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The Internet of Things

The “Internet of Things” has been a topic of discussion for several years now and, like so many of the innovative topics this column will discuss, can mean different things to different people.

We have heard how your refrigerator will “tell” you when you need to buy more milk, or how using the NEST Thermostat will save you money and improve the comfort of your home.  Or, for those more interested in “big” ideas, sensors embedded in the road help find parking spaces or as part of a network designed to measure traffic along the highways. In fact, this NPR story highlights one city in Europe that has installed sensors to

“measure everything from air pollution to where there are free parking spaces. They can even tell garbage collectors which dumpsters are full, and automatically dim street lights when no one is around.”

The central theme throughout the discussion though hinges on the two key points:  the interconnectedness of the sensors, and the ability of the sensors to provide data that can be used to inform decision making.

As supply chain experts we have already been engaged in the use of sensors as central to our decision making process.  Over the past 20 years or so we have applied cameras and weight sensors to the manufacturing process for quality control, used bar-code readers tied to automated systems for package sorting, and hand-held readers for package delivery.  Sensors give us “in transit visibility” throughout the shipping process, and provide early detection of maintenance problems on many of our most expensive MHE and transportation assets.  Of course, the implementation of each of these technologies requires extensive capital investment and generally provides data through stove-piped, proprietary systems.  The “big dogs” can play--and no one else.

We are about to see an explosion of innovation in sensor technology that, when applied judiciously, can be truly disruptive and move us another step towards a more level playing field between small, medium and large businesses.  

New startups are developing and selling sensors that are priced not in the tens, or hundreds of thousands of dollars, but are instead only a few hundred dollars.  Wunderbar is a start-upwith the novel approach of “breaking off” sensors as you would candy off a candy bar. The sensors use BlueTooth technology to talk to one another and to the “main” board which then uses wifi to move information up to “the cloud.: They will be selling these “suites” of sensors for less than $200, making them quite attractive for small businesses. Other tools are following in their wake that can open up the discussion for just what can be measured, what should be measured, and what can we do with the data?

Of course, they come with one essential trade-off:  these tools come without solid “off the shelf” applications.  Over the next few columns I will be exploring the possibilities that open up with these sensors, and seek to not only answer the questions of what can and should be measured, but also point to ways that with a little elbow-grease smaller players in the market can start to gain leverage by collecting the data they are already creating--and then using that leverage to gain efficiencies and market parity, if not leverage.

Internet of Things, and connected processes need no longer be the playground of only the big dogs.