Technology

There’s more to the Internet of Things than connecting fridges to the internet – but it’s not that revolutionary: Control Shift

Andrew Sadauskas /

Occasionally, a buzzword is coined to describe an emerging trend in the tech industry. Soon the hype begins ramping up, as columns appear breathlessly extolling how revolutionary this new buzzword is. Soon everyone and their pet poodle wants to jump aboard.

Back in the early 2000s, the phrase “web 2.0” was everywhere. The theory at the time was that “web1.0” pages were static, while “web 2.0” pages were interactive – with Wikipedia held up as a common example. This was presented as being revolutionary.

Of course, the truth was many web 1.0 websites already had interactive elements. Even simple GeoCities pages had guest books, message boards, comments sections, web rings and java chat rooms. In truth, web 2.0 was an evolution of what had come before, rather than a revolution.

Right now, the Internet of Things (IoT) is one of those nearly inescapable buzzwords. Especially within business, it’s often a phrase that gets met with derision or confusion. After all, what’s the business case for hooking your office fridge to the internet?

Just like web 2.0, and especially in a business context, IoT is an evolution of existing technologies. It’s a point Microsoft’s Internet of Things supremo Barb Edson made back in April, telling SmartCompany: “IoT is not a revolution; it’s an evolution of where the embedded industry has been.”

Embedded systems

As I’ve discussed previously, since the 1980s, microprocessors have been embedded in everything from alarm clocks and microwaves through to traffic lights, auto parts, vending machines, medical equipment, air conditioners, alarms, elevators and countless other things you wouldn’t immediately think of as being “a computer”.

You’re likely to have hundreds of examples in your office, shop or warehouse.

Just as your smartphone and your PC has gotten more powerful over the years, so too have these embedded systems. It is now possible to create an embedded system-on-a-chip more powerful than the desktop PC you used 10 years ago, complete with mobile broadband and Wi-Fi capabilities. In turn, such a chip can be embedded in an appliance at a marginal cost.

Records of plant and equipment

Meanwhile, many businesses already keep records of their plant and equipment. In some businesses, these records might be as simple as an operations manager keeping a crude Excel spreadsheet. In others, it might be a full database, or be integrated as part of a company-wide accounting, human resources or enterprise resource planning system.

Connecting these embedded systems to the internet allows you to automatically update your records, or remotely manage them from a business management system, in real time.

Putting research in motion

A great example of where this can be quite advantageous is in the transport industry. Here, fleet management systems are used to manage trucks, coaches, buses, cabs, trains, emergency vehicles, hire cars and other vehicles.

Long before the term “IoT” was coined, many auto components (from brakes to keyless entry systems) contained embedded systems, with many commercial vehicles also carrying GPS navigation systems. Meanwhile, long before the dawn of the digital age, depots have kept maintenance records and rosters allocating drivers to vehicles.

In the case of the transport industry, it makes a great deal of sense to add the co-ordinates of vehicles to these records.

Likewise, when a fleet contains hundreds of vehicles, data from embedded systems can be incredibly useful in identifying which vehicles are in need of maintenance. For example, a strange error message from an embedded system in a brake pad might tip off a transport operator that a particular vehicle needs to be sent to the mechanics, before it’s sent on a long-haul trip from Sydney to Perth.

Evolving smarter business models

There are many practical examples from other industries where data from embedded systems appearing, in real-time, in business management systems can be useful.

A vending machine operator might check which locations need to be restocked remotely, and which machines are out of order, without needing to send out technicians to physically check every single machine. A local council can know when a street light has blown, direct from their systems, before local residents call to complain.

Technologically, IoT is far less revolutionary than some make it out to be. Often, the embedded systems and records of plant and equipment are already in place. However, beneath the hype, more accurate records and more efficient work practices can mean real, practical benefits for businesses.

And if your business involves managing a lot of plant and equipment, especially in remote locations, it’s a trend that worth paying attention to.

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Andrew Sadauskas

Andrew Sadauskas is a former journalist at SmartCompany and a former editor of TechCompany.

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