Getting Smart With Big Data
May 10 2013 by William J. Holstein
Sub-Zero, a mid-sized company based in the Midwest, has been able to create a brand of stainless steel, side-by-side refrigerators that have become status symbols for Hollywood starlets and Wall Street investment bankers alike. Its reputation for 20 years of reliability is one reason Sub-Zero can command premier pricing and compete against much larger rivals, such as Whirlpool and General Electric’s appliance division. One of the keys? Sub-Zero is a master of manipulating Big Data.
Like a growing number of other small and medium-sized companies, Sub-Zero has learned how to move beyond simply analyzing structured data, the type that exists in neat little rows and columns in a spreadsheet. It is now also analyzing “unstructured” data from customer service calls and warranty claims. Unstructured data does not exist in numerical form and often has to be massaged into a form that allows it to be blended to create a coherent picture of a company’s operations. Data-savvy companies are now also analyzing social media and capturing information from mobile devices, which are other signs of growing sophistication.
When smaller companies reach the big leagues of data analysis, it pays off, often giving them capabilities that larger firms lack. In the case of Sub-Zero, the company uses software from SAS, based in Cary, North Carolina, to search recordings of customer service calls for word pairs such as “compressor” and “failure.” The system applies “fuzzy logic” to analyze fields of text. If the system detects a problem, the company seeks to match the information up with the serial number of the refrigerator in question to determine exactly when it was made and what parts from which vendors were used. It also mines warranty claims to look for any patterns of quality or reliability problems. That detailed information flows back to product development and reliability teams, who are then able to improve the way the refrigerators are made and work out any kinks with suppliers. In one specific case, the company used its data system, which was upgraded last year, to identify a risk of failure in an electronic component many months earlier than its older system would have allowed. Thanks to that insight, Sub-Zero reckons it shipped 5,000 fewer refrigerators with risks of failure, avoiding as much as $250,000 in warranty expenses.