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Internet of Things: Hype or Hope?

Posted in Trends & Technologies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

An LG Smart Refrigerator.  Photo by David Berkowitz, CC license

IoT is, as a breakthrough technology, not that exciting, but it does have some practical possibilities.

The Internet of Things describes a network connected to physical objects.  These objects are either passive (another device must be used to detect them) or active (the object is capable of sending messages, data, etc.).

Examples of IoT in the consumer market are Bluetooth-enabled wearable devices to measure distance run or walked,, calories, steps, etc. and internet enabled home appliances like heating and air conditioning units that sense when people are in the house.

Technically, an object with an RFID tag can be part of an IoT network.  This is nothing new.  What is being hyped is the possibility of using active or passive devices together with software and the internet to create something valuable and truly innovative.  Imagine active devices on all of your products as they travel through your supply chain.  See any benefits?

PINC Solutions, Inc. markets connected sensors and software for managing truck fleets at plants and distribution centers.  It is a straightforward, practical application of IoT: trucks have RFID sensors that uniquely identify them; trucks are attached via software to delivery numbers, dock doors, destinations, and other information via a giant virtual whiteboard.  Having worked in logistics I immediately see the benefits.

This type of solution could measure wait times at pickup and delivery points, reduce idling and searching in a yard full of trucks for the one you need, and even provide real-time on-the-road status and ETA.

I see other areas where IoT might be a valuable solution:

Inventory: with good enough and cheap enough sensors, inventory accuracy could be improved by attaching sensors to inventory.  I say “good enough and cheap enough” because the existing versions of RFID tags simply don’t work with some types of inventory.  Airbus might find RFID tags useful to track airplane seats but tags embedded inside a densely stacked pallet of cases of product are not effective.  Also, strength of signal can vary among tags of today’s generation, resulting in incorrect scans when two or more tags are positioned closely together.

Retail: Already some stores are starting to use sensors to detect when inventory on the shelf is low.  If the trend continues and accuracy is good, this could be a revolution in retail inventory tracking, which is currently done by scanning UPC codes.  As the costs of sensors drops, more and more (lower value) products can be included in this type of solution.  Some hotel mini-bars now sense when items are consumed, eliminating the need to count, write down, and key in how many drinks and snacks a hotel guest had.

Machinery diagnostics: for complex production lines that are difficult to keep running at top performance for long periods, IoT sensors could continually measure and transmit machine parameters, output, speed, consistency of cycles, and other variables to create a visual record of performance that could then be correlated with unplanned downtime; cause and effect could more easily be determined and machine performance improved.

For more on this topic, check out this IoT primer published by Goldman Sachs.



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