The Joy of Cooking IoT
LUIS ALVAREZ HAS BEEN DELIVERING Internet of Things solutions to his clients for almost as long as he’s been in business. He just wasn’t aware that’s what he was doing until recently.
“We’re in a very heavily agricultural area,” explains Alvarez, who is president and CEO of Alvarez Technology Group Inc., a Salinas, Calif.-based integrator and MSP firm he founded in 2001. About a third of the companies he supports grow, ship, or process food in one way or another, and Alvarez has been helping them use remote sensors to monitor soil conditions and track temperatures inside refrigerated trucks for years.
“In ag, they’ve been innovating in what we call IoT for a long, long time,” says Alvarez, who adds that he just didn’t know to call it IoT back then.
He knows now, however. Worldwide Internet of Things services spending will total $235 billion this year, according to Gartner Inc., which also expects the global installed base of IoT endpoints to skyrocket from nearly 6.4 billion in 2016 to roughly 20.8 billion in 2020. That explosive growth spells opportunity for channel pros who build, sell, and maintain Internet of Things solutions.
Thanks to the increasing sophistication of IoT gateways, development platforms, and other technologies, moreover, getting in on that action doesn’t have to be as hard as you might think. Let these four recipes for IoT solutions you can cook up and sell today show you the way.
Recipe 1: Trucking Company Dashboard
According to Alvarez, businesses that get agricultural goods to market are longtime users of sensors for monitoring truck locations. “Truck tracking technology has been around for 20 years,” he says. “It has just now become much cheaper and more efficient.”
That realization helped Alvarez spot an opportunity to do more with IoT technology than keep tabs on truck locations. Transportation laws limit the number of hours drivers can work in a given shift, and how much rest they must get between shifts. Determining which driver and which truck should handle which delivery requires a combination of vehicle, booking, routing, and HR data stored in separate operational systems. “There was no clear way other than Excel spreadsheets to track all of that stuff,” Alvarez says.
So he created one, a cloud-based dashboard solution that imports data from truck-based sensors and merges it with all of the other information trucking managers need to get the most work done, legally, with the least number of drivers. “By being able to correlate where the trucks are to when the drivers have started work, and how many more hours of work they have left to them, they can be much more efficient about who they assign to different routes,” Alvarez notes.
Building the first instance of the solution took more than 200 hours of work, but much of that effort could be repurposed for additional clients in the future. The availability of industry-specific IoT transportation solutions made importing data from vehicles easier than expected too. “It’s not as complicated as we thought it was going to be,” Alvarez says, adding that the toughest part of the development process was stitching the truck-based application together with the rest of the solution. “One thing that a lot of these IoT solutions still lack is any sort of integration,” he explains.
- An Internet-enabled telematics solution for tracking truck locations
- Cellular connectivity to get data from the trucks into the cloud
- A public or private cloud in which to store the data and host the dashboard. Alvarez uses Microsoft Azure for that purpose.
- Reporting software capable of combining and analyzing information from the telematics application and the customer’s various business systems. Alvarez employs Microsoft’s Power BI in this role.
- Meet with the client to assess specific requirements. Different truckers will want to monitor different metrics in different ways.
- Select a telematics vendor and research interfacing with its software. “Standards aren’t universal, and they’re kind of tweaked by each manufacturer to meet their specific need,” Alvarez warns. “At times, those conversations can get very laborious.”
- Integrate your chosen cloud environment and analytics tool with the telematics system and your client’s operational solutions.
- Use the analytics tool’s data visualization features to create the graphical dashboard interface.
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Transportation companies aren’t the only businesses in need of a dashboard. Alvarez also works with manufacturers eager to correlate information from machinery on their production line with ordering records in their ERP application, for example. The basic structure of the solution he created for trucking clients can easily adapt to other uses like that as well. “With some tweaks, you can do this in a number of different industries,” Alvarez notes.
Recipe 2: Asset Tracking Solution
Trucking solutions like Alvarez’s are near and dear to Brad Taylor as well. Omnitracs LLC, the Dallas-based vendor he serves as vice president of data and IoT solutions, has been offering up what it sometimes calls “Interstate of Things” systems to vehicle operators for almost 30 years. That expertise turns out to have uses well beyond fleet management, however. “Keeping track of assets is not just about vehicles and trailers,” Taylor observes. “It’s about all kinds of assets.”
Indeed, pretty much any company that rents equipment to other companies needs to know where its property is located and how much revenue it’s bringing in. “Rather than selling somebody a trash can, they may put a trash can on-site for some period of time and charge the customer for that,” Taylor says. “That’s an asset that can be tracked and more effectively utilized.”
Creating solutions that automate that work is getting simpler all the time too, he adds, because the sensors involved continue to get smaller, cheaper, and easier to connect with back-end systems. “It becomes faster every year,” Taylor says of the development and integration process.
- Wireless asset tags equipped with RFID or Bluetooth connectivity
- IoT gateways for connecting the tags to the rest of the solution
- Connectivity between the gateways and the cloud. Omnitracs’ clients use everything from cellular networks to Wi-Fi to satellites for this purpose.
