It’s hard to miss the fact that the world is getting smarter. It started with phones, then spread to watches, cars, televisions and refrigerators. In business and industry, devices and machinery are increasingly intelligent and connected. Whereas previously, the internet was comprised of connected computers, now electronic devices and machinery of all shapes and sizes are online and sharing information with each other. This situation is what we have come to describe as the Internet of Things.
Today there are over 15 billion “things” (connected devices) making up the Internet of Things. And according to Intel, that will increase to 200 billion by 2020.
The Internet of Things is the driving force behind a number of waves of change which are sweeping through business and society.
Smart Homes bring connected lighting, heating, security and entertainment systems together to more efficiently use energy and increase the comfort of our living spaces. Smart Cities projects utilise connected civic infrastructure – transport, waste management, street lighting – to do much the same thing but on a municipal scale.
Modern airliner engines are fitted with hundreds of sensors which monitor every factor of mechanical performance and every external event. This means engineers can “predict the future” by determining exactly what circumstances will lead to performance issues, and determine optimal schedules for maintenance. This is what is being talked about as “Predictive maintenance”. Technology working on the same principle is in use at automated vehicle manufacturing plants in Japan and steel mills in Russia.
In law enforcement, networks of sensors have been set up across US cities designed to alert officers as quickly as possible when gunfire is heard. Additionally, detectives are becoming increasingly adept at using individual’s digital footprints to crack crimes, tracking their movement through data collected on devices such as Amazon Echos and Fit Bits.
What does this mean for business?
At the fundamental level, it’s all about data, and the vast increase in the amount of information available to us, thanks to all of the machines which are now measuring, monitoring and recording everything around them. Smart businesses are the ones which are learning to take that information and use it to change the way they deliver services and engage with customers.
When I ask “Is your business IoT ready?”, this is the crux of the issue. Do you have a plan for how you will put this data to work to generate growth and drive efficiencies? And are you ready to face the challenges that come with transforming to a data-driven business model?
There are three key areas where business can put the data generated by IoT infrastructure to work. They are:
- Generating market insights
- Creating more intelligent products and services
- Improving operations and performance
Using IoT to generate market insights
Understanding how your customers use your products and services is central to providing them with what they want. Since the switch to a cloud-based “as-a-service” model, software providers such as Microsoft and Autodesk are increasingly able to track how users interact with their products, meaning features which are not used can be removed, or perhaps made more understandable, if data suggests people are finding them not user-friendly.
The same strategy is used by marketers to understand customers. By more closely monitoring and understanding habits, promotional campaigns can be optimised to reach more targeted and accurately-segmented audiences. Businesses take an automated approach to developing one-to-one relationships with customers thanks to chatbots and near-field messages sent directly to smartphones. The aim here is often to reintroduce the “personal touch” that has been lost in customer relations since the world went online. Disney World’s Magic Bands are a great example of this idea taken to an extreme – the RFID wristbands function as hotel keys, wallets and ride passes but also communicate with thousands of sensors throughout the park. This means staff can anticipate what they will want, or need, and work to make their visit a little more magical.
Using IoT to create more intelligent products and services
In some industries, the development of this technology has enabled key players to turn the world upside-down. Leading players in the sharing economy, such as Uber, Lyft and AirB’n’B, use smartphone apps to enable anyone to be a taxi driver or accommodation provider.
Power companies use smart meters to better understand the flow of power into people’s homes, enabling them to predictively increase and decrease supply levels as usage changes, to minimise waste.
In a recent announcement, Google said that a partnership with Walmart will mean shoppers can order from a catalogue of over two million products using their voice alone, through its Google Home device.
Some businesses have made the switch to providing data itself as a service. The most blatant examples are the internet giants such as Google and Facebook, which derive their core income from selling data about their users’ behaviour to advertisers. Others include General Electric and John Deere which both offer subscription-based access to data gathered from their industrial and agricultural machinery.
Using IoT to improve operations and performance
Companies also use data collected through IoT devices to identify areas of the business where efficiencies and improvements could be made. This could be through predictive maintenance – understanding the conditions where failures occur and maintenance is necessary – or it could be through automation of aspects which are tedious or time-consuming for humans.
One example is in healthcare where boring but vital work such as checking medical scans for early signs of illness is now routinely carried out by robots, freeing up doctors’ time to spend with patients and on work which requires a human touch.
At one hospital in China where this is being done, machine learning algorithms have shown themselves to be at least as accurate as humans at correctly diagnosis lung cancers from medical scan imagery – but hundreds of times faster. This doesn’t mean doctors will be replaced – but their highly valuable (and expensive) time can be reassigned to tasks which computers cannot yet carry out.
Sounds great – what’s the catch?
Of course, changes as monumental as these bring unprecedented problems as well as opportunities. With data becoming increasingly useful, it becomes increasingly valuable, and as with anything valuable, has to be handled with extreme care.
Storing data isn’t free – whether it’s cloud based and you pay for it by subscription, or you have your own warehouses or data lakes and all the expenses which maintaining them entail. And due to its size, storing Big Data can have a big cost. If your approach to the IoT challenge is simply to collect as much data as possible and then work out what to do with it, this can easily cause problems.
Above that are concerns about data privacy – sensitive personal information leaking into the wrong hands can be hugely damaging to individuals’ lives, and because of this harsh penalties are handed to businesses and organisations which are negligent with, or misuse, their customer data. This is why as well as a clear idea of what it will be used for, policies on security and access should be firmly in place before any business starts collecting personal information.
The Internet of Things presents huge opportunities for businesses which have the imagination and practical ability to put it to work. For many this will involve acquiring new skills or re-tooling a workforce to work with data and smart machinery at industrial scale. The first step is to work out where you can use it to make an impact, and ensure you have a sound strategy in place before you start spending money on it.