From proof of concept to ROI: how business of all sizes can turn the promise of IoT into operational success

Research indicates IoT deployments are set to skyrocket over the next four years, growing 140% to exceed 50 billion connected devices by 2020

As the cost and complexity of deploying connected devices continues to fall, IoT projects are no longer a far-fetched dream but a deliverable reality, already transforming a huge range of industries from Field Service to Manufacturing. Martin Clothier, Technical Director at Columbus UK, explains how businesses of all sizes can quickly seize advantage of IoT to deliver operational efficiency, provide actionable insights and improve business processes.

The Internet of Things has comfortably moved beyond the ‘hype’ stage of recent years, with IoT devices and projects now cheap enough to be viable for almost any business. Smaller IoT projects are capable of reaching full operational status in as little as a week. Deployments currently range in ambition from a dozen sensors to capture warehouse temperature, to monitoring the output and performance of remote oil fields across Africa.

There are more and more industries now taking advantage of IoT – and their success lies in identifying the right use case and ensuring they successfully harness device data to produce actionable insights.

Use Case One: Turning inefficiency into opportunity

The manufacturing industry is set to gain from IoT deployments that focus on using connected devices to provide a detailed, real-time picture of existing business operations and identify bottlenecks in efficiency. With repetitive processes running around the clock, any minor improvements to efficiency in the production cycle can generate major savings for a manufacturer.

IoT sensors connected to machinery generate continuous streams of performance data, which can be analysed on platforms such as the Azure IoT Suite to identify leaks and bottlenecks hindering production. Identifying anomalies at an early stage can allow employees to take immediate corrective action to avoid excessive wastage, unnecessary asset strain or increased production cycle times.

This potential is not limited to minor efficiency improvements but can provide key metrics that drive business success. If we take, for example, the food and beverage sector – product quality is a top priority. Installing connected cameras above a production line enables manufacturers to introduce machine vision – monitoring and analysing the packaging, labelling and quality of products to ensure compliance and consistency.

Use Case Two: Space optimisation and the race against time

IoT monitoring is not restricted to simply monitoring and reporting physical asset conditions but can provide valuable insights into the two basic resources manufacturers have to juggle – space and time. At Columbus, we’ve worked to develop SpaceMAX that helps optimise usage of both workspace and time. With physical space at a premium for businesses – particularly in urban areas – optimised space usage can be invaluable in securing a competitive advantage.

Deploying connected beacons throughout a location such as a warehouse will capture the locations of assets, employees and vehicles from a forklift to a tow tractor. Harnessing the Microsoft Azure platform, this location data can then be analysed to produce heat maps and identify hotspots, bottlenecks and other areas of inefficiency. By eliminating these we can optimise operations, product flow and the use of employee time.

Use Case Three: Tackling skills shortages by providing a helping hand to junior technicians

The threat of a skilled workforce shortage is well documented, with the UK cited as being particularly at risk. As the number of skilled engineers and field service technicians shrinks, the burden to complete detailed installation, repair and maintenance tasks falls increasingly on the shoulders of less experienced staff. Technology holds the answer to ensuring speed and quality is not compromised during remote site visits.

Here’s where developments such as the Microsoft ‘mixed reality’ HoloLens headset take centre stage. Using this headset senior workers can provide remote support and supervision for challenging maintenance tasks, tapping into a collaboration platform such as Microsoft Teams to discuss the task at hand. The augmented reality aspect of the HoloLens can be harnessed to deliver contextual information such as service history and manuals explaining the maintenance process step-by-step.

Remote assistance is just the first step for potential HoloLens applications. More advanced applications involve streaming real-time IoT data directly to the headset, such as telemetry of a production asset, assisted picking or putaway, or projected life expectancy of individual components.

Bringing it all together – the icing on the transformation cake

By introducing connected devices to monitor environmental conditions, asset status and performance levels, we are generating significant volumes of data around the clock. But how can we translate data generated by machinery on the shop floor into actionable insights?

In order to make use of IoT data, businesses need to be able to collect, format and clean IoT data for analysis. Rules can then be set for actions to be taken if data falls outside of acceptable thresholds, such as staff being notified if a sensor detects a sharp rise in temperature. This is where cloud solutions come into play.

Cloud-based platforms such as the Azure IoT Hub introduce advanced machine learning tools to further identify complex patterns, and data visualisation for supervisors to closely monitor operational performance in real-time. By unlocking these previously unseen insights, IoT is enabling business leaders to make data-driven decisions to improve efficiency for the first time.

IoT can be also a significant asset to businesses by introducing increased automation of repetitive workflows – requiring just minor oversight from supervisors. Take field service as an example. Asset performance data from IoT sensors fed into the Azure platform can be analysed to detect anomalies, indicating a particular component is expected to fail shortly. Through a platform such as Dynamics 365 for Field Service, an automated work order can be created, scheduling an engineer to be dispatched with the correct component to complete maintenance before the failure ever occurs. This brings the added benefit of ensuring business processes are never brought to an unexpected halt through asset failure – an action which could cost thousands in lost revenue.

Staying ahead of today’s wave of digital disruption

The steady rise in successful enterprise IoT projects is testament to how IoT is today delivering on the promise of connecting people, processes and systems to enhance business operations and efficiency.

Businesses that have not yet developed an IoT strategy to enhance their operations are in danger of surrendering any competitive advantages developed through previous innovation. But they must also be wary of avoiding the temptation of rolling out connected devices piecemeal, and instead opt for a comprehensive, measured IoT strategy that will consistently add value and deliver the in-depth business intelligence to make smarter decisions.

The real opportunities of IoT are often hidden in full view! Many businesses find it difficult to identify the areas from which they will gain maximum benefit and ROI. Partnering with an experienced company such as Columbus can provide a ‘third eye’, helping companies develop an IoT strategy, deploy suitable hardware and software with sufficient scalability, and support the project from planning stage through to go-live – and beyond.

Columbus is hosting an IoT Quick Start Workshop at the Microsoft HoloLounge in London, 2 October, to help organisations develop their own IoT proof of concept, break down existing use cases and identify operations where IoT can add value and provide actionable insights. Business leaders can secure their spot at the workshop by registering here

About the Author

Martin Clothier is Technical Director at Columbus UK. Columbus helps you realize the full value of your ERP system and ensure a strong return on your technology spending. We bring digital transformation into your business and position you to thrive far into the future.