- An IoT platform that can collect and process data from the asset tags. Omnitracs offers one with specialized functionality for solutions like this, but more generic systems such as AWS IoT, from Amazon Web Services, or Microsoft Azure IoT Suite are options as well.
1. Affix the tags to the assets and deploy the gateways at the work sites where those assets are used.
2. Integrate the tags, gateways, and Internet of Things platform. Though simpler than it used to be, this process can still be time-consuming.
3. Develop the front-end interface and underlying business logic that turns data from the tags into actionable intelligence. There will be plenty of effort here, too, the first time you do it, but you can reuse most of what you build more quickly with future clients.
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Building and deploying asset tracking solutions can yield rich project fees. Keeping those systems up and running can generate additional income as well, however. “This is a nice thing for the channel partners,” Taylor says. “If they get into a managed service, there’s recurring revenue associated with IoT normally, as well as one-time sales.”
Recipe 3: Retail Shopper Tracking Solution
Inanimate objects aren’t the only assets IoT solutions can monitor. They can also help retailers track the movement of human assets, as in the people who shop in their stores.
And as Stamford, Conn.-based HARMAN International has discovered, that kind of information is as good as gold. How do different floor layouts impact traffic flows and buying patterns? Does moving a product display increase or decrease “dwell times” in front of it? How much more likely are consumers to make a purchase if an employee approaches them to offer help? IoT-enabled shopper tracking solutions can provide hard, actionable answers to those and similar questions.
Once you get the hang of it, moreover, they’re surprisingly easy to implement, according to Andrew Till, HARMAN’s vice president of technology, partnerships, and new solutions. “I would say you could deploy these types of solutions in weeks if not days,” he says.
- Beacons for collecting anonymous location data from smartphones and other mobile devices
- Sensors for measuring nearby temperatures. That’s data you can use to assess how many people are standing in a given part of a store.
- IoT gateways
- A cloud-based IoT environment
- Analytics software for identifying actionable patterns in beacon and sensor data
1. Conduct a half-day workshop with the client to determine what kinds of questions they need answered.
2. Calculate how many beacons, sensors, and gateways you need to gather the data required to answer those questions.
3. Install the hardware and connect it to the cloud-based IoT system of your choice.
4. Write the algorithms and reports that will analyze shopper tracking data. According to Till, this is usually the longest and hardest step. “Data science can be a very confusing area,” he observes.
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Once you’ve gotten good at deploying stand-alone Internet of Things solutions at retail sites you can start integrating them with other applications to glean more sophisticated insights. Combining voluntarily supplied information from a specific buyer’s smartphone with location data and point-of-sale records, for example, can help store owners break down sales patterns by age, gender, time of day, and other important variables.
Recipe 4: Smart Building Solution
According to the federal government, owners of commercial and industrial buildings spend $400 billion annually on power—and waste 30 percent of it on inefficient heating, cooling, and lighting.
Big facility operators trim energy consumption with the help of complex building management systems far too expensive to make economic sense for the millions of smaller structures that also struggle with rising electrical bills. Internet of Things technology, however, can deliver comparable functionality to such buildings at a fraction of the cost.
For example, using technology from Intel, Microsoft, and Oakland, Calif.-based CANDI Controls Inc., WinWire Technologies Inc., of Santa Clara, Calif., delivers “smart building” solutions that collect data from sensors, upload it to the cloud, scrutinize it for opportunities to tweak thermostat settings and shut off unneeded lights, and then remotely and automatically act on that analysis to cut energy usage.
Those solutions are affordable too. A typical building management system costs $2.30 per square foot on average, according to WinWire CEO Ashu Goel. His company’s systems, by contrast, average just 52 cents a square foot and cut power use enough to pay for themselves within a year or two. “You get relatively fast ROI,” says Goel.
- Sensors capable of collecting information from lighting and HVAC systems
- Software like CANDI PowerTools that collects sensor data, normalizes it, and feeds it to IoT gateways
- IoT gateways like those included in Intel’s Building Management Platform
- A cloud-based IoT environment, such as Microsoft Azure IoT Hub
- Software to analyze sensor data in the cloud and feed instructions back down to lighting and HVAC systems in the building
1. Conduct an energy audit to establish baseline power consumption metrics.
2. Perform an infrastructure analysis to determine how many sensors, gateways, and the like your client requires.
3. Install and connect the sensors, gateways, cloud resources, and application software.
4. Start collecting and analyzing data. It’ll be a few weeks or months before you have enough to identify efficiency-boosting opportunities with confidence.
5. Begin acting on those opportunities by sending instructions from the application software back down to the lighting and HVAC systems.
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Well-made smart building solutions can do more than optimize power usage. Utilizing the same locally installed sensors, they can also lower overhead by collecting preventive equipment maintenance data and boosting occupant productivity by powering “smart workspaces” that automatically align lighting and temperatures with an individual employee’s preferences.
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