interest in all-electric vehicles. “Our cars have zero emissions coming out of the tailpipe,” he remarked.
Companies producing energy from alternative sources like solar, wind and geothermal can also use batteries powered by Altair’s nano-particles. In December 2007, the company shipped several large battery packs to AES Corporation, a worldwide developer of power projects. AES is testing the batteries in a 2 megawatt energy storage system. “These battery packs can be as large as 50 feet long, 5 feet wide and 8 feet high,” explained Gotcher. “They can be used to store energy generated by a wind farm, a solar installation or a geothermal plant. This means alternative energy producers don’t have to use transmission lines to get their energy onto the power grid.”
Altair has also established partnerships with drug manufacturers Eli Lilly and Company and Spectrum Pharmaceuticals to use nano-particles in drugs to aid in treating kidney disease. Sherwin-Williams and PPG are using Altair’s nano-particles to create better coating materials and rust-resistant primers for aircraft aluminum.
More Tech on the Horizon
With technology reinventing itself every day, so-called traditional businesses depend more and more on high-tech products and services in order to remain competitive. Low-tech and high-tech are becoming more interdependent, creating a synergy that will be a powerful economic force in the future.