Tyson exec: Northwest Arkansas poised to become technology hub

Scott Spradley believes Northwest Arkansas, home to Walmart and Tyson Foods, is known around the world as a supply chain and logistics center of excellence. That awareness has resulted in an onslaught of new company expansion in the past five years.

Spradley, chief technology & automation officer at Tyson Foods, was a speaker at the Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit in Bentonville on Monday (Oct. 17). He said the year he joined Tyson Foods in 2017, there were 142 new companies that also started up in the region. He said the pandemic that hit in early 2020 reduced the number of startups to about 40 per year, but that’s understandable given ongoing economic uncertainty.

“Overall, I am very proud of what has happened here and the strong collaboration that exists between companies, startups and academics that is allowing Tyson and other companies to bring deeper technology applications into their operations over the five years I have been here,” Spradley said.

He said there are 1,700 technology jobs open in the region, and five years ago, there might have been 400. Spradley sees growth in the technology job sector as proof the region has the potential to become a technology hub. Spradley said technology can help most companies improve performance, deepen their customer service, better manage inventories and also help to solve the country’s severe labor shortage while helping the overall bottom line.

He said it makes more sense to use technology to do the same task a million times rather than doing a million things just once. He said replacing some human tasks with technology can increase scale and efficiency and also allow humans to take on more responsibility and do more complex work.

Spradley said there has been a shift in where technology workers want to live. He said as they fled large urban tech centers of Boston and Palo Alto, Calif., amid the pandemic, many sought opportunities in the country’s center like Northwest Arkansas. As companies began to call workers back to their coastal offices, he said many who had moved to the region did not want to return.

“I am telling you there is technology brilliance residing in the region today, and that was not the case just a few years ago,” Spradley said.

He said that the University of Arkansas has built up a strong technology talent pipeline with a strong data science program. He said in the four years the new data science curriculum has been in place, from graduating 30 data scientists to 120 last year. He said the University graduated 55 students in 2017 with technology-related degrees, with the number rising to 700 in the recent graduating class.

“This is huge for all the companies around the state that are looking to hire young technology talent,” Spradley said.

Tyson is one of the companies in the region that has continued to invest in technology. Spradley said the work Tyson is doing with Denver-based Palantir has been transformative to the business as it focuses largely on data analytics to help Tyson develop machine learning and artificial intelligence applications. Spradley said in the midst of Tyson’s digital transformation, machine learning and AI have become the blocking and tackling drills that are essential to the daily operations across Tyson Foods.

Automation practices for margin management and robotics in manufacturing are two ways Tyson has deployed technology to solve problems. The company also uses drones to inspect buildings and secure Tyson facilities. Spradley said drone technology can also help Tyson with animal tracking, herd management, and identifying animal safety issues or animal health concerns. Blockchain is also used by Tyson Foods for smart contracts and in other applications across its global operations.

This is the first time in two years that the NWA Tech Summit has been held in person. The two-day speaker lineup includes several tech executives from Walmart who will speak on drone usage, autonomous vehicles, cyber security and supply chain automation. J.B. Hunt tech execs will speak about the company’s technology transformation. University of Arkansas blockchain educators are also on the agenda.

Speakers on healthcare include employees from Walmart, Arkansas Children’s, Washington Regional Medical System and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

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