The Data of Things

The Internet of Things is all about data – the collection of data from dumb things or from what-were-previously-dumb things. This data makes these dumb things smart. And it is this data that makes the Internet of Things such an interesting innovation and the emerging technology I personally am most invested in.

Take for example, a dumb thing like a pallet. The pallet is used to transport goods from the factory where those goods were manufactured to the retail shop where they are sold. In between the factory and the retailer, the pallet may travel a circuitous journey across the ocean or through the sky, stay stored for months at a depot or in trailers, be subject to all sorts of weather conditions.

The Internet of Things allows us to track, analyse and improve this pallet’s journey. More than that, if the pallet is equipped with the right sensors, it can send an incredible amount of useful data on the temperature, routes and conditions which is particularly useful for perishable and pharmaceutical goods.

For example, if this pallet has remained stationery for too long, an alert can be sent that it needs to move because of the expiration date on the product it is transporting.

Analysts reviewing this pallet’s journey can identify efficiencies to improve the supply chain for future pallet transportation. This is how Airbus is using IOT trackers to communicate the position of components for manufacturing using alerts in case of unexpected movements. The normal journey can be mapped and ringfenced and any anomalies spotted real time.

Cheap, accurate, quick to deploy and energy-saving, it works great… providing even more visibility for daily operations.” – Maxime Saraiva, IoT Technical Specialist at Airbus

This same technology can be applied as a Proof of Delivery. If the tracker records the weight of the pallet, for example, then the weight and any changes to this weight can be tracked throughout the supply chain.

GPS technology has been around for years but as any smartphone user knows, GPS drains battery life. What is exciting about IOT trackers is that they are low powered so they can be attached to an asset and can track that asset for 3 – 7 years on the same set of batteries, no recharging needed. 

The tracked asset is therefore free to be mobile because the communication network uses either cellular towers (NB-IOT) or radio towers (Sigfox). The island of Ireland, for example, is completely covered, as is most of mainland Europe and the UK.

The asset – the thing – can be anything from expensive construction equipment to perishable fruit. Once the tracker is attached, it requires no further maintenance. It wakes up, sends the data it records and will continue to do so for as long as the battery life lasts which is a minimum of many years. 

Modern trucks are equipped with cutting edge telematics software which can do increasingly sophisticated tasks such as realtime health monitoring of the engine but these tasks require power, lots of it. This isn’t a problem for trucks because trucks are powered but the trailers that trucks haul are not – once they have been disconnected from the truck. With a simple, cheap IOT tracker, these non-power assets can still be tracked while they sit in a layaway for possibly years.

IOT technology allows two way communication so the network can send data back to the tracker. This is useful for food safety or medical sample monitoring. If the temperature of a fridge, for example, drops out of a permitted range, a message can be sent to the tracker for remedial action.

Collecting this data is commercially viable because these IOT trackers are inexpensive, are durable and require no management once they have been connected to the “thing”. It is the new analysis services, however, like Power BI which make this IOT opportunity so compelling. Data visualisation tools allow analysts to make sense of the huge proliferation of data that IOT delivers from mapping and graphing the assets to geo-fencing and notifications at a scale that was previously too expensive.

IOT confirms the requirement for businesses to invest in platforms that can handle IOT data. This series asks the question – should you build your own solution or buy a readymade solution. The argument for buying is stronger when you consider the volumes of data IOT is going to deliver.

Returning to our pallet example, the data we collect from the pallet can be tied to the specific items that the pallet is deliver. With a readymade platform, these items can be tracked in an ERP and CRM application that can be accessed by operations staff for delivery dates, by customer service representatives so customers know where their items have been and by service engineers to study the item’s product history for improved maintenance. This is what we call the digital (or data) feedback loop.

The Data of Things feedback loop delivers true actionable business intelligence. 

IOT technology can insure products are delivered from the factory floor to the customer’s hands in proper working order and can get these products there as quickly and efficiently as possible but for a proper functioning digital feedback loop you need access to a platform that can handle and process the enormous volume of data that IOT delivers.

IOT is one technology innovation where the benefits of buying outweigh building your own solution. And IOT is not some distant emerging technology that may impact industry in a couple of years. It is here today and is delivering business benefit now to those forward thinking enterprises that have invested in IOT trackers.

The next blog in this “Build versus Buy” series will discuss another emerging technology that has already arrived – Artificial Intelligence – and will describe how this innovation is already improving Business Applications with actionable data.