The Internet of Things (IoT) is an inherently ambiguous buzzword. An IoT device can mean anything from an appliance in your smart home or your connected car to essentially any object into which some company has decided to put a chip and connect to the internet. In actuality, consumer-facing devices are only one bucket under the larger IoT umbrella. The IoT has been around a lot longer than the term “IoT” has. Businesses across a host of industries, from construction and manufacturing to agriculture and retail, have been building connected devices and machines for years to gather data, automate processes, and streamline operations.
At Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona this year, the IoT was everywhere amongst the sea of global startups and business technology. I spoke to companies building business-focused IoT solutions across the spectrum, from chip makers and IoT security companies to industry-specific vendors operating connected solutions for enterprise customers. Across all of these companies, a few pervading themes emerged. When building a network of connected IoT devices that’s truly “enterprise-ready,” there are three big boxes you have to check off: comprehensive security, interoperability and standardization, and building mature applications that are feeding you data and analytics you can actually use.
Enterprise IoT Across Industries
IoT apps across the tech landscape are so broad and varied that it can be tough to narrow down exactly for what these technologies are used and where the value is for businesses. Global technology consulting firm Accenture works with enterprises all over the world. The firm is working with companies to implement IoT solutions across every major vertical through the Mobility division of Accenture Digital.
Craig McNeil, Global Managing Director for IoT at Accenture, broke down the IoT apps the company is seeing across five different “towers.” As he explained, Accenture segments the landscape into connected transport, connected spaces, connected operations, connected health, and connected commerce.
“Connected spaces could be a home, a building, or a city. Connected operations is traditionally industrial internet, but that has expanded in scope a bit to include connected workers who are working not just in places like plants and mines but places like sports arenas,” explained McNeil. “Those three—connected transport, spaces, and operations—make up about 80 percent of our IoT business. Connected health is newer for us; it’s growing but it’s not there yet. The commerce side is getting bigger but think about credit card terminals. It took about 35 years to get the saturation we have today. A lot of analysts are predicting consumer goods and retail as a hot space for IoT but it’s a significant investment for retailers at the point of sale.”
The forecasts have varied wildly over how many IoT devices market analysis firms believe will be connected by 2020 and beyond. For the most advanced IoT devices apps out there right now, McNeil pointed to the vertical that had a leg up on the rest of the IoT landscape from the get-go: industrial.
“Most of the IoT world today is in the industrial segment. I don’t necessary mean industrial equipment as much as just industrial: oil and gas, utilities, automotive, some transportation or infrastructure, or connected asset management. The reason we’re seeing so much more pull in those sectors of IoT is because those are already heavily instrumented industries,” said McNeil. “A drill bit is highly sensorized already. IoT has been embedded in that kind of business for many years but modern IoT is taking that data and uploading it to the cloud. That connected aspect is what’s moving the needle.”
The same is true for all sorts of maintenance and infrastructure inspection tasks. Raj Talluri, Senior Vice President and General Manager at Qualcomm, leads the company’s IoT business. He discussed how Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors work in IoT devices, across smart home and consumer electronics devices as well as smart cities.
“From an appliance maker, the value of IoT is typically in diagnostic information. Instead of calling maintenance to show up between 9am and 2pm when your washing machine breaks and having to go back and forth when they don’t have the right part, there’s a clear business use case for IoT,” said Talluri, explaining the varied applications for Qualcomm chips. “In cities, we’ve solved for things like water pipe inspection. Instead of sending someone to find a leak, we’ve developed this modem with connectivity built in that senses when water is leaking, wakes up, and sends a signal. It can stay in the field for 10 years on two AA batteries. You could put that kind of technology into an electric meter or into street lights on the freeways to record accidents with cameras and sensors. There’s connectivity in places that were never possible before.”
Instead of sending data back to a static terminal on-site in any of these instances, industrial IoT devices are now sending that data through a gateway into the cloud. There, enterprises can use it for not just maintenance and repairs but things such as forecasting and predictive analytics to increase production and streamline operations. An industry in which IoT is doing exactly that is one many don’t tend to associate with connected technology: agriculture.
John Deere is one of the largest agricultural machinery manufacturers in the world. Dr. Thomas Engel, Manager of John Deere’s Enterprise Innovation Strategy, explained how the company collects data on crop yields, seeding and planting, moisture, etc., through automated sensors in every machine. It then feeds the data back to a cloud-based interface and mobile app. Small farmers can use this app to harvest as efficiently as large agricultural conglomerates do—all to feed a growing population that requires and ever-increasing amount of food.
“IoT is all about connectivity. In our case, that means not only the machines but the farmers using our app on their mobile devices. Data from the sensors on a harvesting machine is sent automatically to the cloud,” said Engel. “The goal is to make farming more efficient and productive to feed the world of the future. There will be 10 billion people by 2050. To feed them all, we need to double grain production. The growing middle class in emerging markets want to eat more meat, and to produce one pound of meat, you need five to seven pounds of grain.”
John Deere’s connected machinery measures factors such as counting a uniform number of seeds and fertilizer distribution in every area of a field. The cloud interface pulls in 20 years’ worth of precise yield-mapping data to measure and predict yield at every point in the field. The machines then adapt crop-growing procedures, self-adjusting automated tractor and harvester steering for optimized routes and yields.
John Deere currently has several hundred thousand connected machines in the field that have been deployed since 2012. Engel said this kind of IoT data and automation has increased yield and reduced costs by more than 10 percent for customers.
“The goal is an intelligent combine where all the settings are automatic. We want machines in the field to be sharing data and optimizing fleet logistics,” said Engel. “And the farmer owns the data. All the equipment—the combines, sprayers, tractors—all have a data logger connected to the cloud. We see anonymized data to help us design better machines but the farmers control data access through the cloud portal. We believed smart or precision farming based on this sort of variable rate technology in the field is ready to take off.”
After deploying mature, value-adding apps, the next enterprise IoT box to check off is security. Head to Part Two of our story here for a breakdown of how companies are tacking IoT security. Or head to Part Three on IoT interoperability and standardization here.