The Internet of Things (IoT) is most commonly conceived of in the consumer space as a luxury asset; these pieces of technology make living easier by automating or streamlining day to day tasks. But for businesses, IoT technology represents an opportunity to integrate every facet of their operations, bringing contextualized data to decision-makers from assets that were previously "dumb." And it's becoming absolutely essential to remaining competitive.
"IoT is all about taking everyday objects and appliances that were previously not associated with the internet and connecting them in a way that allows the specifics of those objects to be controlled, monitored or adjusted via the internet," Pete Sena, chief creative officer and founder of Digital Surgeons, told Business News Daily.
For example, a manufacturer can enable old machinery with IoT to determine operational efficiency and predict failure before it happens. But IoT offers more than data on an individual asset; it also grants a bird's eye view of your operations, whether its the complete production process at a manufacturing plant, the overall situation at a warehouse, or insight into the entire chain from production to delivery.
But what does that look like? From managing and optimizing modes of production to delivering a more satisfying consumer experience, IoT forms the bedrock of a powerful new engine for the vehicle of commerce. Coupled with other emerging technologies, like artificial intelligence, IoT has the potential to radically alter the way business is done.
Experts agree that IoT implementation is still in its early stages. When it comes to IoT-compatible "smart" devices, consumers are typically most familiar with products such as Nest's Learning Thermostat, which learns and adapts to your patterns of behavior and the changing of seasons to program itself for optimal efficiency and comfort. That ability — to learn and make decisions without human intervention — is what makes IoT such a powerful tool for both individuals and businesses.
Companies are already using networked products and sensors for a wide variety of reasons, including to streamline the manufacturing process, to track and analyze shipments, to better understand consumer needs, and to make more informed decisions.
"We see three main use cases for IoT in the companies we work with," said Ryan Lester, director of IoT Strategy for IoT platform Xively by LogMeIn. "The first is around connectivity for new feature enablement … The second is for better service, to understand when [a product] will fail and if it needs new parts, for example. And the third way is recurring revenue streams or 'replenishables.' By monitoring, say, an air filter, a company can automatically ship you a replacement based on your usage."
In recent years, retailers have begun employing IoT to get a better understanding of how consumers interact with products in the retail environment. Now, manufacturers are using it to develop better practices, by networking essential machines and robotics throughout the process, said Nick Kramer, senior director of data and analytics for SSA & Co.
"We're seeing people putting sensors on the machines that do the manufacturing, which allows them to process the data to see something trending toward poor quality," Kramer said. "You can then address trends proactively, before it's a problem. It's about anticipation instead of reaction."
Kramer described how IoT could be used to monitor a product from its creation to its end point. First, networked manufacturing monitors the creation of the product to ensure quality and efficiency, as well as to eliminate any problems before they escalate. Next, IoT helps track and coordinate shipping logistics, again ensuring efficiency, speed and accuracy. Once products are in a warehouse or distribution center, detailed information about inventory and organization, as well as interaction with other autonomous systems such as stock-picking robots, can all be managed by an IoT system. Finally, when a product arrives at its destination, IoT systems can deliver data about maintenance and user interaction, thus creating a more personal and customized experience for the consumer.
Lester said IoT will help businesses boost loyalty and create lifetime customers.
"Because you understand that customer really well, you move from being a one-time transaction to selling them a product as a service," Lester said. "If you can better understand a consumer's challenges, you can deliver better products. The second way is the ability to become part of an ecosystem of devices" interacting with one another to create new value for the customer, he added.
"The more we can understand a person, their behaviors and life, the more we can tailor experiences around them," Sena noted. "It's about creating more unique experiences for consumers [and] giving them power and control."
The future of IoT
Business News Daily asked industry experts to comment on how IoT technology might evolve and how businesses might incorporate these systems in the future. Here's how some of them envision the future of IoT.
Predicting consumer behaviors and needs
"As all of the devices begin to store data about our activities, they will begin to understand our lives. All of this information will be aggregated by a software platform uniting all of our devices — the internet of things — and we will interact with these devices through our virtual assistants. If your virtual assistant reminds you that you are almost out of coffee, knows the brand of coffee you regularly purchase and how much you pay for it, maybe it recommends a different brand at a similar or lower cost. If a company wants to reach an ever-growing amount of consumers, they need to get past the virtual assistant gatekeeper, or find themselves competing for the ever-shrinking audience consuming legacy media and/or researching products manually." – Justin Davis, director of enterprise sales, CenturyLink
Personalized one-to-one marketing
"Businesses, specifically brick and mortars, will find most success using interactive displays and providing real-time answers for customer needs. Displays can help you create your own model of product —Nike is a good example of this —and take you through varying iterations of products and solutions. You can also be able to point your phone at any product in the store, using the store's interface, and receive information and pricing." – Bahman Zakeri, CEO and chief strategist, Xivic
Continued streamlining of business operations
"IoT is expected to revolutionize traditionally managed businesses and, in conjunction with big data analytics, would result in more effective and efficient use of resources. Service companies can leverage IoT-based solutions [by helping] their technicians to monitor and assess issues visiting their customer's location. IoT would help bridge the demand-supply gap for businesses, especially small and medium enterprises, with the integration of inventory management and customer relationship management systems. In a world where everything is connected and devices intelligently communicate with each other … the IoT could well become internet of everything." – Abhinav Sridhar, senior consultant, Aranca Research
Enable better, autonomous allocation of resources
"IoT … excels at allocating resources; it's designed to "give life" to inanimate objects. This allows connected objects to work better, learn to work together, adjust to changing environments, and try to prevent problems." – David Tal, president of Quantumrun.com
Despite the huge and wide-ranging possibilities, implementing IoT will not be easy. If it really represents the radical shift that professionals like Kramer suggest, then there will certainly be a lot of pitfalls and obstacles along the way. One such challenge is getting consumers to trust and adopt the new technologies.
"In people's eyes and ears, IoT is this sort of buzzword," Kramer said. "There's going to be an adoption challenge; [some people] don't want these things to know what they're doing. I expect some resistance at the end-user adoption level."
However, that's not necessarily true for businesses. Indeed, Kramer said companies are already implementing IoT solutions en masse.
"I definitely think businesses will adopt with less hesitation — we're already seeing it," he said. "To stay in the game, you're going to have to adopt these things."
But another challenge lies in actually building and maintaining IoT systems. According to Lester, until IoT systems are properly constructed and open enough to share and analyze data, a large amount of information will be essentially useless to the businesses looking to profit from their own networks and sensors.
"People are too caught up in the tech part of IoT and are kind of missing the business opportunities," Lester said. "The vast majority of companies say that connecting product data is important, but only 51 percent of companies are actually collecting that data, and less than one-third are making that data actionable, are able to analyze it. There's a disconnect there."
To bridge that gap, companies will have to bring organized data into business systems already in use, as opposed to using a separate, dedicated IoT system, Lester said. That way, the people who need to use the data can easily access and analyze it.
"There's really good information coming from connected products, but we have to get it to who can use it best," Lester said.
And, of course, security and privacy remain the major concerns surrounding the internet of things. Hackers can steal private information or misuse aggregated data, and interconnected systems are particularly vulnerable to malicious attacks or tampering. Therefore, the industry will need to continue to devise strong and creative countermeasures as IoT develops, Kramer said.
"The more things are connected … the only way to truly protect a device is to not connect it to anything," he said. "But that precludes you from getting any real value out of it. The thing that has to be in place is the security and privacy aspect."
Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.