Reimagining the ‘things’ of IoT
By 2023, the average CIO will be responsible for more than three times as many endpoints as in 2018, according to Gartner. While our collective vision for IoT’s impact on the future is grand in scale, it is still too easy for companies to get distracted by the minutiae of our present day IoT challenges. We’re missing the larger picture, and therefore the greater opportunities that the technology can offer.
Consider the “things” of IoT, or the devices: the chips, sensors, actuators, controllers, processors, and a host of other elements. There is a maze of complexity and detail in their individual functionality, quality and cost alone. But if you start there and don’t consider IoT as a holistic system, you’ll likely end up with a bunch of “things” that don’t perform the right tasks, don’t work well together, and can’t be relied upon to do the job.
When I think of the devices in an IoT network, I want them to be like my coworkers and partners in business. I want them to be smart. I want them to be connected and able to work well with each other. Plus, they need to be reliable and trusted. As in business, you might think you’ve combined top talent into a stellar team—but they still won’t succeed unless you’ve built a team that’s aligned to your business goals.
You already know the questions you need to ask when identifying the right devices for an IoT solution, because they’re the same questions you begin with when you’re building a team: What is my business problem? What do I want to accomplish? What is it that I want to enable?
Although this is standard advice, the data suggests it is easier said than done. A study by Cisco shows that 60% of IoT initiatives are proving to be more complex than expected. We suspect this is due to lack of clarity around the business objective.
And that’s a real shame, because every day, more and more is possible as prices for IoT components fall while their functionality increases.
The evolution of the IoT business case
For example, we work with companies that have high-volume water pumps in industrial settings around the world. Even with redundancies in place, it’s a huge disruption if any one of them fails. Over the last few years, companies have been testing how pressure, temperature and vibration sensors can enable predictive maintenance by not only continuously monitoring the data they capture, but by learning the data patterns that foreshadow pump failure.
To date, most companies have only been implementing IoT solutions for about 25% of their equipment. While they are addressing major pain points or potential disruptions—both of critical importance—they are not yet scaling IoT throughout their business. This is largely due to cost. However, MCU compute power is becoming more affordable than ever. Both data communications and power efficiency are now available at more scalable price points, and artificial intelligence (AI) at the edge is making real-time analysis even more accessible. We are truly at the point where we are fundamentally changing the way we do business. Now the biggest barrier to scaling is the complexity of managing today’s implementation, and our legacy systems, through the lens of tomorrow’s business objectives.
Three qualities of valuable ‘things’
It’s time to pick our heads up and focus on the business objectives we need to achieve today to realize our vision for tomorrow. As I said earlier, I think of the devices in an IoT system as I think of an organization’s people and look for three critical qualities:
Smart – How smart? And in what way? It depends on the application. As with people, IoT demands the right type of intelligence in the right quantities, and in the right places. A professional baseball team requires one mix of intelligence capabilities; a pharmaceutical firm requires another. In IoT terms, the question is how much analytics and artificial intelligence do you need, and where do you put the intelligence: on your devices, in the cloud, or both?
Connected – No employee is an island, and teamwork is paramount. Same with devices. You’ll need to consider how to get as many things as possible connected and interacting. Today, most companies have far more disconnected devices than internetworked devices, but the falling costs of processing, data and storage are dramatically expanding the possibilities for productive connection.
Trusted – This is a big one, both for people managers and IoT owners. If you’re taking action on bad IoT insights, your things could hurt people. Think of a driverless car that starts interpreting red lights as go. As with any connected entity, IoT systems are cyberattack targets. Fortunately, IoT providers are figuring out end-to-end security. They’re also developing best practices around integrating operational technology (things) with information technology (IT), where security is more of a standard practice. It will be important for IoT to stay a step ahead of hackers.
IoT can save your day
It’s amazing what you can do with a thoughtful approach like this.
For example, we’re collaborating with Microsoft to connect a major coffee retailer’s brewing machines. The immediate objective is to reduce and/or eliminate machine downtime, and because they’re leveraging Microsoft’s Azure Sphere solution, their endpoints will be highly secured. Eliminating one service call per year per store will cover the cost of the IoT implementation.
The long-term vision for this business benefit is far bigger than a few lost sales. You see, this company’s customers really rely on their coffee. I don’t want to say their lives depend on it, but an issue at the café can start anyone’s day off badly. So for our customer, optimizing the performance of their brewing machines (and keeping them trustworthy) is not just about saving money on maintenance, but also preserving a great customer experience, keeping employees happy and productive, and sustaining the value of the brand.
This is just the beginning. There are many more insights to glean from the world of coffee and from the world of business. Ultimately, IoT is an enormous opportunity when approached in a logical, methodical way.
That means starting with the use case, and then selecting the building blocks. Think of the “things” of your IoT strategy as the key personnel that drive your business. Every business needs the right mix of talent. And every IoT implementation needs the right mix of devices that are smart, work well together, and can be trusted to accomplish their mission.