There’s a lot of excitement—and hype—around IoT, but what will it mean for your SMB?
By Preeti Upadhyaya
The buzz surrounding connected devices and the Internet of Things is as common these days as talk of smartphones and the cloud computing revolution was a few years ago. A growing number of ordinary products now are capable of communicating with other devices. According to research firm Gartner, 4.9 billion connected “things” will be in use in 2015, and that number is expected to rise to 25 billion by 2020.
Here’s just one example of how connected devices are breaking into everyday life: The Egg Minder is a smart egg carton that lets you know how many eggs you have left in the fridge and tells you when they’re close to expiring. You can monitor your eggs from a smartphone app that communicates with the Egg Minder, so you can quickly check supplies and stock up during grocery runs.
Of course, household gadgets such as thermostats, smoke detectors and laundry machines have been getting smarter for years. But the Internet of Things—defined by Gartner as “the network of dedicated physical objects (things) that contain embedded technology to sense or interact with their internal state or external environment”—has great potential for businesses, as well.
The Internet of Things is expected to generate $2 trillion in global economic benefit, thanks to greater efficiency, new business models and new revenue streams, according to a 2015 Gartner study. Companies of all sizes are looking to upgrade equipment and take advantage of the insights and efficiencies promised by IoT.
Below, we take a look at how IoT is affecting three business sectors—manufacturing, retail and professional services. But no matter what your industry or business type, before jumping into IoT, start with a solid objective and then decide how connected devices will fit into your business plan, says Alfonso Velosa, an IoT analyst with Gartner.
“The most critical decision that small businesses have to make from the very start is what they want to accomplish—reducing costs by optimizing retail employees’ schedules or planning inventory more efficiently, for example,” Velosa says. “You have to figure out exactly what you want to do with the Internet of Things, instead of just building a toy.”
Velosa adds that for small- to medium-sized businesses, getting the most out of IoT means finding the right application for the piles of data that connected devices generate.
Here are some examples of sectors where IoT is taking hold:
The manufacturing industry is already plugging into the Internet of Things. Manufacturers are now able to tap into the “brains” of their equipment to troubleshoot problems or predict which components might need replacing. This can help companies cut back on maintenance downtime and optimize equipment to perform at its best. Plus, peeking into the inner workings of equipment gives manufacturers a clearer picture of what’s going on with their facilities at all times, potentially making it easier to prevent workplace injuries.
For example, Sine-Wave, an enterprise technology company, has built a browser-based application for underground mining operations. The software not only lets mine operators easily communicate with miners, machines and other operators—it also provides real-time views of what’s going on underground, complete with custom mapping of each mining operation. This real-time view lets operators act immediately when something goes wrong and avoid safety hazards.
Retail businesses are also adopting the Internet of Things, with technology ranging from basic RFID chips (radio frequency identification) to wireless sensors (to track smartphone movements and optimize store layouts) to even more Jetsons-esque technology like home-replenishment services and virtual reality offerings.
Taking part in the Internet of Things is an obvious choice in retail, where customer data serves as a goldmine for business insights and new revenue opportunities. Bluetooth sensors, for example, allow retailers to see where exactly customers are stopping in their stores and enable them to organize the layout of their stores accordingly.
And working with connected devices like laundry machines and refrigerators inside customers’ homes allows retailers take on a new level of e-commerce. By equipping devices with sensors that show when a household’s cleaning supplies are running low, for example, retailers that sell these supplies can put themselves in customers’ homes and provide an easy way to automatically restock their products.
The Internet of Things is not as prevalent in professional-services offices, but that doesn’t mean this sector doesn’t hold opportunity for connected devices. The trick for professional services firms, such as lawyers, accountants, and financial professionals, is to pin down what exactly the Internet of Things can streamline, says Gartner’s Velosa.
“It’s better to think about how you can use connected devices in your business’s own internal workflows first, rather than creating a consumer-facing product right off the bat,” Velosa says. “That gives you a more forgiving environment to experiment with and make mistakes.”
Velosa suggests digging into the data you already have from your devices and making it work for you. For example, a help desk can see what systems are getting the most repair requests and prioritize workflows accordingly. Or a facilities manager can study how in-office lights are being used and optimize the lighting schedule to reduce costs.
Small- and medium-sized companies looking to incorporate the Internet of Things might look to industries such as health care, retail and fleet services to learn the basic do’s and don’ts of connected devices.
For instance, Velosa points to fleet-management companies that have mastered the use of data to run their businesses more efficiently by tapping into their vehicle data and deciding where to allocate resources more effectively.
But connected devices raise serious security risks. For example, Velosa noted concerns about the potential to hack into connected health-care devices such as pacemakers or insulin pumps.
For small businesses in particular, Velosa says, prioritizing data security and creating an ethical data-use policy is important when moving into IoT.
“IoT systems may collect information from customers and partners. All companies will need to make sure they treat it ethically and securely,” he says. “This is for both customer relationship purposes as well as regulatory and compliance purposes.”
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