Tyson exec: Northwest Arkansas on track to become tech hub

According to Scott Spradley, Northwest Arkansas, home to Walmart and Tyson Foods, is known around the world as a center of excellence for its supply chain and logistics. Over the past five years, this awareness has led to a violent onslaught of new company expansion.

Spradley, chief technology and automation officer at Tyson Foods, speaks at the Northwest Arkansas Tech Summit in Bentonville on Monday (Oct. 17). The year he joined Tyson Foods in 2017, there were also 142 new companies launched in the region, he said. The pandemic that erupted in early 2020 has reduced the number of startups to about 40 a year, but that’s understandable given the ongoing economic uncertainty, he said.

“Overall, I’m very proud of what’s happening here and the strong collaboration that exists between companies, startups, and academia, which has allowed Tyson and others to bring deeper insights into the five years I’ve been here. technology applications into their operations,” Spradley said.

He said there were 1,700 tech job openings in the region, up from 400 five years ago. Spradley sees growth in the tech job sector as evidence that the region has the potential to become a tech hub. Technology can help most companies improve performance, deepen customer service, and better manage inventory, Spradley said, and it can also help address the country’s severe labor shortage, while helping to improve the overall bottom line.

Using technology to do the same task a million times makes more sense than just doing it a million times, he said. Replacing some human tasks with technology could increase scale and efficiency, he said, and would also allow humans to take on more responsibilities and do more complex jobs.

Where tech workers want to live has changed, Spradley said. During the pandemic, as they fled the big urban tech hubs of Boston and Palo Alto, Calif., many sought opportunities in centers of the country like northwest Arkansas, he said. As companies begin to call workers back to their coastal offices, he said many who moved to the area didn’t want to come back.

“I’m telling you, the region has remarkable technology today, and it wasn’t like that just a few years ago,” Spradley said.

The University of Arkansas has built a strong pipeline of technical talent and a strong data science program, he said. He said new data science courses have been in place for four years, from 30 data scientists graduating to 120 last year. The university had 55 students with technology-related degrees in 2017, and that number rose to 700 in the most recent graduating class, he said.

“This is a big deal for all the companies across the state looking to recruit young tech talent,” Spradley said.

Tyson is one of the companies in the region that continues to invest in technology. Spradley said Tyson’s work with Denver-based Palantir is transformative for the business, as it focuses primarily on data analytics to help Tyson develop machine learning and artificial intelligence applications. In Tyson’s digital transformation, machine learning and artificial intelligence have become an essential blockade and response exercise for Tyson Foods’ day-to-day operations, Spradley said.

The automated practice of profit management and robotics in manufacturing are two ways Tyson is deploying technology to solve problems. The company also uses drones to inspect buildings and secure Tyson facilities. Drone technology could also help Tyson with animal tracking, herd management and identifying animal safety or animal health issues, Spradley said. Tyson Foods also uses blockchain for smart contracts and other applications for its global operations.

This is the first time in two years that the NWA Technology Summit has been held in person. The two-day speaker lineup includes several tech executives from Walmart who will speak on drone use, self-driving cars, cybersecurity and supply chain automation. JB Hunt technology executives will talk about the company’s technology transformation. Blockchain educators at the University of Arkansas are also on the agenda.

Health care speakers included employees from Walmart, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Washington Regional Health System and the University of Arkansas School of Medical Sciences.

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