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Everything Your Business Needs to Know About the Internet of Things

The world of technology overflows with buzzwords like quantum computing, big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning … the list goes on. Somewhere in the mix appeared the term, “Internet of Things.” Commonly abbreviated as the IoT, the term describes the concept of connected devices that capture and report data. It’s usually understood as consumer devices, like fitness trackers (the FitBit) or consumer convenience items (like Amazon’s Alexa or smart homes). But these consumer devices represent only a small segment of a powerful and growing phenomenon. Here’s what the IoT promises your business and how you can prepare to capitalize on it.

Understanding the Internet of Things

Consumer Internet of Things devices include the obvious (smartphones and tablets), as well as the less obvious, like GPS devices and dash cams in cars, connected video game consoles and Blu-ray players, and smart thermostats. The greater collection of connected devices are those belonging to the industrial IoT. The industrial or commercial IoT includes billions of devices worldwide. Garner predicts there will be about 21 billion IoT devices by 2020.

Your business might need both consumer and industrial IoT devices. Practical uses for industrial IoT devices include:

  • Devices used in manufacturing that track production levels, production quality, pace, safety issues, etc.
  • Devices used in transportation that help find the most efficient routes, help dispatch drivers and vehicles, track load conditions in route (temperature, humidity, etc.), track the repairs and maintenance of fleet vehicles, and make logistics safer and more efficient.
  • Devices used for safety and security, including security keypads and card scanners, security cameras, and motion sensors.
  • Devices cities use for tracking and optimizing traffic flow, managing infrastructure like power and water usage, and dispatching emergency response teams.

How the IoT Helps Business

The Internet of Things really isn’t about the devices, although those are extraordinarily convenient. The real benefit of connected devices is the data they collect. For example, your smartphone app gives your customers instant access to great coupons or timely content, which is good from a marketing perspective. But the real value of your mobile app is learning who’s shopping with you, when they buy, where they buy, how, how much they’re spending, and whether or not they’re telling their friends about your brand.

In the same way, industrial IoT devices make it easier and safer to dispatch maintenance crews, run a manufacturing plant, control inventory in the warehouse, and distribute merchandise. But the data is even more valuable — giving you the ability to optimize equipment maintenance schedules, streamline shift scheduling to reduce labor costs, and reduce waste to improve revenue, among many other benefits.

It works like this: data streams in from your customer apps, production lines, machinery and equipment, website, social media, email, fleet vehicles, etc. All the data from various systems and sensors gets collected and analyzed, producing valuable insight into a wide plethora of business initiatives. For example:

  • Machines that receive service every 45 days last as long as those receiving maintenance every 30 days. This lets you cut maintenance costs without sacrificing quality.
  • When you hire more workers and reduce overtime, accidents drop by 15 percent. This lowers your injury costs, reduces your workers’ compensation insurance premiums, improves employee morale, and eliminates problems with OSHA or other regulatory bodies.
  • Your customers aren’t using your website checkout. By reducing the checkout process from five steps to three, you increase customer checkouts on the website by 20 percent, allowing you to cut your telephone sales staff and save labor costs.
  • When your drivers take a route through St. Louis that’s five miles further, they actually cut delivery times by 15 minutes because they avoid the worst traffic delays.

Most businesses find it easier and more cost-effective to obtain this storage and processing power in the cloud. Cloud-based data storage for the IoT is far faster to implement and easier to maintain over the long-term, allowing your business to scale upward as the business grows and the IoT project expands.

Data, Data Everywhere: Reigning It All In

To benefit from either the consumer or industrial Internet of Things, your business first needs a way to collect, process, store, and analyze all that data. IoT devices are notorious for having odd, proprietary operating systems and being difficult to connect to legacy data storage systems.

For instance, you can’t just buy some sensors and stream that data into your existing database. IoT data is Big Data. It calls for storing large volumes of unstructured data, streaming in real-time from multiple devices, operating systems, and users. Plus, you need a way to analyze and draw practical insights from the data, usually in real-time. This requires high-level “smart” software systems that can communicate with both your IoT devices and your other business systems. Some IoT devices need both input and output capabilities, such as when you need to be able to deliver real-time information to a customer or worker in the field.

Your Step-by-Step Route to Benefitting from the IoT

This sounds great, but where do you start?

  1. Determine the best roles for connected devices in your organization, including any consumer-facing and internal devices and software you need.
  2. Determine what devices best fill these roles. Do these devices already exist? Do you need to develop custom devices to meet your needs? How will these devices feed into your data storage systems? In most cases, you need new data storage and processing solutions.
  3. Partner with a company that has experience implementing IoT devices.
  4. Design and build a suitable Big Data database, such as a Data Lake or NoSQL database.
  5. Provide adequate security for your IoT project, from the device level to the application level to the database. Data is at risk without adequate protection at all levels.
  6. Once your IoT infrastructure is up and running, continually evaluate how, when, and where to add new devices, collect additional data, or improve the analytical aspects of your IoT initiative to deliver useful business intelligence.

While the IoT already does impressive things in the fields of AI and machine learning, it’s still in the toddler stages. Over the next 5 to 10 years, expect to see tremendous strides in terms of IoT device compatibility, analytical capabilities, and the numbers and types of IoT devices available at both the consumer and industrial levels.

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